Canadian federal police are investigating a spate of thefts targeting Vancouver-area Chinese herbal medicine shops, in which brazen criminals made off with ginseng and other products worth tens of thousands of dollars.
At least some of the thefts may have been committed by the same gang, who are apparently well versed in traditional Chinese medicine and only bother stealing the most valuable products.
In the most recent crime, two men broke into the Tung Yun Tong Herbal store in Richmond on the morning of December 8 and made off with goods worth more than C$100,000 (HK$780,000) including a haul of precious American wild ginseng root.
Jason Zhu, an assistant at the well-known store, said last week that it was clear the thieves knew what they were after.
The pair of thieves - one short and slim, the other taller and fat - can be seen in the store's CCTV footage, although they obscure their faces with masks and hoods the entire time. The slender thief enters through a bent-open gap in a metal door, setting off an alarm, while his bulky accomplice nervously paces outside.
Inside, the small thief, armed with a crowbar, heads straight for the ginseng before moving on to the birds' nests and dried sea cucumbers, clambering across the glass counter to reach the higher, more expensive jars. He makes several trips back and forth, passing the loot to his partner outside, and prises open the cash register for good measure.
The entire pre-dawn robbery lasts 11 minutes. A pair of police officers arrive nine minutes too late.
"I think they must have come in before and checked the price labels, in business time. They knew the location [of the most valuable products]," said Zhu.
Included in the haul was about 5kg of wild US ginseng, which can retail for up to C$11,000 per kilogram. Also stolen were top-grade birds' nests worth a total of up to C$15,000, and six large jars of Japanese sea cucumbers that could have fetched more than C$50,000.
The Tung Yun Tong robbery came weeks after thieves twice targeted another herbal medicine store less than a kilometre away, in Richmond's popular Union Square plaza.
Zhu said that CCTV footage from both stores suggested that it was the same thieves - "one fat, one skinny". The surveillance footage has been handed over to investigators, Zhu added.
The cases are being handled by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal force that provides policing in Richmond, a Vancouver satellite city that is one of the most heavily Chinese populated districts in Canada. The suburb of Richmond where the robberies occurred, known as Number 3 Road, is 80 per cent Chinese, according to latest census data.
A spokeswoman for the Richmond RCMP detachment confirmed that a break and enter had occurred at Tung Yun Tong. "When we got there we found the business was broken into and suspects long gone," she said.
She said that she could not provide details of specific incidents at Union Square because "there's far too many incidents at that address to review". However, she said that links between the herbal store thefts were "something that our investigators consider".