The deal took place at 9.30pm at a strip mall in Richmond, outside Vancouver, where "a Russian dude in a van" gave Anthony Tsui a sample of his merchandise.
The street price was steep " triple the normal rate " but the goods checked out, so Tsui soon came back for more.
But there was nothing illegal about the transaction, and Tsui, at least, was operating from the purest of motives.
He was buying N95 surgical-grade face masks to donate to doctors and other frontline workers in Wuhan, battling the outbreak of deadly coronavirus.
Vancouver resident Anthony Tsui bought these 400 N95 face masks to donate to Wuhan. Photo: Anthony Tsui alt=Vancouver resident Anthony Tsui bought these 400 N95 face masks to donate to Wuhan. Photo: Anthony Tsui
On Tuesday, he handed over 400 masks, bought at C$4.50 apiece (US$3.45), to a Vancouver network for donors started by dentist Chen Jianghao and organised via WeChat.
But the difficulty of sourcing masks points to local profiteering that has helped run supplies to almost zero at storefront retailers in this British Columbia city.
The campaign is sending about 5,000 masks and other supplies to Wuhan that are expected to arrive within a few days, with thousands more masks on the way.
Chinese hospitals have been urgently requesting millions of N95 masks, along with other medical supplies. Mainland mask manufacturers cancelled Lunar New Year leave for workers to boost production.
Hainan Airlines and China Southern Airlines are providing free transport for the Canadian donations, which Chen's group is sending directly to the Red Cross Society of Hubei and Wuhan Central Hospital. Future donations will go to hospitals elsewhere in China " if Chen can secure supplies.
He is refusing gifts of cash, because converting it into N95 masks is no simple matter in Vancouver.
"The only way people can find them is on Craigslist," said Chen, whose professional training allows him to authenticate donated masks as suitable for medical use in Wuhan.
Chen said watching the situation unfold in Wuhan had made him "sad and nervous. I know some people aren't getting good protection ... but I can do something to help."
He said he was aware the shortage of masks in Vancouver was worrying some Canadians, so he was giving about 5 per cent of the donations to local users, prioritising the elderly. But the need for N95s was more pressing in Wuhan, he said.
Travellers with boxes of N95 masks at the High Speed Rail Station in West Kowloon, Hong Kong, last week. Photo: SCMP / Winson Wong alt=Travellers with boxes of N95 masks at the High Speed Rail Station in West Kowloon, Hong Kong, last week. Photo: SCMP / Winson Wong
Canada has three confirmed and presumptive cases of the China coronavirus, including a man in his 40s in Vancouver. China has reported more than 8,000 infections and 171 deaths.
Canadian authorities have not suggested that members of the public should wear any type of mask as an anti-coronavirus measure, although the Chinese embassy in Ottawa on Tuesday recommended that people wear masks in crowds.
In Hong Kong, the local government is also recommending that people wear surgical masks on public transport and in crowds, but not the high-spec N95s with tighter filtration than normal masks, because they tend to be used improperly by untrained people.
N95s are "strongly recommended" for clinicians dealing with coronavirus patients, according to a study in The Lancet last week, and the WHO also recommends them for clinicians dealing with such patients in risky situations.
In addition to seeking donations, Chen and others in his group had ordered N95s online, and he sent his clinic assistants to try to buy them in stores. "But you know there are no masks left in Vancouver," he said.
Nevertheless, some donors have found success, including one who donated 1,000 masks to the group.
Tsui, a technologist, said he spent C$2,000 (US$1,520) on donations that also included gloves and goggles. He said profiteering was rampant among private mask sellers.
"The most expensive thing is because people are flipping them for profit," Tsui said. "I didn't know how hard it was going to be to source masks.
"I started hitting the drug stores, but they were all sold out. They said 'don't bother, it's sold out in Vancouver' ... I was desperate."
He found the man who sold him 400 masks on Craigslist. "I bought a bunch from him first, to figure out if it was legit, that they had the right certification ... then when it checked out I went back to buy a big box from him."
Craigslist has more than 100 listings for N95s in the Vancouver area, although few are the medical-grade masks required in Wuhan. Normally costing C$1-$1.50 (US$0.76-US$1.14) each, such masks are now selling for up to C$99 (US$76) per box of 10. Dukal, the maker of the masks Tsui bought, suggests a retail price of US$1.12 (C$1.48) each.
Tsui ended up driving 65km (40 miles) to Squamish to buy 90 more masks at a store. These are being donated to a separate campaign run by a friend in Toronto.
He said he had been affected by the "non-stop disaster-type images coming out of Wuhan", in the same way he was distressed by recent political upheaval in Hong Kong.
"But in Wuhan they need something physical, something money there can't easily buy. I felt, 'OK, I am no longer helpless. I can do something'," he said.
Tsui, who said he donated to previous disaster relief efforts in mainland China, added: "I'm a Hongkonger. We have our troubles with [the] HK government, the Chinese government, but people's lives come first."
He now wears a normal surgical mask in Vancouver, but said the local public there did not need to worry about the shortage of N95s, calling them "overkill". "There is no need for such a hard-core item here," he said.
The problem was that his relatives in Hong Kong wanted him to send them N95s too, after they found out about his donation.
"They said, 'You're giving these away to strangers?'. Now I have to source more masks for my relatives," he said with a laugh. "Hopefully, not enough to deprive Canadians."
Chen, who teaches paediatric dentistry at the University of British Columbia and has clinics in Vancouver and Richmond, said he was optimistic that the outbreak in China would be brought under control.
"The Chinese government, so far, has been doing things right " [although] maybe a bit late ... I think the situation in Wuhan will be getting better soon," he said.
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This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.