As much part of New Zealand's unique cultural identity as buzzy bees and jandals, corner dairies are often targets of dumb and vicious crime. Matt Rilkoff investigates the darker side of consumer convenience.
Even after 17 years running a dairy in New Zealand Colin Liu knows to many customers he is nothing but a Ching.
"Every week they come in they say "F..king Chinese Ching Chong. Every week," he says. "These are small people. Their world is so small."
The former engineer moved to New Zealand from China with his wife and young son nearly two decades ago. Unable to find a job in his profession and with limited English he opened a dairy. It is not something that makes him happy. It is something he has to do to support his family.
Last Sunday four youths came into his Ngamotu store in New Plymouth to buy cigarettes. When he refused to sell them what they wanted one of them dragged him outside and began kicking him in the face.
One week later the attack has left a sickening yellow tinged mask of purple across both eyes and the bridge of Mr Liu's nose. His balance is still shaky. He may need an operation to remove a piece of broken eye socket. When customers come in he tries to hide his injuries with his hand.
"My son will be a dentist next year. My daughter is interested in oil and gas here in Taranaki. They will not work in a dairy. They see what happens every day. They know what happens," he says.
The youth arrested in connection with the assault on Mr Liu cannot be named because he is a minor in the eyes of the law. Were he a few months older, such an offence could net an offender three years behind bars. But New Zealand's "lenient" youth laws have left Mr Liu feeling victimised and vulnerable once more.
"If the law is soft there might be more trouble. And that is unfair for me and there will be more people who end up like me," he says.
With opening hours that start and end in the dark hours of mornings and nights, dairies have always been vulnerable to attack, New Plymouth police Sergeant Terry Johnson says.
What is alarming these days is the increasingly willingness of robbers to use weapons and violence and the decreasing age of the perpetrators, he says.
"People committing crimes are definitely getting younger. We're getting 12, 13, and 14-year-olds committing crimes that used to be done by 16, 17, 18-year-olds," he says.
"The people that are doing this are after money and they are after cigarettes. Rather than wait until 3am and go and do a burglary, we have a sector of society that is going to go into a dairy, often armed, and take what they want."
Far from organised crime, those who rob dairies are usually operating under only a vague plan and with little or no thought of the long term repercussions. Most of them will be identifiable from the closed circuit video cameras nearly all dairies have. And even though it takes just seconds, their actions are almost always witnessed by someone prepared to help police track the criminal down, Mr Johnson says.
That near certainty of capture doesn't seem to deter them, nor that the majority of transactions in retail shops are now done electronically meaning there is simply not much cash to rob. It is the cigarettes, now at about $18 a packet, that will be the primary lure for burglars, Jo Cox of New Plymouth's Sweet Temptations Dairy says.
"And if they steal those that's huge. That is mammoth. There is a lot of money tied up in cigarettes. You have insurance, yeah, but there is the excess on insurance," she says.
How much that excess is varies from shop to shop. But of those who would share the information $500 was the lowest, $1000 the highest. In a business always operating close to the line, any theft can be a disaster.
But whatever costs must be met to sell cigarettes, dairies would struggle to survive without them Ms Cox says.
"You need to have cigarettes. They are very important. People don't want to go to the supermarket just to get a packet of cigarettes," she says.
"There is no margin to speak of in selling them but it's important to get the customers in. You're just providing a service really. But once they are here they might buy milk, bread, pick up a paper."
Other dairy owners agree, though almost all approached by the Taranaki Daily News did not wanted to be identified or have their dairies named.
"When the government cut benefits and put the price of cigarettes up some bad people steal to get them," a former accountant from China, who has run a dairy in New Plymouth for six years, says.
Robbed at knifepoint by a pair of hooded men two years ago, she still gets nervous when people enter her shop with their head covered.
"I ask them to take it off. It's frightening to me," she says.
Her legacy of fear is shared with her son who was also there when the shop was robbed, and will last longer than the four years jail one of those hooded men got. There are other lasting effects as well, says president of the Taranaki branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association Betty Leung, who has acted as translator for more dairy robbery cases than she can remember.
"One dairy owner on Bulteel St was robbed and he was so afraid he couldn't sleep at night. They went to police to say they were scared and the police said don't put any weapons under the counter.
"Police say don't take law into your own hands. They feel that's a little bit unfair. These people come into their shop and they aren't supposed to do anything. They feel they can't protect themselves," she says.
Victims are often unable to speak English very well and already feel on the periphery of society, she says. Robberies leave them feeling more isolated, more vulnerable and completely powerless in a society they hoped would offer them a brighter future.
"Some of them have quite good education. They are engineers, they are designers, professors, but they look for a better future in New Zealand. They get here and their English is not great and they can't get jobs. So they have to open dairies and takeaways. They are not taking jobs that any Kiwis want to do," Ms Leung says.
"They have to lower themselves to menial jobs, that is how much they want a better life."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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