Low prices attract Hong Kongers to China

Low prices attract Hong Kongers to China

Shuen Chun-wa, 81, and her husband hurried toward a green bus with two dozen other Hong Kong residents, dragging empty suitcases. They had purple tour stickers on their jackets and were headed to shop in Shenzhen, a bustling Chinese city that sits on the northern side of the border with Hong Kong.

It was Shuen’s second bargain-hunting trip to Shenzhen in a year. Last time he got dental implants. “You can count how much I have to pay,” she said. She paid $9,000 in Shenzhen for a procedure that would have cost $25,000 in Hong Kong. “I don’t have the money. “So I went to Shenzhen.”

Since China opened its borders in January 2023 after several years of pandemic isolation, Hong Kong residents have made Shenzhen a weekend destination for shopping, dining and, yes, even visiting the dentist.

Tired of high costs, poor service, and limited options at home, Hong Kongers are heading to Shenzhen to shop for groceries, eat out, and discover new bubble tea shops. Hong Kong remains one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, and its battered economy and falling stock market have made everyone more money-conscious. In China, a stagnant economy has led to a steady decline in prices, the biggest drop since the 2009 global financial crisis and on the brink of a phenomenon known as deflation.

The shopping migration is a reversal of the days when mainland Chinese flocked to Hong Kong to buy everything from luxury handbags to baby formula. Now, for Hong Kongers, China’s slowdown offers a rare break in prices. All it takes is a short bus or metro ride across the border. to the continent.

On social media and in chat groups, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers are talking about new food offerings in Shenzhen, such as seaweed-filled cakes and pork floss. They share tips on where to find bubble tea, including a place where a robot makes the tea. Tour operators that once focused on package tours to Japan and Thailand are also arranging buses to shopping malls in Shenzhen to visit stores like Sam’s Club.

On some weekends, there are so many Hongkongers in Shenzhen’s shopping malls that locals joke that visitors have “taken over” them.

Its presence in Shenzhen, a city of 17 million people, is visible everywhere. Some stores adapt their advertising using Cantonese, the local Chinese language in Hong Kong, to attract tourists to their stores. Restaurants offer discounts to customers with phone numbers that include Hong Kong’s 852 area code. In a large shopping center near a border crossing, opticians and dental clinics promise cheaper service than Hong Kong, which only requires a short trip. “Cross the border to check your teeth with zero distance,” beckoned a giant neon pink advertisement.

On a busy day, the GoodFeel Dentist clinic could serve more than 100 Hong Kong clients, said Lan Xinghua, a Sales Director at GoodFeel Dentist. He said the company’s revenue doubled when the border with Hong Kong opened last year. To get even more business, the clinic set up a booth near the Luohu Port border crossing. Employees are expected to speak Cantonese in addition to Mandarin, China’s official language.

“Hong Kong customers spend more and typically don’t haggle too much,” Lan said. Sometimes entire families come to have their teeth cleaned and fixed.

The two cities are divided by a border that distinguishes mainland China from Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that long operated with a degree of autonomy but has increasingly come under Beijing’s rule.

Many Hong Kongers traveling to the mainland to shop had not been there since 2019. That’s when pro-democracy protests engulfed Hong Kong and the government responded with a crackdown, ending the political tolerance that had distinguished Hong Kong from China. continental.

Now people in Hong Kong, using online forums that are censored or inaccessible on the mainland, discuss whether it is safe and politically acceptable for people who disagree with China’s government to visit Shenzhen even just to shop and dine.

For many, the answer is “yes.”

“Life and political opinion can be separated,” said Chak Yeung, 31, a Hong Kong resident who works in the tech industry. He was involved in the past with student organizations that participated in protests, but he sees no conflict between his political views and what he does for fun on the weekends.

Hong Kong has a separate currency from China and its merchants still rely heavily on cash for payments. China’s main form of payment is digital: the two main payment apps, WeChat and Alipay, have recently become available to Hong Kongers and not everyone is familiar with them. To help visiting shoppers, signs posted in Shenzhen stores and subway stations explain how Hong Kong residents can use WeChat and Alipay. Tourists can also pay in Hong Kong dollars and not convert their money to Chinese renminbi.

But payment is not always so simple. On her most recent trip, Ms. Shuen used cash to buy dandelions that her son uses in his Chinese medicine practice in Hong Kong, as well as some dried shrimp. But she said paying cash was difficult.

It can also be difficult to get around Shenzhen. Two Hong Kong women had to ask Shenzhen resident Kristen Lu, 28, how to use local navigation apps on her phone. They didn’t realize that Google Maps doesn’t work in mainland China because the company is blocked.

Yeung, the tech worker, visited Shenzhen twice last year. He likes to eat stew and play archery and basketball at a sports entertainment complex. He said the workers he found in Shenzhen were nicer.

Service in Hong Kong is more abrupt and rushed, he said.

For Iris Yiu, 29, a master’s student in Hong Kong, going to Shenzhen is all about the food. She said she is a fan of spicy food, a staple in some parts of southern China, and in November she and two friends went to Shenzhen and “ordered madly” at a famous Sichuan food chain called Taier Sauerkraut Fish. They weren’t finished. Then they stopped at Bobo Chicken, a restaurant that offers vegetables and meat served in small bites on sticks and cost 14 cents each.

Ms Yiu said local customers had stared at them as they grabbed as many sticks as they could. Someone at a nearby table said, “This is the style of Hong Kong people, like they don’t need money!”

Snow Wong, 28, learned about Shenzhen when her friends and colleagues returned from weekend trips. After so many rave reviews, Ms. Wong decided to check it out for herself.

He visited arcades and karaoke bars and discovered that the city had more interesting escape room games, his favorite pastime, than Hong Kong. She used Hong Kong dollars to pay for a visit to a spa near the Luohu border crossing.

Above all, Snow said, Shenzhen offers something Hong Kong lacks: a slower pace.

“The pace of Shenzhen and Hong Kong is very different,” Wong said. “Shenzhen is where I go to relax.”

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John C. Johnson

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