Spicy Food and Dental Implants: Low Prices Lure 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 Ms. Shuen’s second trip to Shenzhen to find bargains in a year. Last time, she got dental implants. “You can count how much I need 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 to shop, dine and, yes, even visit the dentist.

Tired of high costs, poor service and limited choices at home, Hong Kongers are going to Shenzhen to buy groceries, go out for meals and discover new bubble tea shops. Hong Kong remains one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, and its battered economy and plunging stock market have made everyone more money conscious. In China, a stalling economy has led to a steady decline in prices, falling by the most since the global financial crisis in 2009 and verging on a phenomenon known as deflation.

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

On social media and in chat groups, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers talk about new food offerings in Shenzhen like pastries filled with seaweed and pork floss. They share tips about where to find bubble tea including one place where the tea is made by robot. Tour operators that once focused on package tours to Japan and Thailand are also organizing buses to shopping centers in Shenzhen to visit stores like Sam’s Club.

Some weekends, there are so many Hong Kongers in Shenzhen malls that locals have joked that the visitors have “occupied” them.

Their presence in Shenzhen, a city with a population of 17 million, is visible everywhere. Some stores tailor their advertising by using Cantonese, Hong Kong’s local Chinese language, to draw tourists into their shops. Restaurants offer discounts for customers with phone numbers that include Hong Kong’s 852 area code. In one big shopping mall near a border crossing, opticians and dental clinics promise cheaper service than Hong Kong that requires only a short trip. “Cross the border to check your teeth with zero distance,” a giant neon pink advertisement lured.

On a busy day, the GoodFeel Dentist clinic might see more than 100 customers from Hong Kong, said Lan Xinghua, a sales director at GoodFeel Dentist. He said the company’s revenue doubled when the Hong Kong border opened last year. To get even more business, the clinic set up a stall near the Luohu Port border crossing. Employees are expected to speak Cantonese as well as Mandarin, China’s official language.

“Hong Kong customers spend more lavishly and don’t usually bargain too much,” Mr. Lan said. Sometimes entire families come to get 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 some degree of autonomy but has come increasingly under Beijing’s sway.

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

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 simply 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 doesn’t see any 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 payments is digital: The two primary payment apps, WeChat and Alipay, have only recently been available to Hong Kongers and not everyone is familiar with them. To help visiting shoppers, posters plastered in Shenzhen’s 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 paying doesn’t always go that smoothly. 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 that paying with cash was difficult.

It can be hard to get around Shenzhen, too. Two women from Hong Kong had to ask a Shenzhen resident, Kristen Lu, 28, how to use local navigational apps on their phones. They had not realized that Google maps doesn’t work in mainland China because the company is blocked.

Mr. Yeung, the tech worker, has visited Shenzhen twice in the past year. He likes to eat hot pot and play archery and basketball in a sports entertainment complex. He said the workers he encounters in Shenzhen are more pleasant.

Service in Hong Kong is gruffer and more hasty, he said.

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

Ms. Yiu said local patrons 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, as if 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 herself.

She visited amusement arcades and karaoke bars and found the city had more interesting escape room games, her favorite past time, than Hong Kong. She used Hong Kong dollars to pay for a visit to a spa near the Luohu border crossing.

Most of all, Ms. Snow said, Shenzhen offered something Hong Kong famously lacks: a slower pace.

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


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