From mid 2008 to the end of 2010 I lived in Shenzhen before moving to Hong Kong at the beginning of 2011. Now that I’ve spent almost two years in both places respectively I thought it was about time to reflect on the differences in lifestyle between these two mega cities in the hope that it might be useful for anyone considering a similar move (in either direction).

Accommodation

Hong Kong – if an affordable and spacious apartment is what you’re after then forget Hong Kong. In order to live within 30-45 minutes of the center you’ll likely end up with an expensive closet high in the sky. Apartments on the Kowloon side (as opposed to Island side) are generally cheaper but also often older, smaller and within noisier neighbourhoods. Expect accommodation to be your biggest and most painful expense in Hong Kong.

Shenzhen – while prices have been rising in Shenzhen you can still find affordable places if you’re prepared to look around. The quality of Shenzhen apartments varies wildly with a lot of what’s on offer being pretty shoddily built so you’ll most likely want to look at newer estates (Nanshan and Futian districts are popular choices). On the plus side apartments are generally bigger, often have balconies and probably half the price or less compared to Hong Kong.

Food

Hong Kong – food is a subject which is dear to the hearts of most Hongkongese and no matter what your tastes you’ll be able to find what you want here. Anyone who lives in Hong Kong will soon become acquainted with OpenRice which provides restaurant reviews in both English and Chinese. Cheap or expensive, the options are plentiful and most supermarkets carry a wide selection of international imports.

Shenzhen – finding good Asian food in Shenzhen is easy, whether it’s Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai, but western food can be a bit of a mixed bad. There are plenty of western-style restaurants but quality and variety is generally lacking with higher prices than their Hong Kong counterparts. Shenzhen has many international supermarket chains including Carrefour and Walmart as well as high-end Jusco and Ole which stock just about everything you could want.

Transport

Hong Kong – getting around is a breeze in Hong Kong owing to the excellent public transport system that includes the MTR subway, trams and a good bus network which runs to just about everywhere you could want to visit – fast, reliable, and inexpensive. Walking within some areas can be a little confusing owing to the maze of underground tunnels and overground walkways. Taxi’s are also an option but far more expensive than their Shenzhen counterparts.

Shenzhen – while the metro system in Shenzhen is still expanding, the central areas of the city are already well covered and easily accessible. The bus network is extensive but can be rather impenetrable for non-Chinese speakers and often severely overcrowded. Taxis are the most expensive in mainland China but still cheaper than Hong Kong although be prepared for frequent traffic jams. Owning a car here is only for a brave and minor accidents are frequent.

Recreation

Hong Kong – one of the best things about living in Hong Kong is that you’re never more than 30 minutes away from a beautiful beach or rolling mountains which are easily accessible without needing a car. While maybe not quite on the same level as London or NYC, being a large international metropolis there are groups catering to all interests and new exhibitions opening all the time. Cinemas show all the latest Hollywood and local releases.

Shenzhen – being a migrant city still in its infancy Shenzhen offers little in the way recreational activities except shopping, spas, cinemas and karaoke (KTV). There are however some nice beaches east of Shenzhen and the government has been investing in building new green spaces and fostering cultural events. A number of websites catering to expats also list upcoming events and groups. Luckily you have access to the entirety of mainland China and of course Hong Kong is only an hour away so easy to visit for a weekend break.

Environment

Since Hong Kong and Shenzhen are neighbours they basically share the same climate which unfortunately includes being frequently shrouded in noxious pollution clouds which drift down southwards from factories in nearby Dongguan and Guangzhou. For most of the year the temperature is in excess of 30°C with high humidity that only abates for a couple of months during winter. Be prepared to be living in air-conditioned rooms most of the time.

Healthcare

Hong Kong – healthcare in Hong Kong is on par with international standards with both public and private options available to residents at reasonable or no cost. Insurance is not required to access the medical care system, however it is recommended if you want to avoid long queues in public hospitals. The healthcare system in Hong Kong has been placed under stress in recent years with expectant mothers from mainland China coming to give birth here to get their child a Hong Kong ID.

Shenzhen – for minor problems and basic dental care Shenzhen hospitals and dentists are sufficient and inexpensive but if you have a serious accident or emergency your chances in a Shenzhen hospital are likely to be significantly less than in Hong Kong. Simply put standards just aren’t as good and there aren’t enough qualified doctors to deal with the volume of patients. You would be wise to consider paying for health insurance with emergency evacuation services or joining an international health clinic.

Taxes & Shopping

Hong Kong – income tax is around 16% (paid yearly by individuals), and there is no sales tax meaning that the entire city has become Asia’s shopping mall with both good and bad consequences (i.e. severe overcrowding). Most neighbourhoods in the city are built around MTR stations which themselves are built underneath giant shopping malls meaning that it can sometimes feel like you’re trapped inside one wherever you go.

Shenzhen – income tax is around 20% (paid monthly by employers), and sales tax is 17%. Because the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) exchange rate is now so weak against the Chinese Renminbi (RMB) it’s often cheaper to buy electronics, luxury items and imported foods (like wine and cheese) in Hong Kong and then carry them across the border. Do so at your own risk – if stopped at the border you maybe fined. However, you won’t be left wanting for shopping in Shenzhen – it even has its own official Apple store now.

People

Hong Kong – people in Hong Kong work very long hours and have inherited the British trait of being somewhat cold towards strangers. Service received in shops and restaurants is usually pretty bad but on the whole most of peoples briskness can be put down to them being busy or trying to be efficient. Getting by with English in Hong Kong isn’t a problem since around 50% of locals are conversant to varying degrees. Since Cantonese is only spoken in Southern China it’s not a terribly helpful language to learn.

Shenzhen – since Shenzhen is a melting pot of people from all over China people tend to be a little friendlier towards strangers. Since there are less English speakers than Hong Kong you’ll need to pick up at least a survival level of Mandarin and the city is a great place to learn it with plenty of schools and private tutors. If you look like a foreigner you’ll more than likely encounter young people asking to practice their English with you (or just shouting a random “hello” in the middle of the street!).

Internet

Hong Kong – internet connections in Hong Kong are generally cheap and extremely fast. Most homes can install a 100 Mbps – 1 Gbps connections as standard. The internet is not censored in Hong Kong as it is in mainland China.

Shenzhen – internet connection in Shenzhen are generally cheap but slow. Depending on where you live you can install a 1 Mbps – 10 Mbps connection. Many popular websites are blocked in China so you will also require a VPN provider to get around this but the experience is often frustratingly tedious and slow.

Conclusion

While Hong Kong is undoubtedly a more international city with all the conveniences that brings, Shenzhen certainly has its advantages when it comes to the cost of living and space so choosing where to live comes down to personal preference and circumstance. This guide is far from comprehensive but I hope is helpful to those considering a move to or between either city – feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in the comments below and I’ll endeavour to keep it updated.

With thanks to Brent Deverman from ShenzhenParty.com for his input on this article.

Comments

  1. Wouter says:

    Amazing article, I’m also trying to decide to move or not, in my case it would be from HK to Shenzhen.

    • David says:

      Thanks Wouter – a colleague of mine commutes between HK and SZ everyday but its around a 2 hour trip both ways (he lives right next to the border) which is a lot of time to be spending on a bus/train. If you make the move I would certainly recommend going the whole way to avoid this!

  2. Victoria says:

    Once again I wish to admit that your thoughts on the subject are very sound and I agree on most of these points! I guess I could post a similar article on my own blog 🙂
    Perhaps I am too biased but to me even cheaper rents cannot make up for the cultural void that Shenzhen is…

    I am also surprised to have read that you think service in Hong Kong shops and restaurants is pretty bad, because I generally get good attitude the majority of service people and only occasionally come across rude behaviour.

    As matter of contrast, here is a link to another blog, where its owner compares Shanghai vs. Hong Kong. It’s very different from your conclusions but then the girl had spent only a few days in both Shanghai and Hong Kong at that stage, so I guess she could not have as much insight into either of those places.

    https://morganlmallory.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/shanghai-vs-hong-kong/#comment-209

    • David says:

      The author of that post was pretty brave to try and rank one above the over but she makes some fair comments. I visit Shanghai a few times every year (I’m there right now actually!) and always enjoy my time there except for the cold in winter and the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality on public transit!

      RE service attitude in HK, it’s usually just small places like cha chaan teng’s were service is brisk or maybe it’s just me!

      • Victoria says:

        Yeah, cha tsaan tengs can actually be less than obliging especially during busy times, when they want as much turnover as possible.

        As for Shanghai, been there so many times I lost count. I used to go there regularly for business trips.
        I liked it the first time I visited, but now it’s not too special in my eyes…The colonial architecture is great (something Hong Kong has failed to keep to the same degree), but then it’s all foreign and therefore once again I find myself liking something that’s essentially non-Chinese. Woe me 🙂

  3. Dan says:

    I’m speaking as someone who lived in Shenzhen for over two years, the whole time struggling with it unhappily, going to Hong Kong as often as possible. I agree with almost everything you’ve written but, as one other comment pointed out, a fair comparison of culture is missing, which for some people can be a huge factor.

    Shenzhen is an infant city that, despite an appreciable expat community, is overwhelmingly monocultural. Hong Kong, as an international “grown up” city not only offers the material goods one would expect, but also a cultural baseline that understands, if not always accepts the cultural differences, customs, etc. that people bring with them to the city. Along with this comes a world of art, music, and cultural events that are scant, completely lacking, or underwhelming in Shenzhen.

    If you enjoy concerts, art exhibits, hip new restaurants, and generally being part of an international community rather than an almost exclusively Chinese one, seriously consider the impact of Shenzhen’s relative “cultural void.”

  4. Ray Campbell says:

    I’ve lived in Shenzhen since 2010, and have a couple of points to toss in.

    1) Shenzhen keeps changing, so whatever you knew four years ago is already out of date. In the past year, for example, they’ve opened up a beautiful biking/walking trail that runs 20 kilometers off road beside the bay, opened several high end mall/dining areas, relaunched the airport, added new metro lines, and so on. While it’s still not at the sophistication level of Hong Kong or Shanghai, neither is it all that much like the undeveloped Shenzhen of ten years ago.

    2) In terms of durable differences, I find a good way to conceptualize the Shenzhen / Hong Kong relationship is this: Hong Kong is Manhattan, Shenzhen is New Jersey. Hong Kong has the investment bankers and hedge fund managers, the diplomats and the management consultants, the Magic Circle/Wall Street lawyers and the big accounting firms. Shenzhen has factories, guys who work on oil rigs, lots of expat teachers, logistics specialists, and IT experts upgrading software at all the growing Shenzhen companies. Educational degrees tend to be from fancier schools in Hong Kong, and the quality of men’s suits is noticeably higher. Based on who lives there, Shenzhen has great Chinese street food from all over China and places to get a defensible hamburger or slice of pizza; Hong Kong has all the newest restaurants opened by the Michelin star collecting celebrity chefs. You are more apt to find people who read the New Yorker in Hong Kong, but in Shenzhen a bar might substitute an equation solving contest for trivia night (seriously).

    • David says:

      Thanks Ray – really good way of contrasting things and I definitely agree about things changing so fast. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shenzhen continues to develop and if they form even closer ties with Hong Kong.

  5. Sunny T says:

    Hi, I just happened to stumble upon this article/blog while doing some research on the Shenzhen Vs HKG issue. We have a 2.3 year old and with schooling playing a major factor, we have our own set of confusions on hand. Wondering if there will be enough of a Social life and out of school development program for our child.
    So much to think about before this move.
    Since this is pretty out dated, I wonder if you have new thoughts on the same or any matters of guidance.
    Thanks,

    • steve says:

      Hi sunny t,did you ever move to either place? we really want hk but hard to get a good job with the right conditions.to half to settle for any place other than hk is disappointing as we have a 7 yr old and we feel the environment in hk is better on all counts except cost of housing. I keep reading posts hoping I will find a magical substitute for hk.

  6. Steve says:

    I tried to click on the links above and none are working. Anyone else have this problem? I wanted to read more on shanghai but can’t. I was told recently that international schools where I would want our 7 yr old to go, are very very expensive and would pretty much
    wipe out our monthly salary. Can anyone confirm this? I think most people who post are single and young. I wonder how families are finding other cities outside of HK. I just can’t come up with any other alternative to HK that would have everything my family and I like.
    I feel like at my age I shouldnt have to settle for living in some other city other than my top choice but unfortunately, competition is fierce in HK and unless I am willing to go backwards and work in one of the language institutes which at this point I am not, then I have to keep waiting for a reply from one of the proper schools.

    • Grace says:

      Steve
      I have done some research on International school in Shenzhen as we are moving there end of this year. the international schools generally cost around 100000 RMB per year, that is around 8k to 9k a month. Obviously like all the other schools in western countries, the lunch, uniform and school bus fee are extra.

      As of shanghai, I don’t know the price exactly, but from what i have found, Shanghai actually have the best international schools.

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