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).
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 centre, you’ll likely end up with an expensive closet high in the sky. Apartments on the Kowloon side (as opposed to the 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 is 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 are probably half the price or less compared to Hong Kong.
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 are 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.
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. Taxis 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 is 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 the brave and minor accidents are frequent.
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 of 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.
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.
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 may be fined. However, you won’t be left wanting for shopping in Shenzhen – it even has its own official Apple store now.
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 briskness can be put down to people 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 fewer English speakers than in 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!).
Hong Kong – internet connections in Hong Kong are generally cheap and extremely fast. Most homes can install 100 Mbps – 1 Gbps connections as standard. The internet is not censored in Hong Kong as it is in mainland China.
Shenzhen – internet connections 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.
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.