Dream of home away from home in mainland China loses its attraction for many elderly Hongkongers

The road to reunification between Hong Kong and mainland China has been a bumpy one over the past 20 years and their relationship has, if anything, become even more sensitive in recent years. In the last of a three-part series that also looks at education and health care, here we ask whether retiring on the mainland is still a viable option for the elderly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 2:01pm

Bigger flats and lower living costs on the mainland have seen many Hongkongers retire across the border, but the Post has found the lure may be starting to fade.

Ms Woo, a 67-year-old Hongkonger, was attracted by the spacious community environment at Clifford Estates in Panyu, a Guangzhou suburb, when she bought a retirement flat and moved in with her mother in 2010.

In her 1,000 sq ft flat, costing 300,000 yuan (HK$339,000), she enjoys twice as much space as her old home and knows it is something she could never afford in Hong Kong.

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“I like the stress-free environment here. If I were still in Hong Kong, I would think of the pressure I was under at work,” says Woo, who declines to reveal her full name.

The mega community Woo has taken to was established in 1991, has 200,000 residents and is a popular retirement destination for Hongkongers.

Every morning she goes to a lakeside park to exercise, has breakfast and then shops before doing her household chores. Sometimes she will hang out with friends she has made in the neighbourhood.

While the cost of living in general is cheaper on the mainland, imported products, such as olive oil, often cost more than in Hong Kong.

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Even though Clifford Estates is equipped with a top hospital, Woo insists on crossing the border for medical treatment every month for check-ups on her diabetes and hypertension.

“I feel more confident with the medical service in Hong Kong,” she says. “Also, I am not a mainland resident, so I can’t join a local medical insurance scheme, and have to pay much more for services here.”

Another Clifford Estates resident, identified only as Ms Wong, said she does not enjoy living there because things have not turned out the way she expected.

Wong, who is also in her 60s, bought a flat in 2000 for holiday use and hoped to use it for her retirement.

But for the past five years she has rented it out.

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“There weren’t that many neighbours and I couldn’t develop my social circle. It seems to me the estate has turned into a place for mainlanders from other provinces,” she says.

Wong now stays in Guangzhou city centre, where her children live.

During a visit to Clifford Estates one weekday in May, the Post found more elderly people speaking Putonghua rather than Cantonese.

A spokesman for the project says Hongkongers accounted for half of owners 20 years ago but now just 30 per cent.

One reason for this, he says, could be the introduction of propery cooling measures in leading mainland cities, including Guangzhou, since 2010. Under these, Hong Kong residents may only purchase residential property upon proof of working, studying or living on the mainland.

The number of people moving across the border and applying for the Guangdong Scheme, which permits retirees to claim their Old Age Allowance from the Hong Kong government, stood at 14,600 in March compared to 17,194 three years ago.

But this has stopped neither Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying nor Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po heralding the benefits of mainland life.

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Their call has grown louder since a recent visit to some of the cities in the Pearl River Delta selected by the central government to form the Greater Bay Area, a regional planning initiative announced by Premier Li Keqiang in March.

However, Nelson Chow Wing-sun, professor in social work at the University of Hong Kong, says retiring on the mainland is not so desirable nowadays.

“Costs in Shenzhen may be similar to those in Hong Kong. Life in Zhongshan and Zhuhai may be cheaper, but the cost is also rising ... Prices are not like those a decade ago,” Chow says. “Also, many Hongkongers don’t trust the medical system on the mainland. They often prefer coming back to Hong Kong if they fall ill.”

He suggests the building of retirement villages, complete with recreational and care services.

“They should be designed for those from all kinds of social classes, and residents may easily go to the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital for treatment,” Chow says.