EVERY DAY Lam Heung-wing gets up at 6am to leave his home in Shenzhen to travel to Hong Kong to work. He takes with him his seven-year-old daughter, Lam Ka-man, who attends a Hong Kong school. Their maid, nicknamed Small Lee, follows to take care of her. His wife dresses their three-year-old son, Lam Ka-chun, who goes to a local kindergarten. He was born in Shenzhen and has not received his SAR residency. Lam usually takes a $3.50 minibus ride to the border at Lowu, but when he's late he catches a taxi for $12.50. This rankles with Lam who complains that the operators are taking advantage of those who cross the border each day. A single train journey from Lowu to Kowloon Tong costs $38. Every month, his transport bill is $1,600 - about one-sixth of his earnings. At 7am, crowds of men and schoolchildren are already queueing on the platform. Lam is among them. Back at the Lowu Border Building, his daughter, Ka-man, waits with Small Lee for five older schoolmates who cross the border with them. Lam deliberately avoids accompanying her across the border so the shy girl will become independent and mix with other children. He doesn't mind the daily routine. 'I will continue to live here until I die,' he says. Lam is one of the new breed of Hong Kongers: the labour force that lives on the mainland, but works in the SAR. The phenomenon began in the early 1990s as Hong Kongers relocated to China's border cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Panyu, to join their mainland wives. Now they choose to live there because the cost of living is much lower than in Hong Kong. For decades, mainlanders have flocked both legally and illegally to Hong Kong, filled with dreams of streets paved with gold. Now the dream of a promised land has crumbled; it remains the source of higher wages but, for many, China has become the place to live and spend. On a typical day between 6.30am and 10.30am, 27,650 people take trains from Lowu to Hong Kong, according to the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation. This number will multiply if the crossing is opened 24 hours a day, which some businesses lobbied for recently. The prospect strikes fear into the hearts of property developers who picture prices in Sheung Shui, Fanling and Tai Po plummeting as Hong Kongers flock north. The border is open from 6.30am to 11.30pm, although the Government recently announced that opening hours would be extended by 30 minutes to midnight starting on December 1. Increasingly it's younger people who choose this lifestyle. Thomas Tsoi, 29, a Kowloon City chef, has been living in Shenzhen since 1997. 'I know more than 100 people in their 20s and early 30s living in Shenzhen. Here, when I walk down the street, I always see someone I know,' he says. The Hong Kong commuters are a varied selection of blue and white-collar workers from different backgrounds. Once they cross the Shenzhen River, life changes dramatically. If they lived in Hong Kong they would just manage to scrape by, but with the wages they make in the SAR they can live the good life in Shenzhen. Many can afford spacious flats and domestic helpers. Lam, 40, earns less than $10,000 a month as an electrician. He used to live in his father's 200-square-foot village house in Sheung Shui but now he lives in the lap of luxury by comparison - an 800-sq-ft low-rise apartment which is a 15-minute minibus ride from Shenzhen train station. Lam left Hong Kong in 1994 when he married his mainlander wife, Liu Hung-ying, 29, and lived in rented flats for two years. When his father built a low-rise block in his home village in Shenzhen, Lam and his family moved in. His apartment costs $1,200, compared with $6,000 for something similar in the northern New Territories. Though not extravagantly furnished, his three-bedroom home is comfortable. He grows orchids on the balcony and the family enjoys sunbathing on the spacious roof. His maid comes from Jiangxi province and for $700 a month does the housework and takes care of their two children, freeing his wife to play mahjong with friends while he's in Hong Kong. If they eat out it's usually a typical mainland dinner of chicken hot pot at a nearby restaurant. A meal for seven including beer typically costs $120. In Hong Kong this would be closer to $500. Formerly a rural hamlet, their village, Chek Mei, is now a growing Hong Kong outpost - of every 10 residents, three are from the SAR. 'At first, I found it strange that Hong Kong people came to live here. Now they are everywhere in the village,' Liu says. A native of Xiaokwan, she has been to Hong Kong but found everything expensive. She prefers living in Shenzhen. Liu's application for SAR residency should be approved in 2005, but the couple say they are in no hurry to move. 'Everything is expensive in Hong Kong, I can't even afford a flat for my family,' says Lam, adding that the present high unemployment rate has hardened his resolve to settle across the border. Work as an electrician can be patchy and some months he works only 10 days. The round trip commute to Chai Wan and back costs around $85. But he has swapped his Hong Kong habits for those of Shenzhen. Now instead of sporting trendy brands, he wears no-name clothes and shops in Lowu Commercial Mall. His speech is full of mainland slang and he feels his whole identity is changing. 'I've started to think of myself as a mainlander,' he says. 'Now when I see Hong Kong people, I feel that they are of higher status than me.' He says he is less confident and assertive than his SAR workmates. 'When people ask me to do things I always say OK, OK.' Lam says he has grown apart from his former close SAR friends and has little in common with them now. ALSO ON THE PLATFORM this morning are Wan Ka-ho, 11, and his brother Wan Ka-ki, seven, with their mother, Shen Wai-jing, 31. Shen makes a living out of cross-border school runs, escorting her own and the children of other SAR permanent residents to school in Hong Kong and back, many times a day. Her handbag bulges with entry permits and passports. For crossing the border 12 times a day, Shen earns HK$4,000 a month from a company that employs her. The children's parents prefer Hong Kong government schools, which provide nine years of free education and better instruction in English. Shen, who received Hong Kong permanent residency in March last year, is one of an estimated 1,000 mainland wives who have permanent SAR residency, but prefer living across the border to save money. A Guangzhou native, she married a Hong Kong driver of container trucks in 1990 and her husband moved to Shenzhen to live with her. Living in Hong Kong used to epitomise the dream of a better family life for mainland wives, but no longer. About 20 of them work at the border as 'nannies', escorting 200 of the 2,800 children who cross to Hong Kong daily. The service, which includes taking the child to and from the school gates, costs $400 a month for primary school children. After getting her Hong Kong residency, Shen worked as a waitress in a Hong Kong restaurant, but found it too exhausting, which is a surprising complaint considering what she does now. She started taking her two sons across the border before joining a nanny agency last November. At 6.15am, she gathers her brood at a meeting point on the Shenzhen side and sets off armed with their re-entry permits and home permits. Every morning she takes 10 children, dodging the mobs of men dashing for the train, careful not to lose any of her charges in the rush. At 1.15pm Shen is heading back to the border for the fourth time. Next to her are eight children, including her sons, returning home from school. At the checkpoints, the youngsters take out their re-entry permits, queue up before desks and recite their names loudly and cheerfully to the bored official. At 3pm, after lunch, she heads for Hong Kong before returning again at 3.50pm. Tired, she snatches a 10-minute nap in the school van, before heading back to Shenzhen. She shuttles back and forth until her last trip at 6pm, her final run back to Shenzhen. Shen always intended to live in Hong Kong. Now home is the upmarket area of Shenzhen, a 10-minute drive from the train station. Her apartment, bought three years ago for HK$700,000, is more than 1,500 sq ft, boasts spacious bedrooms with queen-sized beds and has a podium garden with a city view. Her son, Ka-ho, 11, who is in Primary Four at a Sheung Shui school, has spent holidays in Hong Kong but prefers Shenzhen. 'It is a lot of fun crossing the border, I like seeing the officers at checkpoints typing on computers,' he says. Shen says when her son starts secondary school, which is farther from the border, she may need to live in Hong Kong. But she would prefer not to. 'I don't like living in Hong Kong, it doesn't interest me,' she says. So what does having Hong Kong residency mean to her? 'My ID card gives me freedom to go in and out of Hong Kong and it gives me a job.' THE CROSS-BORDER commute seems to be Lam's only link with Hong Kong. Every evening at 7.30, he is back at Lowu station. He walks across the bridge over the Shenzhen River and checks in at Shenzhen immigration. On weekdays, the formalities take about 15 minutes, but on Fridays and public holidays, it can take three hours. There are downsides to Shenzhen. Crime is one. Lam has not been in a fight or robbed, but he is so frightened of muggers he won't stop if asked for directions. Getting off the bus, he quickly crosses a footbridge lined with prostitutes and seconds later is home. It's 8.30pm and two hours since he left work at Chai Wan. He and his wife have about an hour and a half together before he goes to bed at 10pm.