For 14-year-old Denis To Hon-lam, a member of Hong Kong's figure skating team, Shenzhen's ice rinks are a launch pad to a professional career. Since winning his first amateur title in 2005, he has trained mainly in Shenzhen, where his coaches include former world figure skating champion Chen Lu and former national champion Wang Huan. 'I started skating at the age of five and the sport has become part of my life,' says Denis. 'I've been taking at least six training sessions a week in Shenzhen during the past four years with Chen and Wang. They work me hard to meet national standards.' Denis' rigorous training was rewarded in July, when he took third place in the men's single junior event at the Asian Figure Skating Trophy in Taipei, in the Hong Kong team's best performance ever. With more spacious facilities and top instructors, Shenzhen's ice rinks are attracting increasing numbers of skaters from Hong Kong, both recreational and competitive. Yu Man-shan is another Hongkonger honing her skating skills in the border city. The 21-year-old, who hopes to qualify as an instructor, has been skating full-time since finishing secondary school and for the past two years has been taking classes with Ma Xiaodong, another former national champion. The tuition costs about 5,000 yuan a month - 1,200 yuan less than she would have paid in Hong Kong, says Yu, who holds a freestyle level six certificate from the Ice Skating Institute of Asia. With her family's support, she has moved to Shenzhen, renting a small flat near the rink for 2,800 yuan a month to save commuting time, returning to Hong Kong at the weekend. But cost savings aren't the main reason Yu chose Shenzhen's rinks. 'You can't do flip jumps or double salchows at a Hong Kong rink - it's too crowded,' she says. The ice rink business is heating up in Shenzhen. The China Resources group set up the first three years ago - World Ice Arena, a 1,800 square metre, 50 million yuan rink in the MIXc mall in Luohu district. Its popularity has encouraged other investors to follow suit, with developer Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town investing 75 million yuan to open Alps Ice World, a 2,400 square metre rink in Nanshan district in July. Both are headed by star skaters: Chen and her husband, former Russian Olympic medallist Denis Petrov, are skate directors at Ice World Arena, and world pair skating champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, who married earlier this year, manage and teach at rival Alps Ice World. Two other rinks are planned, including one at the Yitian Holiday Plaza backed by sportswear tycoon and former gymnast Li Ning. Rinks can help boost business in shopping complexes by attracting more people but operators may not always get good returns with expenses soaring on rent and energy, says World Ice Arena general manager Ted Wilson. Wilson, who managed rinks in Hong Kong for more than 20 years before moving across the border four years ago, says the middle class in Shenzhen is large enough to support the new facilities, although few people have time for lessons. As a result, rinks tend to be occupied by Hong Kong athletes during the day and by the city's recreational skaters in the evenings. Chen says that as Shenzhen's skating instructors are all former national athletes, they can help students develop the right techniques. 'Once you learn to appreciate the sport, you will notice the difference between students taught by professional coaches and those learning from amateur instructors,' she says. Even so, mainland coaches could use a few teaching pointers from Hong Kong instructors, says Wilson. Top competitors aren't necessarily good teachers, and people skating at commercial rinks are mostly beginners who need very basic instruction, he says. 'Hong Kong coaches specialise in this, especially giving group lessons.' Hongkongers now account for at least 40 per cent of the clientele at the Arena, including Denis' sister and brother, who are also taking lessons from Chen. At Alps Ice World, they contribute about one-fifth of revenues. The Hong Kong presence is particularly strong at weekends and on public holidays. Most are recreational skaters. It's inexpensive for youngsters to attend skating lessons. Travel across the border usually costs about HK$80, with a little extra for food. The 130 yuan fee at World Ice Arena entitles students to a 30-minute coaching session and the whole day on the ice once class is over - good value for seven hours' enjoyment. Other users pay 60 yuan for two hours on the rink. (Half an hour's advanced coaching by Chen and Petrov costs 200 yuan.) For Ng Wai-shing, a 60-year-old Hong Kong retiree, the rink has become a centre for family activities. He and his wife skate almost every weekday and spend most weekends on the ice with their three sons. And after two years of lessons, Ng says he is pleased to have mastered manoeuvres such as the one-foot spin and the salchow jump. Yet skating classes in Shenzhen were initially closed to learners such as Ng. At first, none of the instructors would accept Hong Kong students due to communication problems. 'Most instructors in Shenzhen come from northern China, so the language in class is Putonghua,' says skater Nelson Wong. But the language barrier is breaking down as more Hongkongers become proficient in Putonghua. 'Junior skaters pick up the language very quickly,' says Chen. 'Sometimes students don't need to understand the words - the coaches will demonstrate how it's done.' Denis hopes more rigorous training with Chen and other former champions in Shenzhen will earn him a place at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 'That's my dream: to represent Hong Kong in world-class competition,' he says.