It was a wrench for real estate agent Marco Yuen Wai-pong when he relocated to Beijing for better opportunities in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. 'My life changed completely when I first started working on the mainland,' says Yuen, who found work with a property company in the capital. 'There were no movies or TV shows that I was familiar with or cared to watch. I couldn't find any of the entertainment that I'd taken for granted in Hong Kong.' Most of all, he missed his wife. Although he flew back each month for a few days' stay, it was far from satisfactory. 'The internet then wasn't as developed as it is today. So when we were separated, my wife and I couldn't communicate much.' After the first of his two daughters was born five years ago, Yuen and his wife decided they'd reached a pivotal point and the family needed to stay together in Beijing. 'We didn't want to put our daughter through this [long-distance relationship]. I should have settled my family here earlier so they would find it easier to adapt to the new environment,' says Yuen, 45, who has since set up his own property agency in the capital. From a trickle in the past, the number of Hongkongers working on the mainland has swelled substantially in the post-handover years, rising to 244,000 in 2004 although they dipped to 218,200 in 2008. Those who have had to support families from a distance while establishing careers on the mainland, feel a little separation does make the heart grow fonder. Whereas the 'astronaut' lifestyle of families with one person here and another in Canada or Australia often strained domestic ties during the wave of migration in the 80s, some experts say this hasn't been as severe with Hong Kong professionals based on the mainland. In fact, being apart for a time can bolster family ties, says Dr Lau Yuk-king, a social work professor at the Chinese University, who has studied the issue. 'For some families, once they get used to the separation, it becomes routine,' Lau says. 'But they cherish the time spent together even more.' After four years apart, Yuen treasures the opportunity to unwind with his children, going skiing and horse riding with them in Beijing. Having his family with him has given him a sense of wholeness that helped him appreciate some of the benefits of life in the capital. 'Now I can play golf three times a week,' he says. 'In Hong Kong, I'd have to travel for hours to get to a golf course [across the border].' Yuen says living in another city has also made him more appreciative of his parents and relatives in Hong Kong. 'In the past, we would gather once a week for tea or for dinner. I don't think it's a matter of how much time we spent together, but the quality of those gatherings. We talk more now that we are not in the same city,' he says. Even so, long separations can take their toll on a marriage and most people try to keep their family together. Angel Lin Pik-kwan, a social worker with the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, finds that lengthy separations tend to aggravate domestic problems, recalling a case where the conflict between a wife and mother-in-law worsened because the husband was away on the mainland. 'The person who's working on the mainland lacks emotional support from the family while the one left in Hong Kong feels lonely and helpless,' she says. 'They regret missing important family events because of work on the mainland, for example, when a husband can't come back when his wife goes into labour.' Lau agrees. 'They wanted to be there for the family but may only come home once a week or even longer. Sometimes they just can't help it. This may deepen their sense of guilt and frustration.' With less face-to-face communication and a less frequent sex life, couples are more likely to grow apart or settle into emotional detachment if separated for a long time, Lau says. Distance is less of an issue for those based in nearby cities in Guangdong province. Still, some find mainland life something of a culture shock. Wilson Tsang Wing-hai, 41, is still struggling to adapt after a year in Shenzhen, where he is creative director for a casual wear company. 'I can't get my daily fix of news because access to the outlets I'm used to are blocked; and I still freak out when people spit in the street and kids urinate in the train station,' says Tsang. 'Even though 30 of my colleagues come from Hong Kong, I still don't feel at home. There's a sense of rootlessness, like I don't belong to either Hong Kong or China. And the feeling is growing even stronger as time passes.' Provided with a 1,000 sq ft condo in Shenzhen, Tsang returns only on weekends, arriving late on Friday nights, and leaves early Monday mornings. His wife goes up each week to clean and sometimes cook for him. Given the two cities' proximity and with two teenage children at school in Hong Kong, Tsang says it doesn't make sense to move his family to Shenzhen. Instead, he makes up for the separation by setting aside time for family activities at weekends, when they will go out for yum cha and see a movie or check out exhibitions together. 'I think quality is more important than quantity. It only takes me two hours to come home from Shenzhen, so I'm not too worried about not being there for family emergencies,' says Tsang. Jack So Wan, 42, an executive director of the China Avenue Capital group, initially tried to maintain a long-distance romance with his girlfriend after moving to Beijing. 'I soon found it was impossible to keep up a relationship with phone calls and brief meetings. It's not fair for her either,' he says. So after a year of long-distance dating, they married in 2005, his wife gave up her secretarial job and moved to the capital. The couple now have three children, a girl and twin boys. His wife still misses Hong Kong, 'but as long as we are together, it's worth the sacrifice', he says. 'It's less stressful now that I don't have to worry about missing the flights like when I used to travel back and forth. I feel more motivated at work now that I can see my family when I go home. 'Playing with my children, even listening to my wife's nagging is a joy,' he says. 'It's important for my children to have both the parents with them to ensure a happy and healthy childhood.' As his four-year-old daughter approaches primary school age, So is considering moving his family back. 'I prefer my children to be educated in Hong Kong since I'm more familiar with the system and I trust it more. But that means I'll have to move back to Hong Kong as well or else we'll be separated again. That's not an easy decision.' Yuen has no such qualms. His younger daughter is still an infant, but his elder daughter is already at an international school in Beijing. 'I thought the education quality here might not compare to Hong Kong. But if you consider it in the long term, having my kids studying here provides them more opportunities,' he says. 'They can even study at the top universities on the mainland, which is unlikely to happen if they grew up in Hong Kong.'