Parallel trading

Memories of unrest in Sheung Shui as mainland Chinese tourists hop Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to Tung Chung

  • Anger over influx of visitors and traders from the north sparked anger and protests in 2012
  • Lantau Island new town hit with similar rise in numbers
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:18pm

When Leung Kam-shing saw pictures of the tourist influx in Tung Chung over the weekend, it felt familiar: he thought it was his home in Sheung Shui.

Since the 55km bridge connecting Hong Kong to the neighbouring cities of Macau and Zhuhai opened last month, the usually quiet new town of Tung Chung, on Lantau Island – and closest to the bridge’s local checkpoint – has seen an explosion in the number of mainland Chinese tourists at the weekend.

Local residents said they had never seen the town so crowded. They feared it would become just like Sheung Shui, a border town which in 2012 was overrun by so-called parallel traders, buying goods to sell at a profit over the border, triggering protests and souring relations between Hongkongers and mainlanders.

“Nothing has changed in Sheung Shui over the years. It is still very crowded here,” said Leung, spokesman for the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group.

“There should be a cap on how many mainland tourists are allowed to visit Hong Kong. The government has every reason to make such a request.”

In the past, parallel traders would buy baby milk formula and other items in Hong Kong, take them back to Shenzhen and pass the goods to retailers, who would then sell the products in stores. But they have changed their tactics, Leung said.

Instead of crossing the border to Sheung Shui to stock up, he explained, people now get traders to act as middlemen and collect the goods, paying them online, such as over WeChat. The middlemen charge a small fee on top of the goods’ cost, and send the items to the customer by mail.

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“This is how parallel trading works now,” Leung said.

Despite the new tactic, Sheung Shui residents said the streets still teemed with mainland traders and tourists, especially during weekends.

The complaints from Tung Chung and Sheung Shui residents have underscored the challenges the Hong Kong government faces in drawing more Chinese tourists and boosting the city’s economy, without irking local residents.

And the tension comes against a wider political backdrop: earlier this week, a study of 1,071 people by the Chu Hai College of Higher Education found that 52.6 per cent did not agree with the idea of mainland-Hong Kong integration.

The Tung Chung Future online community has warned it might take action to “reclaim” Tung Chung, a term coined during protests against mainland tourists in Sheung Shui in 2012.

There are always tourists with their luggage. They’ll roll their luggage over your feet
Janet Yeung, Sheung Shui resident

Back then, clashes erupted as local residents hurled insults at mainland tourists and told them to leave. They were angry at the visitors for snapping up so much baby milk formula that local mothers struggled to get enough. The influx of visitors had also led to crowded streets and queues at restaurants.

The next year, the government imposed a two-can limit on the amount of formula a person could take over the border. In 2015, Shenzhen authorities stopped issuing multiple-entry visas to their residents. Shenzhen residents have since been allowed to visit Hong Kong only once a week.

Several years have passed. But Sheung Shui locals said hardly anything had changed.

“There are always tourists with their luggage,” Janet Yeung, 16, said. “They’ll roll their luggage over your feet.”

“You’re just buying one or two items at a store and you still have to wait for so long because the tourists in front of you are buying so many items. There used to be many small eateries here. Now they’re replaced with pharmacies and cosmetics stores.”

She agreed with Leung in suggesting a cap on the number of mainland tourists allowed into Hong Kong.

Indeed, of the some 20 stores on San Kung Street in the Shek Wu Hui neighbourhood, more than half were either cosmetics stores or pharmacies. It was a similar case on nearby streets.

Daphne Cheung, also 16, said: “Sheung Shui has been crowded as always. Nothing has changed.”

Lilian Chan, 50, who runs a hardware store in Shek Wu Hui, noted more pharmacies and cosmetics shops had opened. Once one closes, she added, another will soon open.