Before the forthcoming announcement of the groundbreaking Guangdong-Macau Intensive Cooperation Zone planned on Hengqin, a few Macau residents have already had a taste of daily life across the border amid the closer Macau-Hengqin integration
With the ever-closer ties between Macau and Hengqin in Guangdong province in recent years from economic activities to trade and investment to social affairs, one of the major bilateral cooperation projects is Macau New Neighborhood, a housing complex currently being built on the nearby island that will provide 3,800 exclusive flats to Macau residents. While it might still take at least two years for the completion of this symbolic project, some Macau residents have already had the chance to stay and live in this so-called “backyard of Macau”.
The 106-square-kilometre island has been little known among Macau homebuyers until Sea of Dreams launched a sale campaign in 2013. The high-end residential project, developed by state-run Huarong Real Estate Co Ltd, marked the first housing estate in the Hengqin New Area that was put forward in the market, after the island was designated for development by the Central Government in 2009 to facilitate the diversification of Macau. Since then property projects across the border have increasingly piqued the interests of Macau buyers, including investors and end-users.
The latest figures from Hengqin authorities show that Macau residents have bought over 11,200 real estate properties — including residential, commercial, office and other types of property — on the island, for more than 830,000 square metres as of early 2021, with more than 5,770 Macau residents also holding permits to live and stay in the Hengqin New Area. Earlier this year, the Mainland Chinese media The Paper reported that among those with the permits there were about 2,200 Macau residents living on the neighbouring island at the moment.
One of them is Roy Chan, who has been living with his wife in Hengqin since tying the knot almost two years ago. The couple had originally planned to live with Mr Chan’s parents after marrying, but they later opted for more privacy and personal space. “We had actually looked for flats in Macau, but they were either too old or they exceeded our budget”, Mr Chan, who is in his late twenties, explains.
As his parents purchased a house in Hengqin a few years ago, Mr Chan and his wife, who both work in the local events industry, decided to give a life between the two places a shot. “We both have a flexible schedule and sometimes we also have to work in Cotai, so we thought why not?” he said with regard to their decision to stay in Hengqin. “We just wanted to have our own space together”.
“The living environment is quite nice and not crowded, at least within our estate, as there are still not that many people, only some students plus a few like us that come from Macau”, Mr Chan continues.
“There is not much of a difference between living in Macau and living in Hengqin for us, except for the fact that we have to cross the border every day”, he says, adding that living amenities in Hengqin, such as restaurants and supermarkets, have been improved in the past few years, with more options available. “There are, of course, more entertainment and lifestyle offerings in Macau, but we don’t have much to complain about with a bigger living space”, Mr Chan, who lives in a three-bedroom flat in Hengqin, says. “We wouldn’t have had this luxury if we had stayed in Macau and had had to deal with the soaring home prices”.
In spite of the recent increase due to the robust development of the island, home prices in Hengqin are still about half the ones in Macau. Figures provided by property agency Centaline Hengqin show that home prices in Hengqin averaged RMB49,493.5 (MOP60,838/US$7,618.8) a square metre in the first half of 2021, rising by nearly 7.5 percent year-on-year, and were about 10 percent higher than the pre-pandemic level of around RMB45,000 a square metre. In contrast, the average home price in Macau stood at MOP101,007.4 (US$12,634.7) a square metre in the first six months of this year, government data say.
The real estate agency added that Macau buyers accounted for a quarter of property transactions in Hengqin between January-June 2021, and expects that Hengqin homes will be keep being sought after by Macau buyers due to the closer integration between the two places.
Drive across border
Spending about an hour a day on travelling between Macau and Hengqin, Mr Chan remarks their current daily commute is similar to the one they would have if they stayed in the city, as they could drive their Macau-registered car across the border. “Without this scheme we probably wouldn’t stay here, as public transportation in Hengqin is still underdeveloped, with very low bus service frequency”, he adds.
In a bid to facilitate the flow of people and goods between Macau and Hengqin, the latter has allowed eligible Macau-registered vehicles to drive within the island since 2016, with a quota system allowing Macau residents who run a business, own property or work in Hengqin to apply. The initial quota reserved to just 800 vehicles has been expanded several times throughout the past few years, reaching 10,000 cars in 2021. According to the Hengqin customs, about 1,000 Macau-registered vehicles entered and left the island every day in the last year, accounting for half of the daily traffic passing through the border terminal.
In addition, a new Macau-Hengqin border checkpoint, which opens around the clock and allows the customs from both sides to work on the same site, was inaugurated last year to accelerate the immigration process.
This is also one of the main appealing factors for Mrs Lei, who splurged about MOP2.5 million on a two-bedroom flat in Hengqin four years ago. “With support from the Central Government, namely a number of incentives given and policies implemented in support of the development of Hengqin and its cooperation with Macau, we believe that the value of Hengqin properties will increase”, she says, choosing to only be identified by her last name.
But her investment is yet to get off the ground, as it has been vacant for the majority of the time she has had it. “[My family] temporarily uses it as a vacation house where we stay for one or two weekends a month. It’s a good getaway from the fast-paced and crowded Macau”, says Mrs Lei, who is in her forties. “It’s difficult to lease the flat now due to the low demand — most people who work there opt to stay in other parts of Zhuhai because of the lower rents, while almost no people buy second-hand flats in Hengqin given the many options becoming available thanks to the new projects that are being developed”.
“We regard this as a long-term investment”, she adds. Besides, the Lei family now does not have any plan to relocate. “There are a lot of business towers and ongoing construction sites [in Hengqin], but there is still a lack of amenities in the community”, she says. “It’s still more convenient for us to live in Macau, where the focus of our life is”.
As of early 2021, Zhuhai Da Hengqin Co Ltd — set up by the Hengqin administration to carry out major infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and other public facilities on the island — has started 312 projects, for a total value of RMB124.9 billion; among them, 219 projects totalling RMB60.73 billion have been completed, while there are still 93 projects in the pipeline.
“It’s also tiring for me at this age to cross the border every day despite how user-friendly the customs process is”, Mrs Lei continues. “Hengqin is a Mainland Chinese city, Macau is Macau. The two places are still different in terms of culture, lifestyle and other things”.
Nonetheless, authorities on both sides have endeavoured to minimise the differences. The aforementioned Macau New Neighbourhood project, developed by the government-run Macau Urban Renewal Ltd, aims to provide more convenience to Macau residents wanting to live, work and study in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, with an array of recreational facilities to be run by Macau institutions assigned by the Macau authorities, namely a kindergarten and school, an elderly centre, a medical centre and more.
Li Tengdong, deputy director of the Macau Affairs Bureau of Hengqin, was also quoted by the mainland media this year as saying that the project, slated for completion in 2023, would introduce the “Macau standard in social and community services” to Hengqin, which could entice more Macau residents.
In addition to this symbolic Guangdong-Macau cooperation project, the authorities across the border have also invited the General Union of Neighbourhood Associations of Macau (UGAMM) to provide community services on the island since November 2019, when UGAMM inaugurated a 2,200-square-metre integrated service centre. It was also the first time for a Macau association to run a social service centre in the mainland.
Since the establishment of the centre, UGAMM, one of the largest associations in Macau, has also gradually established three more service points, albeit on a smaller scale, across different districts of the Hengqin New Area. “As the Hengqin administration expects that more people from Macau will work and stay [on the island], we were invited two years ago to help serve Macau residents there”, says Tian Yi, head of the Guangdong division of the association. “There are differences between the services provided by the mainland and those provided by Macau’s social institutions and organisations — what we offer is more user-oriented, and Macau residents are more familiar with our services”.
From kids to teenagers, to elderly, to families, the Hengqin branch of the association has served about 30,000 users — including both Macau and non-Macau residents — and organised more than 700 activities, he says.
Tapping into the island’s resources for nearly two years, Mr Tian found out that the most common problem among Macau residents in Hengqin is that they are not well aware of the policies in the mainland. “For instance, Macau residents who hold a permit to stay in Hengqin are basically entitled to the same treatment as their mainland counterparts, from employment to social security”, he illustrates. “Thus, one of our focuses is to ensure [Macau residents] better understand Hengqin policies… [and] we also serve as a bridge by tackling any issues between them and the authorities”.
Among the policies and measures implemented or to be proposed by the authorities on the both sides, what Macau residents in Hengqin and in general should pay attention to is the so-called Guangdong-Macau Intensive Cooperation Zone, which is expected to feature innovative policies for a joint development of the island. Though the administrations have kept mum about the details of this game changer, Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng noted in July that the scheme, awaiting approval from the Central Government, would be published “very soon”.
“We have observed a trend recently, with more Macau residents staying in Hengqin due to the incentives from the authorities and other factors — it is still not a big number, because there is still room for improvement in the public infrastructure there”, says Mr Tian. “But this trend will certainly continue and be intensified by the Guangdong-Macau Intensive Cooperation Zone and the closer integration between the two places”.