Thousands of Hong Kong residents have been making their way back to the mainland to be in time for Lunar New Year family reunions, even as Chinese authorities have tightened pandemic-related restrictions on travellers.
Adding to the daily crowds at the Shenzhen Bay checkpoint were business travellers eager to see their suppliers and contacts after almost a year of avoiding travel because of Covid-19.
The number of people crossing the border built up from late last month, with statistics showing far more Hong Kong residents leaving for the mainland than returning.
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On January 5, mainland authorities imposed fresh restrictions on Hong Kong visitors. Aside from a daily maximum of 2,000 visitors from the city, all have to make online reservations in advance at the hotels where they will spend two weeks of compulsory quarantine.
Since last week too, those going to Shenzhen have to spend a third week of quarantine at home after completing their mandatory stay at designated hotels.
On Tuesday, Nel Chen, 30, an executive in a Hong Kong investment firm, was in the queue to clear customs at Shenzhen Bay before starting her three weeks of confinement, first at a hotel and then at home.
“As soon as I come out of quarantine, I’m going directly home to my parents at lightning speed,” she said. “I miss my dog.”
With the Lunar New Year falling on February 12, the Shenzhen native headed home early, taking into account the time she must spend in quarantine.
“When I come out, I will be just in time to put up decorations,” she said.
She is used to going back and forth between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and experienced six rounds of quarantine on both sides over the past year.
The latest requirement for travellers to book their quarantine hotel in advance did not bother her. “As long as you’ve made a hotel reservation, the whole process is pretty quick,” she said.
Jump in daily travellers crossing border
Shenzhen Bay in the north-western part of Hong Kong is the most popular of three mainland border checkpoints still operating, the others being at the airport and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. Eleven other checkpoints have been shut for nearly a year because of the pandemic.
According to Hong Kong’s Immigration Department, nine in 10 daily travellers who went to the mainland via Shenzhen Bay between January 1 and 7 were city residents. The rest were mainlanders and foreigners.
The crossing also accounted for more than half of all daily departures for the mainland over that period.
On Monday, a day before the new rule on advance hotel bookings took effect, the number going to the mainland via the port surged to 3,860, a seven per cent jump from last Sunday.
At least 1,240 people headed to the mainland via the checkpoint on both Wednesday and Thursday.
A Post reporter who went there on Friday morning found a heavy presence of guards. The exit of the main hall, through which Hong Kong travellers emerged, was fenced off.
A tented area was set up with rows of chairs for people to sit, with hot water provided. They had their temperature checked and filled out forms before boarding buses which took them to their hotels to start their quarantine.
A Hong Kong government spokesman said the authorities were liaising closely with their mainland counterparts to ensure a smooth flow of travellers.
The crossing clears travellers from 10am to 8pm daily, and handles cargo around the clock.
Since November, Hong Kong residents returning from Guangdong or Macau have been exempted from any mandatory quarantine in the city. All arriving visitors from places other than the mainland, Macau and Taiwan currently have to spend three weeks in quarantine in a hotel.
Shenzhen tightened restrictions on travellers from Hong Kong after the city was hit by the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in late November last year.
Hong Kong has recorded 9,211 infections and 157 related deaths as of Saturday, including a couple of imported cases last month involving a mutated, rapidly-spreading strain of Covid-19 from Britain.
Immigrants, business travellers plan in advance
When Hong Kong’s fourth wave of infections arrived, Kiki Liao, 30, began making plans right away to ensure her family would avoid falling sick and get back to their mainland home for the Lunar New Year.
Together with her husband, son and mother-in-law, she left Hong Kong for Shenzhen on December 11.
“There were a few confirmed cases at the building where I work, so I feared for the safety of my child,” she said.
The family cleared the checkpoint in about 30 minutes and waited two hours for the bus that took them to their hotel.
She had no complaints, saying they were able to choose their meals or order food to be delivered while confined to their hotel.
Business travellers heading to the mainland included about 80 members of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Small and Medium Businesses.
Its president, Joe Chau Kwok-ming, said they wanted to visit their production bases in Guangdong ahead of the Lunar New Year as many had not been to the mainland since the pandemic began.
They were keen to visit their business partners now because the Lunar New Year, known as the spring festival on the mainland, is an important occasion marking the end of the old year and new beginnings.
“We thought the border would have reopened last month,” Chau said. “We can’t wait any longer and have to wrap up the year in person.”
After almost a year of doing business remotely, he said many entrepreneurs wanted to meet their suppliers and customers in person and visit their factories as a show of solidarity during these challenging times.
Given the quarantine requirements, he said, many businessmen began leaving for the mainland last week so they will be able to return in time to spend the Lunar New Year at home in Hong Kong.
For some mainland immigrants in Hong Kong, however, there will be no going home for family reunions next month.
It will cost too much this year, said new immigrant Chu, 45. She arrived in Hong Kong about five years ago and returned every Lunar New Year to spend the festive season in Jiangmen, Guangdong.
Chu works as a kitchen assistant in a restaurant and lives alone in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. “I want to go back,” she said, but added that she cannot afford the current quarantine requirements.
Her husband, adult daughter and mother-in-law all live across the border. Her mother-in-law’s birthday was on Friday. “She called me and cried. My heart sank too,” she said. “I miss them a lot. Sometimes I also shed tears.”
Another new immigrant, widow Zhang Su, 40, said she and her three children would be spending the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong for the first time since arriving from Xiamen, in Fujian province, three years ago.
She said she could not afford the three-week quarantine across the border.
She lost her job as a part-time domestic helper late last year, and the family has been surviving on social security assistance.
“If I return home, my relatives will ask me questions about how I am doing in Hong Kong, and I don’t want them to worry about my situation,” she said.
Additional reporting by Kanis Leung
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