Hong Kongers flock to Shenzhen for value-for-money CNY reunion dinners

As the Chinese New Year approaches, many Hong Kongers have the tradition of travelling to Shenzhen to enjoy reunion dinners at lower cost with better service compared with back home. Lianhe Zaobao journalist Daryl Lim speaks with diners and restaurant managers to find out more about this trend during the festive season.
Customers wait outside a restaurant at a shopping mall in Shenzhen, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Customers wait outside a restaurant at a shopping mall in Shenzhen, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

“It’s been three years — finally we can have our reunion dinner in Shenzhen.”

On 5 February, four days before Chinese New Year (CNY)’s Eve, Mr Ng from Hong Kong had an early reunion dinner with his family at a Cantonese restaurant in Shenzhen. He told Lianhe Zaobao that it has always been a family tradition to have reunion dinner at a restaurant in Shenzhen, but this tradition was halted when Shenzhen and Hong Kong came under Covid-19 lockdown. 

Mr Ng and his family were overjoyed to be able to travel up north to Shenzhen to have a reunion dinner once more. They had high praise for their dining experience in Shenzhen and felt that in comparison with Hong Kong, restaurants in Shenzhen were cost-effective, with tasty food as well as a good service environment. 

... a significant portion of their customers were people like Ng — Hong Kong families who were after a more cost-effective and enjoyable dining experience.

More enjoyable experience in Shenzhen

Ng rubbed his contented belly and commented jovially, “We ordered two set items from the menu using a Meituan coupon, then added on two vegetable dishes and a fish. The dozen dishes shared among the 11 of us only cost 1,400 RMB (US$197).” 

Ng estimated that such a bountiful meal in Hong Kong would cost three or four times more, and their dining time would be limited as well, which “makes it quite an uncomfortable dining experience”. He added, “We’ll be hitting the karaoke after our meal and taking a stroll around the flower markets in Shenzhen to soak in the festive spirit here.”

Pedestrians outside of the Futian border crossing in Shenzhen, China on 19 January 2024.(Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians outside of the Futian border crossing in Shenzhen, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

A reunion dinner, also called a CNY’s Eve dinner, is one of the most important traditions observed by ethnic Chinese families during CNY. A week before CNY, many restaurants in Shenzhen began to receive customers who chose to dine out for their reunion dinner, and quite a number were families from Hong Kong who travelled north across the border. 

When I interviewed several restaurants around the Futian station of the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link, I found that a significant portion of their customers were people like Ng — Hong Kong families who were after a more cost-effective and enjoyable dining experience. 

Zhu Huilan, head of the Cantonese restaurant Cantonese Palace (粤菜王府), said that about 40% of the restaurant’s regular customers are from Hong Kong. On CNY’s Eve, about a tenth of the tables are reserved by Hong Kong families.

She said, “Most of them choose to come early for the reunion dinner or during lunchtime. That way, they don’t need to rush for the last train back to Hong Kong, and they can stroll around Shenzhen after eating.”

“Even during the CNY period, they [Hong Kong customers] usually prefer à la carte items or using vouchers for payment, rather than ordering the CNY’s Eve set menus.” — Zhu Minfeng, Manager, Kapok: Fascinating Cantonese Flavours

Hong Kongers want value-for-money deals

To facilitate travel between the two regions during the festive season, the Shenzhen Bay Port will operate around the clock from CNY’s Eve to the fourth day of CNY while the Luohu Port will extend its opening hours until 2 am on CNY’s Eve and the second day of CNY (9 and 11 February). With the extended hours at the ports, more Hong Kong residents are expected to have their reunion dinners in Shenzhen on CNY’s Eve.

To bring out the spirit of celebration during the CNY period, on top of their regular fare, many restaurants have incorporated elements of the Year of the Dragon and introduced special CNY’s Eve set menus with auspicious names, such as “Lucky Dragon” and “Dragon Roaming the Seas”. These set menus are pricier, ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 RMB for a table of ten.

Customers at a restaurant in Shenzhen, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Customers at a restaurant in Shenzhen, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

At Kapok: Fascinating Cantonese Flavours (木棉•醉心粵味), a restaurant known for its contemporary Cantonese cuisine, about 30% of its diners are from Hong Kong. According to manager Zhu Minfeng’s observation, Hong Kong customers are generally more cautious about their spending while dining in Shenzhen and pay great attention to value for money.

He said, “Even during the CNY period, they usually prefer à la carte items or using vouchers for payment, rather than ordering the CNY’s Eve set menus. They also prefer not to dine in private rooms like mainland Chinese customers do, because those usually incur an additional 10% fee.”

Apart from the food and beverages industry, supermarkets and wholesale markets in Shenzhen also attracted a large number of Hong Kong people shopping for CNY goods...

Boosting each other’s consumption

Since the mainland fully resumed travel with Hong Kong last February, Hong Kong tourists have been flocking north to spend money. Latest figures from Hong Kong’s Immigration Department showed that as of 30 December 2023, Hong Kong residents made 53.34 million trips to the mainland throughout the year, with over 40 million departing through the Shenzhen–Hong Kong port.  

Travellers heading to mainland China at the MTR Corp. Sheung Shui station in Hong Kong, China, 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Travellers heading to mainland China at the MTR Corp. Sheung Shui station in Hong Kong, China, on 19 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

And this spending boom is still going strong through the CNY. Apart from the food and beverages industry, supermarkets and wholesale markets in Shenzhen also attracted a large number of Hong Kong people shopping for CNY goods, with most of them emphasising how affordable the products are.

Mdm Mak, a Hong Konger who specially came to Futian Agricultural Products Wholesale Market in Shenzhen to buy dry goods, said, “I’m here to buy sea cucumber, dried scallops and fish maw to make poon choi for CNY. Prices are about 30% cheaper here at the wholesale centre, compared with Hong Kong. I also get to choose from a variety of stores. It’s an enjoyable experience.”

Shenzhen is mainland China’s third largest city by GDP and is rapidly catching up with Shanghai and Beijing year after year. Yet, consumption has always been seen as a weakness of Shenzhen’s economy. In 2022, Shenzhen’s total retail sales amounted to around 970.8 billion RMB, making it the only first-tier city that failed to enter the “trillion RMB consumption club”.  

Shenzhen’s ability to join the “trillion RMB consumption club” is largely owed to Hong Kong consumers.   

Tour guides wait to collect tour groups from Hong Kong outside the Shenzhen Bay border crossing in Shenzhen, China, 20 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Tour guides wait to collect tour groups from Hong Kong outside the Shenzhen Bay border crossing in Shenzhen, China, on 20 January 2024. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Amid a sluggish economy and weak consumer demand, however, Shenzhen’s total retail sales of consumer goods unexpectedly exceeded 1 trillion RMB in 2023, reaching 1.0486 trillion RMB, a year-on-year increase of 7.8%. Analysts pointed out that Shenzhen’s ability to join the “trillion RMB consumption club” is largely owed to Hong Kong consumers.   

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s retail sector was dealt a heavy blow as Hong Kongers flock up north to shop. It was reported that talks are underway between Hong Kong and mainland China to resume multiple-entry visas for Shenzhen residents to facilitate their travel to Hong Kong to spend money and boost the Hong Kong economy.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “港人北上深圳吃团圆饭 享受更高性价比”.

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