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Living In Zhongshan A Breath Of Fresh Air

Living in Zhongshan a breath of fresh air – for PR consultant Anna Fang, finding a dream home across the border was worth overcoming the many obstacles

Neil Runcieman – SCMP – Updated on Oct 15, 2008

Public relations consultant Anna Fang found herself in a dilemma about a year ago. She wanted to buy a place to live and preferably one she could later retire in.

It wasn’t going to be in Hong Kong, though, because the money she was ready to spend was not going to buy her the kind of home she wanted, and she was determined to escape from the city’s air-pollution.

But she needed to stay close enough to Hong Kong to be able to carry on working, and because that was where all her friends and contacts were.

The options on the mainland did not look appealing. Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Foshan hardly fulfilled the brief of cleaner air and a better quality of life. Then she discovered Zhongshan.

“It’s really surprising how few people in Hong Kong have even heard of Zhongshan. It’s only 90 minutes from Tsim Sha Tsui by direct ferry and the environment is very much like California – beautiful scenery, clean air, hills, greenery and a slower pace of life. It’s been deemed a `special ecology zone’ by the mainland and received an award from the United Nations.”

Zhongshan and nearby Nanhai have been designated by the central government as the National Model City of Environmental Protection, National Garden City, National Sanitary City and National Advanced Civilised City.

Ms Fang said that although the search for her ideal home in Zhongshan was ultimately rewarding, the process of getting there was at times highly frustrating.

“I found that the sales agents weren’t very helpful or well-trained. In Hong Kong, when I started looking at the various promotional exhibitions for properties around Zhongshan, I intentionally spoke English because I wanted to make sure I would be dealing with an international environment and culture. The agents pretty much ignored me and gave me little or no useful information. It was only when I went to Zhongshan and started hunting around that I obtained reliable information and decent service. The good news is that I was able to find a development of true international standard. The search took at least six months but the purchasing only lasted one month.”

Once she had made the decision to buy, at a development called La Cite Greenville by China’s second-largest developer Agile, she was confronted with new challenges.

“You have to have patience and perseverance. There is a lot of bureaucracy but the two sales agents I dealt with gave me good customer service. All of the documents are in Chinese, of course, and had to be translated. I also `lost’ one apartment through not understanding properly that just because I’d made a commitment and put down some money, that didn’t necessarily guarantee me the specific apartment I wanted. So I had to start all over again. You really have to study their rules and procedures very carefully. I kept suggesting to the salespeople that they should give buyers a list of what we are responsible for – like changing foreign currency into yuan. But to no avail.”

All Chinese property is sold on a leasehold basis. Chinese nationals obtain 70-year leases when they buy. Foreigners are only entitled to 50 years. Ms Fang believes this should not be a barrier to purchase as the leases are likely to be renewed automatically at no additional cost. The biggest challenge for foreign investors, she discovered, was in transferring the necessary funds in yuan into the mainland to seal the deal.

“The first time I tried the bank told me everything would be fine, but when I got to China, all the money was still in Hong Kong dollars. And when I did manage to transfer in yuan, the maximum allowed was 20,000 [HK$22,680] per day. If you’re looking to fund a purchase of more than US$100,000 that can present a genuine hurdle.”

Also, mainland procedures can require purchasers to deposit passports while payments or documents are processed – hardly convenient for international buyers looking to fly in to complete the transaction in the course of a brief stay. Ultimately, she overcame all the frustrations and occasional setbacks, and took possession of her dream home earlier this year. Decorations and re-designs will last into next year, but she is satisfied in having a place of her own that she believes has a healthy future on all levels.

“I looked at the total package. The environment, the surrounding town, the setting, the local people, the infrastructure, the networks, accessibility to good medial care and transport. I think I’m going to be happy there,” she said.

Her advice to prospective purchasers is more cultural than procedural, however. “You have to like China, the Chinese culture and the people. You also have to establish a good relationship with your sales agent. Many of these properties have overseas Chinese such as Singaporeans, Malaysians, Hong Kong Chinese and wealthy mainlanders as the homeowners. And there is the language barrier. People locally can speak a lot of English, but they’re not necessarily going to let you know that.”

Was it worth the effort? “There were some stressful moments but now I am actually quite interested in buying a second property as an investment,” she said. “And the cost of living is much lower than Hong Kong, while the living standards are very good.”

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