Macao entrepreneur Leong Ka-seng: In sync with Hengqin

BEIJING, June 9, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — A news report from Beijing Review: 


When Leong Ka-seng first arrived in Hengqin in 2015, he was a 22-year-old fourth-year college student harboring many hopes and dreams yet with no real direction in life. And where he landed was just a sparsely populated forest of unfinished construction sites. The first thing he noticed was the nonstop roar of pile drivers, jack hammers and electric saws. But something in him clicked and he decided to embark on his professional life in Hengqin after graduation.

Fast forward eight years and Leong today is an entrepreneur with multiple businesses in interior decoration as well as the food and beverage industry. He still fondly recalls the thrill of seeing Hengqin for the first time. “The place was in the process of becoming ‘something.’ It allowed me to indulge in my fantasies of what the future might look like,” he told Beijing Review.

Hengqin is a small island nestled in the southern part of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, right across the water from Macao Special Administrative Region (SAR). Covering an area of 106 square km, it is roughly three times the size of Macao.

Previously made up of two separate stretches of untrodden wastelands, Hengqin, for a long time, stood quietly and unobtrusively next to the glitz and glam of Macao. But following government-led land reclamation projects in the 1970s, the two islands became one. And that was the beginning of a decades-long process of rapid modernization.

Leong’s father and grandfather were among the first group of incomers who participated in the land reclamation projects. Though his father later moved to Macao, the memories of these years linger on. When Leong was a child, his father used to tell him tales of how he’d often roamed the vast moorlands in search of small aquatic creatures. “That was part of the reason why I chose this place to start my new life. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those who came here before me and do a little bit of exploring on my own,” he said.

Taking the plunge

For the first two years of life in Hengqin, Leong worked as a business planner at a Macao company. At that time, one trend he picked up on was that more and more people from Macao were moving across the water, to the fast-growing mainland island. And that was when he spotted an unexplored niche in the market. He saw a great gap between decorative styles in Macao and those in the mainland. Given Macao’s limited land area, houses in the region are generally quite small and their interior design tends to maximize storage space by installing cabinets and racks. Mainlanders, on the other hand, prefer simplicity and liubai, which literally translates as “leaving empty space.” The haze lifted as he discovered a new sense of purpose, namely, to help Macao youths feel more at home in their new surroundings by offering decorating services that cater to the aesthetic sense of Macao.

And so, in 2017, he decided to launch his own interior decoration company. Like many other young entrepreneurs who dive in headfirst, Leong found himself thrown into the deep end—where every day he struggled to keep his head above water. He had to hand out flyers, learn how to do paperwork and travel to every market in the province to find home decor suppliers meeting his standards. For several months, with no customers in sight, he was unable to rent a separate home for himself and had to live in his office.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Leong had to shut down his company given there was no business to be done. Yet he still harbored the dream of one day rebooting it. For him, the failure was a sobering experience that allowed him to step back, reflect on the past and prepare himself for the trials of the future.

The opportunity he’d been waiting for arrived in September 2021, when the Chinese central authorities unveiled a plan for creating the GuangdongMacao in-depth cooperation zone in Hengqin to facilitate the SAR’s better integration into overall national development.

The zone is designed to serve as a new platform to boost Macao’s economic diversification and a new space that provides convenience to Macao residents, life and employment, among others. Eligible industries there are entitled to the preferential corporate income tax rate of 15 percent, while most parts of the country maintain a standard rate of 25 percent. People from Hong Kong and Macao SARs who start their own businesses in Hengqin can receive a one-off grant of 30,000 yuan ($4,280). Rent, furnishing and other subsidies are also available to Macao businesses setting up shop in the zone.

With these policies in place, Leong started a second company in interior decoration. This time, he went all out to grow his customer base. He remembered going into every store under construction and asking if they would later be requiring any decorating. Slowly but surely, he managed to build a solid network of customers. His business has since continued to expand, allowing him to open a restaurant in the very heart of Hengqin. Located right across the street from Legend Ponto Square, a Portuguese-style shopping complex and one of the area’s hottest tourist attractions, the place offers an inviting blend of local flavors and signature dishes from Macao.

On May 20, Leong and his business partners opened a second restaurant on the bank of the Tianmu River, a waterway that runs east-west through the island. The restaurant is named Guyu, or Grain Rain, which is a Chinese solar term that comes at the end of spring, when the winter-hardened land, softened by warm temperatures and fully soaked by spring rain, is ready for sowing. The term perfectly encapsulates Leong’s current life stage: Having survived the cold snaps of winter, he is about to enter a new phase of fast flourishing.

Coming ashore

On August 18, 2020, the new 24-hour border crossing point between the mainland and Macao, known as the Hengqin Port, officially opened. Previously, the Hengqin checkpoint in Zhuhai and the Lotus checkpoint in Macao were designed as separate customs clearance channels. The new port offers both pedestrians and vehicles a one-stop, self-service customs clearance process, reducing average transit time to five minutes.

According to data released by the Hengqin Border Inspection Station, as of August 2022, the Hengqin Port had handled more than 14 million passengers and 1.96 million vehicles. Now, average daily passenger traffic exceeds 40,000.

The port also allows Macao-registered vehicles to freely enter and exit Hengqin. In 2016, only 400 vehicles with Macao license plates were allowed into Hengqin. In the years that followed, the quota was raised to 5,000, then 10,000, and eventually was completely lifted in 2022.

As travel between Macao and Hengqin becomes increasingly easier, Leong now drives back to Macao two to three times a week to see his family, and his family also visits him in Hengqin. Oftentimes, he will take his grandfather and father down to the place where they once worked, and together they then marvel at the changes that have landed on this island.

Over the past eight years, Leong has slowly moved away from his old, fast-paced way of life and gradually settled into a slower and more relaxed groove. He’s even rented 10 square meters of land, which he has turned into a verdant garden brimming with papayas, sweet potatoes and many green vegetables.

For Leong, every day in Hengqin is an adventure reminiscent of his father’s hard work on the same land 40 years ago, one that is full of surprises and discoveries. “Many people believe that Hengqin still needs some 10 years before it can fully realize the set goals. My point is that it changes every day. So why not take the opportunity to move forward together with this emerging place?” Leong concluded.

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SOURCE Beijing Review

Macao entrepreneur Leong Ka-seng: In sync with Hengqin WeeklyReviewer

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