Manchurian Tiger, an indie film released in 2021, was set in Hegang, a city in Heilongjiang province on the border with Russia. The black comedy follows the story of protagonist Xu Dong, a former high school teacher who works as a trucker to make more money. Xu is also forced to sell his beloved dog shortly before the birth of his son. While he hopes to find an owner who will take care of it, the buyer ends up cooking and eating the pet.
Much like parts of the plot, Hegang appears bleak and cold. Back in the 1990s it was a booming city before a collapse in coal prices, which saw large sections of Hegang abandoned. According to the most recent census, it had a population of just 890,000 in 2020.
Recently though, Hegang has become a trending topic on social media after newspapers reported that apartments on average there were costing no more than Rmb15,000 ($2,100) to purchase.
“On social media Hegang is portrayed like a heaven for young urbanites, who are priced out of the real estate market in first-tier cities and choosing Hegang to fulfil their dreams as homeowners. The reason? Home prices are cheap. Many can buy a house with just a few months or even a month’s salary,” reported Phoenix News.
An example is Zhao, an artist who used to work in Nanjing, where she rented a small apartment. Two years ago she purchased a 46-square-metre flat for Rmb15,000 in Hegang. Later she moved there. She can even afford a part-time housekeeper for Rmb1,000 a month, who cooks and cleans for her.
Zhao gushes that her quality of life has improved dramatically since moving to Dongbei (the Chinese term for northeastern China, namely Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin provinces).
“On the surface the news is about young people tired of living in the big cities and wanting a quieter life, but that narrative has changed,” adds Xu Jin, a columnist for FT Chinese. “People used to talk about wanting to embrace the country life and staying away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But now they admit that buying a house so far away is not because they want to live elsewhere, but because home prices are much lower.”
With an influx of new residents, Hegang is showing more signs of life too. There’s a five-star hotel (albeit one with rooms at just Rmb300 a night) and plenty of new chuan restaurants (popular eateries that serve food on skewers) that stay open until late at night.
Commentators still warn that people should be cautious about moving permanently to the city. Home prices are low but as Blue Whale Media puts it, “life as a tourist is different from real life”.
Without many supporting industries, Hegang is still a city without much of a future, Han Fuling, a professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics, also concluded. The same apartments that cost Rmb15,000 are typically in the middle of nowhere, Shanghai Observer, adds, with little access to medical facilities or transportation. Many of the residential buildings are poorly managed, with complaints from homeowners that the water, gas and heating don’t work properly.
Other cities have joined Hegang in trying to lure homebuyers with rock-bottom prices, however. A report in New Weekly says that sales of foreclosed homes have risen dramatically over the last year. One netizen posted a heavily-watched video on Bilibili about buying a foreclosed home in Beihai in Guangxi province for just Rmb80,000 and there are plenty of groups on WeChat that discuss how to purchase apartments that have been repossessed by lenders.
“Why are there more and more foreclosures?” National Business Daily asked. “As the policy environment continues to tighten, people who took out business loans to finance their purchases quickly run into liquidity problems and their houses are taken back by the banks for auction. In addition, because of the economic downturn, many ordinary people simply can’t continue to repay their mortgages and are forced to foreclose on their homes. There are even plenty of tycoons who have had to put their houses up for auction as they struggle to stay afloat.”
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.