Jason Wong, Shell’s Vice President of Bitumen and Sulphur division sits in a chair
Jason Wong remembers making the four-hour ferry journey from Hong Kong to Macau when he was a child

Jason Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, remembers the pain of long childhood journeys to visit his cousins in Macau, which is 64 kilometres (40 miles) away on China’s southern coast.

The ferry ride took four hours and could get rough. “People would be vomiting into the sea,’’ he says. “It was not a pleasant voyage.’’

That is now set to change. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB) is the world’s largest manmade sea crossing and one of China’s landmark infrastructure projects. It officially opened on October 23 and is set to reduce journey time between Hong Kong and Macau to around 30 minutes.

Wong, who is Vice President of Shell’s global bitumen and sulphur business, says the bridge will be a marked improvement on the current hydrofoil ferry route, which takes about an hour and can be bumpy.

The HZMB will also connect Hong Kong and Macau to other cities along the Pearl River Delta, shortening travel times in the region and boosting trade and tourism, the Chinese government hopes.

It sees the HZMB as key to developing what it calls a “Greater Bay Area,’’ incorporating Hong Kong and Macau as well as the nine bustling industrial cities in Guangdong province. With a population of about 67 million, the area boasted a gross domestic product of $1.38 trillion in 2016, or about 10% of China’s overall economy.

Boosting industry and tourism

Shenzhen is already home to three of the China’s leading technology companies – Huawei, a maker of smartphones; DJI, which makes civilian drones; and Tencent, creator of the WeChat mobile chat service.

Macau, long seen as a casino town languishing in the shadows of booming Shenzhen and Hong Kong, also stands to benefit, says Dr Wu Fengshi, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who specialises in Chinese politics.

“The HZMB is an extension of Beijing’s policy to develop Macau into a major industrial and tourist city, to encourage more Chinese companies to start businesses there,’’ she says.

Aviation analyst Michael Hui says the bridge, which will include a customs and immigration terminal on the Hong Kong side, could also ease congestion at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), which is building a third runway.

“HKIA is currently approaching maximum capacity and expansion will be difficult before 2024 when the third runway is expected to be completed. In the meantime, some airlines may now choose to land at other Pearl River Delta airports, including Zhuhai, Shenzhen, Macau and Guangzhou,’’ he adds.

The map and accompanying key show the sections of road, bridge and tunnel that make up the 55 kilometre sea crossing from Hong Kong in the east to Macau and Zhuhai in the west, across the Pearl River Delta, via Lantau Island.
The 55 km sea crossing contains two bridge sections and a seven km underwater tunnel

A landmark bridge

Spanning 55 km (34 miles) across the busy Pearl River, the HZMB is a dual three-lane carriageway made up of three sections. The first and longest stretch, which was completed at the end of July, is a 22.9-km (14.2 miles) steel and concrete bridge starting at Zhuhai.

The second part of the crossing is an underwater tunnel, stretching seven km (4.3 miles). Flanked by two artificial islands, it was created to allow large cargo vessels and tankers to pass through the Pearl River.

The third section is a bridge that ends in Hong Kong. The second artificial island will host a customs and immigration terminal, connecting users of the HZMB directly to Hong Kong International Airport.

The Pearl River, which feeds into the South China Sea, is a thoroughfare for ships. Frequent typhoons lash the waters and, in summer, temperatures can soar to 65° Celsius on bridge surfaces.

All this can cause severe warping and corrosion. Zhang Yucai, chief engineer of the first section of the bridge, says the HZMB is the most complex structure he has ever worked on.

“The high levels of humidity and salinity and the high temperatures are compounded by the bridge’s sheer size,” he says. “We had to pick paving and waterproofing products that could withstand the extreme conditions.’’

Shell is the main supplier of bitumen for the bridge, and provides technical expertise in other areas, including waterproofing.

Zhang Xinsheng, chairman of Shell China, says: “This is a historic mega-project which will have a huge positive impact on the country’s future development.’’

Bridging generations

For Wong, the HZMB is not just a professional milestone but also a personal one. Three of his grandparents – who died before he was born – are buried in Macau.

Wong visits their graves every year during the Chinese Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping Festival, when people pay respects to their ancestors.

“This is an annual tradition we take seriously in our family. My children come along as well because I think it is important for them to know their roots. 

“In terms of trade and investment, the HZMB is a bridge to China’s future,” Wong says. “But I also see it as a bridge to the past, linking my children to their history.’’

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