The vibrant city of Hong Kong started out as a run-of-the-mill trading port, fought over by the British and Chinese. However, since the 20th century, it has expanded rapidly to become one of the leading financial and commercial centres of the world.
With such a unique history, Hong Kong’s rich cultural heritage and lifestyle makes it an attractive, mysterious and popular home for expats. In this article, we’ll look at the culture, customs, food and traditions of Hong Kong to help you and your family adjust to life in your new home country.
Understanding Hong Kong customs and culture as an expat
Hong Kong is often referred to as a cultural melting pot. It has a population of over 7 million people made up of a range ethnic backgrounds. Most are of Chinese origin, with the remaining population made up of Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, American, Canadian, British and Australian. This diverse mix of cultures makes Hong Kong one of the most exciting places to live and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Read our full guide on moving to Hong Kong as an expat.
What makes the culture and customs of Hong Kong unique?
With such a rich mix of cultures living in Hong Kong, many festivals and holidays are celebrated and observed throughout the year, including Buddhist and Taoist events.
Hong Kong cultural festivals include Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas and the Western New Year. Expats can expect a great atmosphere at these events which usually involve impressive firework displays. As a city, Hong Kong also enjoys many other cultural events ranging from traditional Cantonese to other Chinese regional operas, theatre productions, ballet performances and music shows.
Country Head (Hong Kong), William Russell
Where can you find out more about Hong Kong culture?
Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Hong Kong Cultural Centre can be a great place to start if you are already in Hong Kong. It is a multipurpose performance facility with a concert hall, a theatre, a gallery, exhibition areas and a piazza, where you can learn about arts, culture and customs in Hong Kong. You can book your tour of the centre ahead of the visit on their website.
Online expat forums and local magazines
With around 680,000 expats living in Hong Kong, experiencing the culture has been made easier with many online expat forums and local magazines to help you make the most of the culture and lifestyle in Hong Kong, such as Expat Living magazine: Hong Kong.
There are also many useful online forums for expat life in Hong Kong, including:
How do you navigate Hong Kong as an expat?
Getting around Hong Kong as an expat is relatively easy because English is an official language, which means official signs and announcements are in English and Cantonese. As a second language, Mandarin is growing in popularity.
If, like many expats in Hong Kong, you don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, you should be able to navigate the city just fine. The younger generation tend to understand English fairly well, and all government officials are required to speak English as part of their role.
This can all obviously make settling in a much easier process. You may, however, decide to learn Cantonese or Mandarin. As many expats choose not to take language classes, you will almost certainly gain respect for doing so. It will also be very useful if you choose to explore other parts of China.
expat of 15 years in Hong Kong
Cultural differences in Hong Kong: how to avoid cultural shock when you move
While living in Hong Kong it’s good to be aware of the unspoken rules around social etiquette. Respecting and honouring others is particularly important in social situations and expats need to be mindful of saving ‘face’. This concept of saving face represents a person’s dignity and reputation and therefore you need to be mindful when complimenting or giving feedback to someone so that you don’t cause them to lose face.
If you have been invited to someone house you shouldn’t go empty handed. A small gift of flowers or sweets are all suitable choices but be mindful not to present ‘four’ gifts as four means death in Cantonese. If possible, try and wrap your gift in lucky colours of red and gold and make sure you hand it over with two hands.
You’ve carefully chosen and wrapped a gift for your host. So why do they initially refuse to accept it? Don’t worry, this is all part of the ritual. You are expected to insist that your host accepts the gift, and they will.
Food in Hong Kong: what are the eating and drinking customs?
Dining in Hong Kong can be a new and exciting experience for any expat. As well as popular favourites such as dim sum and sticky rice, new foodie trends appear on a regular basis. As with other areas of life in Hong Kong, there are a few customs to be aware of when it comes to eating and drinking. If someone invites you for dinner, it’s polite to accept or suggest another date if that one doesn’t work for you.
In Hong Kong, the tradition of drinking tea is a ceremony in itself. It’s customary to refill your cup immediately when it becomes empty, and make sure you refill other people’s cups at the same time. Tea drinking is a relaxed affair and you tend not to see people rushing around with take away cups of tea in Hong Kong. If you want to learn more about tea culture in Hong Kong, you can sign up to a workshop or a tea tasting day for expats.
Eating is a very social event and food is often served in a communal style with many different dishes placed in the middle of table. If you’ve been invited as a guest it’s good to let your host begin eating first and always make sure you leave something behind on your plate – this a sign that you have really enjoyed your meal.
Chopsticks are standard fare in most Hong Kong restaurants, so learning how to use them is considered a nice, if not essential gesture. Don’t worry if you really struggle to use chopsticks – most restaurants will give you a knife and fork if you ask. It’s basic chopstick etiquette to avoid fiddling with your chopsticks or using them to gesture. Remember to always lay them evenly on your chopstick holders.
Business etiquette in Hong Kong
As you would expect in Hong Kong, business meetings are formal affairs and should be arranged in advance. The concept of ‘face’ applies to companies as well as individuals so bear this in mind when doing business in Hong Kong. Always arrive on time and, if you happen to be running late, it is customary to let your host/guest know.
The most senior person tends to be introduced first and will typically lead the meeting. It’s best to avoid openly contradicting anyone or using heavy sales tactics in meetings.
Meetings start with lots of small talk, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get down to business for at least half an hour. On the other hand, there may be the occasional silence – respect this and do not try to fill the pauses.
Before the Covid pandemic, business cards used to be a big deal in Hong Kong. Get the best quality cards you can afford and look after them well – don’t let them get dog-eared or dirty. It’s customary for business cards to be written in both English and Cantonese, often in gold writing.
When you hand out or receive a business card, it should be with both hands. You should also take the time to study the card carefully before putting it away safely.
What are some other Hong Kong traditions and customs?
When you become an expat in Hong Kong you will soon become aware of two important cultural traditions: Fengu Shui and Chinese medicine. Both are ways of life for people in Hong Kong. And while you have heard of them, there a lot more to learn about these fascinating traditions.
Feng Shui is a ubiquitous part of Hong Kong’s culture and can be very visible when walking the streets. Feng Shui literally means ‘wind and water’ and many local residents in Hong Kong believe that good Feng Shui can ward off bad luck and attract prosperity. Many Hong Kong skyscrapers have applied Feng Shui principles. In HSBC’s notable main building, the atrium escalators are angled to ward off evil spirits, and there are two large bronze lions guarding the entrance to symbolise wealth and prosperity.
It can be fun to incorporate aspects of the Feng Shui tradition into your expat life in Hong Kong. Include lots of green plants when decorating your home or office, and place art and other objects in prominent positions to spark positive emotions.
Chinese medicine is another important part of the culture in Hong Kong. It is about ancient potions that encompass centuries of tradition. Chinese medicine is an integral part of life for local residents in Hong Kong who value it for treating medical issues and maintaining health and well-being. Expats need to be aware that it is not considered an ‘alternative’ medicine. In fact, in Hong Kong, more than a fifth of all medical consultations are made with practitioners of Chinese medicine.
Ready to experience Hong Kong culture?
Life in Hong Kong can be a lively and multi-sensory experience. Many expats describe it as fast-paced, noisy and exciting. If you embrace the local culture and take the time to learn about the traditions and etiquette you are sure to have a wonderful expat experience.
Find out more with our series of guides for expats.