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Culture and customs in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is situated east of the Pearl River and is often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ where the east meets the west.
In its early days this vibrant city started out as a successful trading port and has since gone on to expand rapidly, through a growing population and commerce, making it one of the world’s major trade and financial centres that we know today. Its rich cultural heritage and lifestyle attracts nationalities from all around the world, making Hong Kong a popular expat destination1.
In this article, we look at the culture and customs of Hong Kong to help you and your family adjust to life in your new home country.
Hong Kong’s melting pot
Hong Kong has a population of over 7 million people2 that is 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 world3.
With such a rich mix of cultures living in Hong Kong, many festivals and holidays are celebrated and observed throughout the year and these include the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas, the Western New Year, plus many others. As a city it also enjoys hundreds of annual cultural events ranging from traditional Cantonese to other Chinese regional operas and theatre productions as well as ballet and music performances4.
With around 680,000 expats5 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. These publications provide sources of information on culture and events for you to take part in or, if you prefer, you can just be a spectator.
Useful online forums:
Navigating Hong Kong
Getting around Hong Kong as an expat is relatively easy and that’s because English is an official language which means all official signs and announcements are both in English and Cantonese. In addition all government officials, including police officers and immigration officials are required to have a basic level of English which can make settling in a much easier process6 .
Cultural differences in Hong Kong
While living in Hong Kong it’s good to be aware of the unspoken rules around social etiquette. Respecting and honoring 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 face7.
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 hands7.
Eating out and drinking tea in Hong Kong
Dining in Hong Kong can be a new and exciting experience for any expat. Eating is a very social event and is often served in a communal style with many different dishes placed in the middle of table. It’s important to note that if you have been invited as a guest it’s always good to let your host begin eating first and always make sure you leave something behind on your plate as it’s a sign that you have really enjoyed your meal8. Chopsticks are also a common feature in most restaurants so learning how to use them is considered a nice gesture, but if you do struggle to use them most restaurants will provide a knife and fork, you just need to request them.
Basic chopstick etiquette: make sure you don’t fiddle with your chopsticks or use them to gesture with and to always lay them evenly on your chopstick holders9.
Feng Shui and Chinese medicines are also a key part of Hong Kong’s culture and can be very visible when walking the streets. Feng Shui10 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, for example, HSBC’s notable main building in Central has angled the escalators in the atrium to ward off evil spirits; and by placing two large bronze lions to guard the entrance to symbolise wealth and prosperity11.
Chinese medicine on the other hand is more about ancient potions that encompass centuries of tradition that isn’t considered as an alternative form of medicine. 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. In Hong Kong, more than a fifth of all medical consultations are made with practitioners of Chinese medicine12.
Life in Hong Kong can be fast-paced, noisy and exciting and expats who embrace the local culture and lifestyle can be rewarded with a life-changing experience.
Find out more with our series of guides here.
The information provided in this article is designed as a guide and reference point to what you might expect in Hong Kong. Please be sure to check any information with local Hong Kong authorities to ensure information is valid and timely.