We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Hong Kong
Culture and Politics Hong Kong has significant cultural differences from mainland China due to its evasion of communist ideologies during the colonial age. After it was handed back to China in 1997, the city has kept their independent and reputable legal system, effective anti-corruption measures, free press that cover a sensitive topic such as Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
They speak a different language (Cantonese vs. Mandarin) and write with different Chinese characters (traditional vs. simplified). You will quickly annoy locals if you suggest that Hong Kongers are subjected to propaganda in the same way as people who live in Mainland China.
In general, during a conversation, it is best to avoid subjects of politics. If you are asked your opinion, best to be neutral about it. However, there is no need to worry of getting into trouble solely by discussing politics. In Hong Kong, freedom of speech and the press are protected in law.
Hong Kong people are free to criticize their government. Many foreigners are not certain whether to address Hong Kong people “Chinese”, or if it would cause offend. The Sino-Hong Kong relationship, as always, is a contentious topic. Hong Kong people seldom deny their Chinese roots and they do share pride in being Chinese; at the same time they seek to distinguish themselves, both culturally and politically, from the mainland (such as speaking Cantonese and writing traditional Chinese).
In general it is fine to address Hong Kong people “Chinese” on a cultural level. Furthermore, opinions are very divided among whether Hong Kong should have a close relationship with China or not. Politics is split between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps. Some Hong Kong people think every Chinese person should “love their country” (a requirement for all candidates of the head of government). However, some people interpret this as supporting the current communist party. Some people think closer economic ties with China will benefit Hong Kong. Some people think Hong Kong has always been self-sufficient since colonial days. The arguments go on… Manners and Etiquette Hong Kong is a fast-paced society where the phrase “m goi” (, “m” sounds like “hmm”), which literally means “I should not (bother you)”, is used pervasively in a situation that you would say “Excuse me” or “Thank you”. Spitting and littering, an offence subject to a penalty of $1,500, is considered rude because it disturbs others.
Smoking in most indoor places and train stations (including bus-stops) is prohibited. Also, the authority in Hong Kong is quite strict in enforcing the law relating to all those above. When smoking in front of a non-smoker, always ask for permission because a lot of locals do not smoke (in comparison to Westerners) and some are even allergic to the smell. Similarly, many locals do not drink alcohol but will not mind if you do. While Hong Kong has a generally good reputation when it comes to customer service, it is considered strange to strike up pleasantries with a stranger unless they are pregnant, disabled or senior citizens who are obviously in need. Saying “good morning” to a person you don’t know at a bus stop will probably be viewed with suspicion. It is unusual for people to hold doors for strangers and supermarket staff or bank cashier seldom ask about your day.
Staff in shops and restaurants might not even say “thank you” when you pay. All these do not necessarily mean that people in Hong Kong are less polite than others. It is just they don’t have that relaxed and slow-paced culture as in the West. In recent years, there is a large influx of mainland tourists and their behavior has made headlines in Hong Kong.
Some of their behaviors were seen as “gross” by Hong Kong standard (or most countries’ standards). This has unfortunately led to discrimination against mainland tourists. If you are a mainlander (or a Chinese-looking person speaking Mandarin), be prepared you may be treated in an unfriendly way by the locals. However, if you are well-behaved, the locals will soon realize that and you will be welcomed just like any others.
Superstition is the Hong Kong psyche and it can be observed everywhere. Many buildings are influenced by the Fengshui principles which refer to a decoration style that blend the Five Elements (Gold, Lumber, Water, Fire, Earth) together, which will turn out to bring you luck, fortune, better health, good examination results, good relationships, and even a baby boy, according to their believers. Many buildings come without 14th and 24th floors, which phonetically means “you must die” and “you die easily”. They love the number 18 (you will get rich), 369 (liveliness, longevity, lasting), 28 (easy to get rich), 168 (get rich forever).
Hong Kong people love to tease at their superstition thoughts but they don’t mean to ignore it. When visiting your friend in Hong Kong, never give them a clock as a gift because “giving a clock” phonetically means “attending one’s funeral”. No pears will be served in a wedding party because “sharing a pear” sounds like “separation”. Some people refuse to open an umbrella indoor because a ghost spirit, who is thought to fear sunshine, will hide themselves into it. Breaking a mirror will bring you 7 unlucky years. Religion Swastikas (reversed) are commonly seen in Buddhist temples and are regarded as a religious symbol. They do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, so visitors should not be offended when seeing them among the possessions of locals. Business When you give or receive a business card, always do it with both hands and with a slight dip of your head or you will be seen either disrespectful and ignorant, even if you are a foreigner.
Welcoming someone should also be done with a slight dip of the head and with a customary firm handshake, but there is no need to bow. You will find that the cashier may hand receipts or change with both hands too. This is considered a gesture of respect. Because you’re the patron, it is up to you to do the same or not when handing cash to the cashier. Dress When the thermometer hits 30 degrees, expect to see many local people wearing warm clothing – this is to protect against the harsh air-conditioning often found on public transport and in places likes cinemas. Hong Kong women are known for their fairly conservative dress code, although wearing halter-necks and sleeveless tops are not uncommon and acceptable. Public nudity is prohibited. Being completely naked on the beach is also prohibited.
The dress code for men, especially tourists, is less conservative than it might have been. Even in 5-star hotels, smart casual is usually acceptable; although you might want to make your own enquiries in advance before dining in those places. Tourists from colder climates sometimes assume that wearing shorts in the tropics is a sensible idea, but hairy knees can look out of place in urban Hong Kong. Gay and Lesbian Hong Kong Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991. The age of consent between two males is 16 according to the ruling by the Hong Kong Court of Appeal in 2006, while there is no law concerning that between two females. Same sex marriages are not recognized and there is no anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality. The display of public affection, while not common, is generally tolerated, but it will almost certainly attract curious stares. Gay bashing is unheard of, although an effeminate boy could be a target for school bullying.
Hong Kong people generally respect personal freedom on sexuality. The prominent celebrity film star, Leslie Cheung, openly admitted that he was bisexual but his work and his personality has still been widely respected. His suicide in 2003 shocked many, and his fans, mainly female, showed considerable support for his partner. However, while gay pride parades have recently been held in Hong Kong, there is no obvious gay community in daily life, and same-sex marriages are not legally recognized. Coming out to strangers or in the office is still regarded as peculiar and most tend to remain silent on this topic.
Gay bars and clubs are concentrated in Central, Sheung Wan, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui (TST). The quality of these venues varies considerably and will perhaps disappoint those expecting something similar to London, Paris or New York. Dim Sum magazine, available for free in most cafes, eateries, bars and clubs, is Hong Kong’s bilingual GLBT magazine which gives a pretty good idea about gay and lesbian parties and events happening in Hong Kong. There’s also a gay and lesbian section in HK Magazine (free, only in English) and TimeOut Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is one of the longest running GLBT events in Hong Kong, and indeed in Asia. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2009, it brings to Hong Kong various international and regional GLBT films. The festival is usually held in November. Hong Kong also held its second Gay Pride ever on 1 Nov 2009, attracting over 1,800 people, gay and straight, to the event.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Hong Kong, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Hong Kong food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Hong Kong? Please comment below.