Hong Kong Culture 101

Hong Kong describes itself as Asia’s world city. A fitting description for this vibrant city is home to a substantial expatriate population. However, Hong Kong is essentially a Chinese city, a city home to a Cantonese-speaking majority. Cantonese culture, customs, and traditions thus, dominate life in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers are largely well-educated, motivated and westernized people.  Hospitality, generosity, respect are some of the traits that are held in high esteem here. A new arrival to Hong Kong would do well to be mindful of the many quirks and nuances of Hong Kong culture that tend to extend onto all aspects of daily life.

Business etiquette

Standards of etiquette and professionalism in Hong Kong are akin to elsewhere in the world though there are subtle differences that you need to know. Business attire is de rigueur in the corporate Hong Kong. Suits and jackets are a give at all times. The concept of business casual or casual Friday dressing is usually limited to creative professions.

Hong Kongers tend to be a tad formal and when you first meet someone in a business setting you should use his/her family name and title, i.e., ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, ‘professor,’ ‘doctor’ and so forth. You can switch to the first name basis after the person concerned invites you to do so.

Shake hands with everyone you are introduced to, starting with the eldest or the highest ranked person. In Hong Kong, business cards continue to hold their own. If you have moved to Hong Kong for work get business cards printed immediately. Your cards should have your contact information in English on one side and in ‘traditional’ Chinese on the other.  At the time of introduction, put forth and accept business cards using both hands, holding the card by the edges. Tender your card with its Chinese side face up when meeting a Chinese person. Do look at the business card given to you but do not write on it. The most important person(s) at a meeting usually assumes a position at the head of the table and people of junior ranks follow suit.

Hong Kongers tend to be ‘on time’ for meetings as punctuality is valued. A grace period of approximately 15 minutes to 30 minutes is common as courtesy. However, if you are running late, you should call ahead and inform the person you are scheduled to meet. Tea being integral to Chinese society; it is often served at meetings. You should wait until the host takes a sip to drink your tea. Business deals can take a while to iron out. You may require more than one meeting to clinch a deal. Hong Kongers do like to negotiate and tend to get into details, but it’s all very efficient and a part of the process.

There is a stress on building relationships and maintaining ‘face’, i.e., reputation. Be especially cognizant of this and try not to embarrass anyone in public for it has a negative effect on his or her reputation. A handshake can seal the deal, and lawyers are usually brought in at the last minute to draw up contracts, etc. Do shake hands at the end of your meeting; physical contact such as a hug or a pat on the back is not the norm. Pointing with your index finger or ‘winking’ or even being snarky is unacceptable.

The importance of FengShui in the life of Hong Kongers

The ancient Chinese science of FengShui emphasizes respect for the environment. It also states that cosmological influences determine the pattern of life. The science has its base the concept five elements water, metal fire, earth and wood and the energy Chi that changes according to the elements. Hong Kongers are superstitious people and do not make decisions like buying a property if its location and orientation are not in accordance with good FengShui. Similarly, the date for the launch of an event or an announcement, the date for a move or marriage date or even placement of furniture or décor needs to be in line with good FengShui. FengShui practitioners (geomancers) and experts are widely available in Hong Kong, and people consult them for every significant life decision.

Hong Kong beliefs and superstitions

Hong Kongers perceive number 4 to be ‘unlucky’ for the pronunciation of 4 in Chinese is similar to the word for death. Hence, most apartment blocks in Hong Kong omit the fourth floor and all other floors that bear number 4, i.e., 14, 24, 34 and so on. Number 13 is considered unlucky elsewhere around the world is also omitted in apartment blocks in Hong Kong. The number 8 in the meanwhile sounds similar to the word for wealth and is considered to be very auspicious. Number 9 is another favored number as its Cantonese pronunciation is similar to the word for longevity. Other numbers like 0, 2, 6, have similar positive associations. Thus, number plates or telephone numbers bearing these digits are very coveted and are often sold for millions of dollars.

Hong Kongers follow various other superstitions and beliefs. Several of these superstitions relate to festival celebrations. For instance, the period between the months of August and September is associated with the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. During this time, Hong Kongers believe that restless spirits of their ancestors roam the earth. They thus consider this period to be ‘unlucky’ and avoid life-changing events like getting married, relocating, changing jobs, etc.  Further, folks all over around Hong Kong appease these hungry ghosts by making roadside bonfire offerings of food, fake money and other paper replicas of everyday necessities.The logic behind this practice is that by burning these representations of worldly goods they are aidingtheir ancestors navigate after-life and thus, helping them attain peace.

Hong Kongers also erect small shrines adorned with joss sticks and other paraphernalia in nooks and crannies around Hong Kong. These shrines are meant to keep bad spirits and bad luck away from the area where the shrine is located. Several superstitions dictate behavior during the most important festival of the year, Chinese New Year. Hong Kongers clean their homes well before the dawn of Chinese New Year. They also put away all cleaning equipment for cleaning on the day of CNY implies sweeping away good luck from your home.

Other customs state that you should also open windows of your home on New Year’s Day to allow good luck to enter.  Also, it is advisable to get rid of old and broken items before the onset of the New Year. Beliefs and superstitions of Chinese New Year extend to daily routines. One such superstitions cautions against washing your hair on New Year’s Day for by doing so you will wash away your good luck. However, if you wash your hair before the onset of Chinese New Year, it is said that you have washed your bad luck away. If you need to buy new books or new shoes do it before the advent of CNY as traditions dictate that it is not auspicious to buy shoes or books during the festival.

You should also settle any outstanding debts before the New Year for if you start the New Year in debt the rest of the year will be mired in debt too.  Other popular beliefs state that you should adorn your home with red-colored decorations for the New Year and use oranges and tangerines as props. These orange citrus fruits symbolize wealth and prosperity and hence are deemed auspicious for the occasion. Similarly, the color red is associated with good fortune, joy, and celebrations. Many Hong Kong women thus paint their nails red for the New Year festivities. The Chinese New Year festivities usually feature a ‘lion dance’ wherein two dancers dress up as a lion, one as the head and the other the body. The lion dances to the loud beat of cymbals, gongs and drums as it chases away bad spirits.

Beating the Petty Person

‘Da Siu Yen’ or beating the petty person tradition is a Chinese folk ritual that is enthusiastically practiced in Hong Kong. This ritual banishes all evil especially the kind that is brought on by enemies. It also involves asking help from a Taoist god. In Hong Kong, professional beaters conduct the ritual by beating a paper likeness of your enemy (or even an evil spirit) with a shoe. The professional beaters are usually women, and they can be found under the Canal Street Bridge in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. A bewildering practice, no doubt but yet a tradition that is uniquely Hong Kong.

Gift Giving in Hong Kong

Gift giving forms an important aspect of Hong Kong culture. When visiting someone’s home, it is traditional to take along a gift; a box of chocolates or cookies, a basket of fresh fruit or a bottle of wine is appropriate.  Never give your Chinese host a clock for the Chinese word for clock also sounds like the word for death and thus gifting a clock is taboo but gifting a watch is fine.  Sharp objects like a pair of scissors or knives and even other gifts like handkerchiefs are considered improper. Elaborate flower arrangements are the gift of choice for a store opening or the launch of a business. Hong Kongers also enjoy giving and receiving elaborate food hampers at festivals such as Chinese New Year and Christmas. Such is the popularity of these hampers that they exist are several small businesses in Hong Kong, which specialize in only making gaily-decorated hampers of expensive and exotic foods for gifting.

Another unique aspect of Hong Kong culture is the  ‘gift’, which usually accompanies a special offer. Hong Kongers are extremely fond of receiving ‘freebies’ which take the form of supermarket coupons or household appliances. Vendors offer these ‘freebies’ as a way of enticing customers to sign up for long-term contracts, new credit cards or even buying new TVs, cars and so on. Gift giving assumes much importance during Chinese New Year. At this time, the elders in the family distribute lai see envelopes to the younger members.In a corporate setting, senior colleagues hand out the lai see to their juniors.

Lai See envelopes are usually red in color with gold trimmings. It is for this reason they are commonly referred to as ‘red packet’.  Many companies issue lai see envelopes bearing their name and distribute them for use amongst customers and clients. This practice presents companies with a clever way to increase their brand’s visibility. A laisee contains a monetary gift for the receiver. It is customary to use brand new currency notes to fill lai see envelopes, so it’s not uncommon to see long lines outside banks in the run-up to Chinese New Year. Employees, children, and single folk (married people givelai see to their single relatives and friends) are the main recipients of lai see.

The monetary amounts contained within the lai see should total up to an even number, but the denomination of 4 should be avoided, as it is ‘unlucky’. Anyone who renders you a service throughout the year the doorman or security guard at your apartment or office complex, a regular driver, employees at a beauty salon you frequent and others deserve a lai see. The gesture indicates that you acknowledge and even appreciate their year round service. It is always useful to keep a few spare lai see on hand in case you run into someone unexpectedly. In case you receive, a lai see don’t open it in front of the giver for it’s considered crass to do so. In fact, this holds true for any gift that you may receive. The giving of laisees or red packets are not limited to Chinese New Year and people even give lai sees at weddings and other celebrations.

Food and Drink

Food plays an important role in the life of a Hong Konger. Many Hong Kongers are well traveled and sophisticated and have strong opinions about the foods that they like or don’t like.  The city has a strong dining-out culture though bringing home meals (takeaway) from food kiosks and restaurants is also popular. Many Hong Kongers live in small apartments with tiny kitchens, and cooking every day can be drudgery, this counts for the popularity of takeaway meals in Hong Kong. Tea is the beverage of choice in Hong Kong. Large varieties of tealeaves, tea bags and even bottled ready to drink teas populate the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores. 

Hong Kongers also have a preference for lemon tea (black tea with lemon slices) and ‘milk tea.’ Hong Kong was a British colony for over a century, and though Hong Kongers adopted the British custom of drinking tea, they have their tea with condensed or evaporated milk. Milk tea is easily available at the Hong Kong-style diners called Cha ChaanTengs, eateries renowned for other Hong Kong staples like egg tarts, pineapple buns, ham macaroni, soy sauce chicken and more.

Often at dim sum restaurants or the above-mentioned Cha ChaanTengs wait staff bring around a pot of weak tea at first. This tea is not meant for consumption, but you use it to clean the utensils and cutlery provided. This practice renders them squeaky clean in case customers have doubts about the cleanliness of the restaurant. Hong Kong meals are usually served family-style; diners sit around a table equipped with a ‘lazy Susan’ and pass around dishes. Separate sets of chopsticks are used for food service and food consumption.  You should also never stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice but allow them to rest on the provided chopstick holders. Hong Kong-style courtesy dictates that you should pass on or serve food to diners seated beside you before serving yourself. You should also be courteous and serve tea to those who have empty teacups near you. When the teapot is empty, you need to upturn its cap to signal the waiter to refill the pot.

At Hong Kong weddings, elaborate wedding banquets featuring multiple courses are the norm. These banquets can extend for hours and typically feature many toasts made by the friends and family of the bridal couple. Attending a Hong Kong style wedding is an experience; do make sure you present the couple with a lai see that more than adequately covers your and your partners’ meals. These are just some of the many peculiarities of life in Hong Kong; you are bound to come across many more during your stay in this wonderful, vivacious city. Treat it as an adventure and enjoy it to the fullest. 

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