Hong Kong - Local Customs
- Be on time
Punctuality is respected in Hong Kong and it is seen as rude if you are late. If you are caught in traffic or know you will be late for some reason, be sure to call and apologize in advance.
- Business cards
When meeting a person, it is customary to exchange business cards. It is preferable if your cards have English on one side and Chinese on the other. Offer the appropriate side to whom you are meeting. BE SURE to use both hands when giving the card and both when receiving the businessman’s card. It is considered rude to just grab the card with one hand. You should then look at the card for a bit, do not just put it in your pocket. Consider the card with respect before putting it away.
- Shaking hands
It is appropriate. Hugging or kissing in greeting is not appropriate. When introduced to someone, you should nod your head in acknowledgement of them.
- Continue to be formal
Call people by Mr. or Ms.(Mrs.) So and So instead of by their first name. Chinese people tend to have 3 names and the name that is listed first is their surname.
- Respect and Face
It is to be taken into account at all times. You should never cause a collegue to “lose face” by yelling at them or putting them down in front of others. Be careful with how you handle corrections so that the person doesn’t feel rebuked. If you cause others a “loss of face” it will be very difficult to do business with them.
Should be held in a person’s office. During the meeting, good eye-contact is shown as a sign of respect. If you avoid a person’s eyes it can be seen as impolite. Meetings can also be held at restaurants (usually Chinese restaurants).
Hong Kong tends to be a very formal place so suits are recommended unless your employer specifies otherwise. Ladies should be aware that an all white dress may symbolize mourning since white is the color of death over here.
- Business Cards
Hong Kong people swap business cards ALL THE TIME. You should have a business card for yourself, even if you’re not working. The best is to have a card printed in both Chinese and English. If your address is printed on the card in Chinese, it will help when using a taxi. When exchanging or receiving a card, give your card with both hands. This is the proper etiquette in Hong Kong and can be extended to giving and receiving your credit card when you make purchases .
People here have grown up without the concept of personal space, so they will stand right next to you and you may feel a bit claustrophobic at first. They aren’t being rude if they squish in to an already full lift, it’s just a way of life here.
- Spitting and belching
The locals (non-business people) do this loudly and it isn’t considered rude.
After a meal in a restaurant, toothpicks are used to clean the teeth. You must cover your mouth with one hand while cleaning your teeth.
Never leave your chopsticks stuck into your food straight up. This is bad luck! You should always put your chopsticks back on their chopstick holder when you are finished with a meal. The Chinese do not touch their food with their hands (so picking up that egg roll isn’t polite if you are with Chinese people). You will usually get chopsticks and a small bowl with a unique spoon. Feel free to scoop the food into your mouth with the spoon if you need to. Watch people around you and see what they do.
- Feung Shui
This is an ancient art that combines superstition with daily living. In order to have good luck (or good feung shui), a building should be near wind and water. You will find a building in Repulse Bay that has a huge hole built into it. That is so the dragon that lives in the hills can have access to the water, thus giving the building good luck. Lucky numbers are part of Feung Shui. There are Feung Shui experts that are consulted when a building is being built. HSBC in Central consulted an expert and the escalators are placed at such an angle as to bring good luck and money into the building. Feung Shui is an integral part of life in Hong Kong.
You may have read about “loss of face” or “causing someone to lose face.” There is definitely a “face” issue here. It is important that you don’t make someone “lose face” by making them look stupid, or showing that they have lost in front of others. It is about maintaining a persons dignity. If you need to reprimand someone, do it in the privacy of your office. Choose your words carefully. If you keep your eyes open you will notice the face issues when you do business. It’s hard to explain or teach, but must be learned.
- Lucky numbers
The Chinese have given meaning to numbers. Eight is the most lucky while four is the least (as it sounds similar to ‘death’ when pronounced.)
- Chinese New Year
This holiday is at the beginning of the lunar new year. It lasts for three days and stores close during this time. A 13th month bonus is traditionally paid to workers at this time. Be sure you don’t forget your domestic helper!
- Lai See
This literally means “lucky money” and is given out during Chinese New Year to those who provide you with services throughout the year—such as building managers, lift operators (that you see daily), the tea lady, golf caddies, the bar man at your favorite, frequented bar, etc. Usually people pay HK $20, unless it’s for their staff (such as a secretary) and then it’s usually a bit more. The bills (not coins) should be brand new bank notes placed in little red packets. Be sure to get the notes in advance as the day before the bank closes there will be long queues of people waiting for new bank notes.
- The Chinese Banquet
If you are invited to a Chinese banquet or meal, be prepared for a 10+ course meal. Each dish is brought out individually which makes it difficult to gauge how many more courses are coming. Take small portions! The dish will be put on the table and either be passed around or put on a turntable in the center. Only select food near you, or ask for it to be passed. Your host may put food on your plate for you. If you touch a piece of food in the main bowl with your chopstick, you should take it. You should always leave some food in the main dish to show that enough food has been provided. Be careful with fish. A fish should never be turned over or bad luck will ensue. Also, if you have been invited out to dinner, do not argue with your host and try to pay. Expect to reciprocate in the near future.
- Food on the table
If you go to eat at a Chinese restaurant, you may find the waiter brings out peanuts, cucumber, kimchee, or some similar small item that is placed on the table without you having ordered it. In some restaurants this food is free, BUT IN OTHERS IT’S NOT. I recently went to a restaurant and forgot that the little items might not be included, and was surprised when I got the bill! Ask if the items are included. If not (and you don’t want them) tell them to take them away immediately so you won’t be charged.
- Eating at a Fast Food Restaurant
If you eat at McDonalds on a busy day and you have a few extra seats at your table, expect someone to join you. This shocked me when I first moved here because I didn’t expect someone to sit across from me as I come from America where people are very conscious of personal space. In Hong Kong, there is no such thing as “personal space.” People live in a very crowded city, probably in a very tiny flat with an extended family, and if they see an empty chair in a restaurant, they use it! They will usually ask first and unless you are saving it for your friend who will arrive in just a minute, smile and motion for them to sit down.
- “Rude” questions
If a Chinese person enters your home, they may ask questions that seem rude to you, but aren’t in their eyes. They will ask how big your flat is, how much you paid for it, how much you paid for a certain item, etc. They may ask how much money you make as well. I was more than a little ruffled when a Chinese man (the father of one of my tutoring students) started barraging me with questions like this. I told him I didn’t know how big the flat was and that I didn’t know how much it cost since it was part of our overseas package (both these answers are true.) However, he was so enamored with our bookshelf that I told him how much it cost and where he could get one! What you share is up to you. Space is such an issue in Hong Kong that if you have a big flat, it indicates wealth. Some people are just comparing to see if you got a better deal than they would have gotten.
Status is very important in the Hong Kong business world. People will rank you when they meet you, and they will want to know if you’re “worth spending time with.” There is a “game” that one starts to play as time goes on that I call, “showing off.” A woman tends to wear very nice jewelry all the time while the man may choose to buy a nice watch that says, “I can afford such luxuries.” (This is why there is such a big market for second hand cars. The Chinese only want new cars to show their status.) I use to tell people that I was a teacher when I met them. Now I’m sure to say I’m a high school math teacher as that affords me more status.
- Holding hands
Hong Kong is a city full of Filipino Overseas Contract workers and on Sunday you will see them down in Central eating lunch, singing, holding worship sessions, and holding hands. One of my friends thought there were thousands of gay women in the city. Actually, it’s normal for Filipino friends to hold hands and be very affectionate.
The toilets in HK usually have a button to press or a handle to flush. If you try to flush the toilet and it doesn’t work, keep pumping the handle until it DOES flush. This was an embarrassment for me when I moved here since I went to a party at my boss’ house and couldn’t get the toilet to flush! I didn’t want to keep pressing the handle because I was afraid I’d flood the toilet. Don’t be afraid of this. Here in HK, the handle helps pump water into the toilet.
- Hospital visit
If you are visiting a local Chinese, don’t take flowers to hospital or to sick people. Take fruit. Shouldn’t be in unlucky numbers. Stick to even numbers of fruit—like 8 which is lucky.
Do's and don'ts
- Bad luck (flowers)
It is bad luck to send flowers to anyone who is sick (I don't know why, but it's really bad!) So if someone is visiting a sick Chinese collegue, they should bring fruit.
- Bad luck (Numbers)
People should NEVER give gifts in fours since four sounds like death if the wrong tone is used in Chinese. The WORST gift a person could give would be 4 flowers! Stick to odd numbers as they're safer!!!
- Bad luck (clocks)
Another horrible gift to give anyone is a clock.
People should know that the Chinese won't open a gift that you give them in front of you (so you don't lose face if they don't like it.) You can ask them to open it and they sometimes will, but they won't tear off the paper in front of you.
- Line up
When people line up, it is called a queue (pronounced like the letter ‘Q’). You will see this on signs and hear “please queue up for boarding,” when riding the MTR.
In bathrooms women will come across a “western queue” and a “Chinese queue.” If all the stalls are full, a western queue will mean that the people waiting will form one line and when the first stall opens, the first in line will enter that stall. A Chinese queue means that you stand in front of the stall you want to enter. A wise tip is to always have tissue with you as a number of public places may not have paper. Also, if you need a restroom ask for the “TOILET.”
When riding an escalator, stand on the right and walk on the left. If you block the left hand side people may push you out of the way!
As you ride the MTR and lifts, you will realize that there are times you must push your way into and out of these vehicles. It’s always best to say, “excuse me” as you try to get out, but you must be aggressive or you will not get anywhere in Hong Kong.
- Shaking hands is appropriate. Hugging or kissing in greeting is not appropriate. When introduced to someone, you should nod your head in acknowledgement of them.
- Continue to be formal. Call people by Mr. or Ms.(Mrs.) So and So instead of by their first name. Chinese people tend to have 3 names and the name that is listed first is their surname.
- Respect and Face are to be taken into account at all times. You should never cause a collegue to “lose face” by yelling at them or putting them down in front of others. Be careful with how you handle corrections so that the person doesn’t feel rebuked. If you cause others a “loss of face” it will be very difficult to do business with them.
- Dress. Hong Kong tends to be a very formal place so suits are recommended unless your employer specifies otherwise. Ladies should be aware that an all white dress may symbolize mourning since white is the color of death over here.