Things to know

Things to know about Hong Kong


Hong Kong's official languages are Cantonese and English.

Cantonese is the main language spoken by locals. The Hong Kong variant is basically the same as in Guangzhou on the mainland but tends to incorporate some English words and slang, which frequently sounds strange to other Cantonese speakers. (Like "我唔sure得唔得", means "I am not sure if it's okay") Cantonese is the lingua franca in many overseas Chinese communities and Guangdong and Guangxi province. Like all Chinese languages, Cantonese is a tonal language and definitely not easy for foreigners to master, but locals always appreciate any effort by visitors to speak it, so learning a few simple greetings will get you acquainted with locals much more easily.

Unlike Hanyu Pinyin - standard romanisation system for phoneticizing Mandarin, Cantonese so far hasn't developed a well recognised romanisation system and local people seldom bother to learn them. However, some accurate phonetics system do exist for learners, such as the Yale system or Jyutpin.

As a former British colony, English is a common second language, and while it is far from ubiquitous, your chances of encountering an English speaker in Hong Kong are still much better than in other East Asian cities. Due to the rising prominence of Mandarin, the younger generation is actually often less able to speak English than the generations before. Education in English often begins in kindergarten, and fluency in English can be a prerequisite for securing a good job. English is spoken to an advanced level by many white-collar professionals and business people. In contrast, English proficiency tends to be more limited among the average working class person, particularly outside the main tourist areas. In addition, while many people can understand written English pretty well, they may not necessarily be comfortable speaking it.

As English is an official language of Hong Kong, government offices are required by law to have English-speaking staff on duty. There are two terrestrial English language TV stations: TVB Pearl and RTHK. English-language films in cinemas are almost always shown with the original soundtrack and Chinese subtitles, though children's films, especially animations, are often dubbed into Cantonese. British English is still widely used in Hong Kong, especially in government and legal documents. In the media, the South China Morning Post and both terrestrial TV channels use British English. Place names, such as Victoria Harbour (not Harbor) serve as a record of Hong Kong's colonial heritage. Also, modern buildings, such as the International Finance Centre (not Center) maintain the tradition of using British spellings. Most secondary and tertiary institutions adopt English for instruction, even though in most cases lectures are conducted in Cantonese.

It is also important to note that many English street names are seldom used among local people and taxi drivers. Even a local who speaks English fluently may not know the English name! Before you go anywhere, ask hotel staff to write down the street names using Chinese characters.

Although the majority of Hong Kong people are not fluent in Mandarin, they can usually understand it to some degree. Mandarin has been compulsory in all public schools since the handover, and with the huge influx of mainland tourists many people in the tourist industry will often speak Mandarin. Most shops in the main tourist areas as well as all government offices will have Mandarin-speaking staff on duty. It is worth bearing in mind that with current socio-political tensions with the mainland Chinese, some younger locals are reluctant to communicate in Mandarin as it tends to be closely associated with perceptions of cultural domination and political interference.

All official signs are bilingual in Chinese and English. Under the "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong continues to use traditional Chinese characters, and not the simplified Chinese characters used in the mainland.

Besides Cantonese, a significant minority of Hong Kong's older residents, particularly those from the various walled villages, speak Hakka. Most of these people are bilingual in Hakka and Cantonese, and the Hakka language is dying out among the younger generations.


Hong Kong has significant cultural differences from mainland China due to its heritage. The bulk of the population are descendants of ethnic Chinese who fled the PRC and found safety in Hong Kong during the colonial era. Locals in Hong Kong have maintained many aspects of traditional Chinese culture that have been abandoned in the mainland, including religion, holidays, music, traditional writing and the use of a regional language (Cantonese). In addition, due to its history, British influences have also been incorporated into the local culture. After it was handed back to China in 1997, the city has maintained an independent and reputable English legal system, effective anti-corruption measures, free press and currency.

Hong Kong University surveys the population regularly about identity, and finds that only a minority of citizens identify themselves as Chinese citizens, with most considering themselves part of a distinct Hong Kong identity. This sense of a separate identity has tended to become stronger over the years of polling. Mainland officials seem both bemused and outraged by the growth of such subversive beliefs by seemingly disloyal Hong Kong.

Hong Kong also has a significant minority of Permanent Residents who are not PRC citizens, and are not ethnically Chinese, but are recognised as de-facto citizens by the Basic Law. This includes descendants of British and Gurka populations from the colonial era.

The Sino-Hong Kong relationship, as always, is a contentious and complicated issue. Locals in Hong Kong generally do not deny their Chinese roots, and they do take pride in being culturally and ethnically Chinese; any racist remarks against Chinese people or crude remarks on traditional Chinese customs will certainly offend Hong Kong people. On the other hand, many locals consider the mannerisms of mainland Chinese to be crude and uncivilised, and there have been some simmering tensions between locals and mainlanders in recent years as a result of these cultural differences. You will hear the phrase "Mainland China" (Daai luk) or "Interior Land" (Noi dei) a lot from Hong Kong people, who seek to distinguish themselves, both culturally and politically, from other Chinese. Generally speaking, it is best not to get into a discussion about mainland Chinese with local Hong Kong people.


Many world religions are practiced freely in Hong Kong, and discussing religion with local Hong Kong people is usually not a problem. The Chinese majority generally practise Chinese traditional religions, Buddhism and Taoism. As in many other parts of Asia, swastikas are used in Hong Kong as a religious symbol for Buddhists, as well as the Hindu minority.

Christianity is followed by 10% of the population, with English language services available all over the territory. Hindus and Muslims also came here from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan as part of the British Empire, and the Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre is famous for prayer and research.

The Falun Gong religion is officially allowed in Hong Kong, unlike the mainland where it is banned. The group often quietly demonstrate against the Chinese Communist Party outside tourist hotspots, where they are often also quietly counter protested by pro-Beijing Hong Kong residents who oppose their opinions.


In Hong Kong, freedom of speech and the press are protected by law. Hong Kong people are free to criticize their government. Websites are not blocked. Hong Kong bookshops house vividly colourful collections of books about the communist regime and many sensitive political issues, although several Hong Kong booksellers who widely distributed books considered derogatory by the Chinese government recently (2015-2016) mysteriously turned up in Mainland China, allegedly kidnapped. Media, despite the growing concern about self-censorship, are diversified to deliver different voices.

Although freedom is secured, Hong Kong people are particularly sensitive about any changes that may affect the freedom they have enjoyed. Once regarded as apolitical and pragmatic, Hong Kong people are also more active in discussing politics, especially a proposal to introduce universal suffrage for electing the Chief Executive of the region.

Major political rallies take place every year on 4 June commemorating the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The 1st July commemorates the SAR's reunification with China, but after more than 500,000 people took to the streets demanding universal suffrage in 2003, this public holiday has become a symbolic day of protest every year.

Local political parties are broadly split between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps. While many desire universal suffrage, a right that Beijing has promised but thus far refused to grant, many also try not to offend the mainland as Hong Kong's prosperity is thought to depend on further economic integration with China. The differences can also be observed on many topics such as the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, independence of Tibet and Taiwan, and democracy in China. In Hong Kong where information is freely circulated and people are well read, political opinions are extremely diverse. After all, the city has served as an information hub for China (and Taiwan before the 1990s) to competitively circulate both propaganda and "dissident views". In Hong Kong, discussing politics may lead you into a debate, but not into any trouble.

Unlike in Taiwan, independence for Hong Kong had historically never been widely discussed before and after 1997 and until recently had hardly gained any public support. However a desire for stronger autonomy has been growing since the umbrella protests in 2014 by those increasingly frustrated by Beijing's reluctance to allow democratic reforms. Even so, very few of Hong Kong's citizens call for actual independence from the mainland.

Manners and etiquette

Hong Kong is a fast-paced society where the phrase "m goi" (唔該, "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".

The "M goi" (I should not) mentality extends to a way that they don't want to bother anyone as long as possible. When you get a cough, always cover your mouth with the inner side of your elbow, as that area of your arm does not frequently come in contact with other people, thus avoiding the spread of pathogens. When having a fever, wear a mask. Spitting and littering, an offence subject to a penalty of $1,500, is considered rude because it disturbs others. Hong Kong is noisy due to its huge population density but adding more noises, which will certainly disturb others too, is not welcome. Speaking vociferously over the phone on the bus, for example, will be viewed as egocentric and boorish.

Queue jumping is a taboo and you may be denied service if you do so, because everyone wants to go orderly and speedily on their way with the least disturbance. When smoking in front of a non-smoker, always ask for a permission because they may think you are trying to seriously disturb their health. Many smokers will just walk away to smoke, even in a place where smoking is legally allowed.

Unlike public transport in some large cities such as Tokyo or London, where it is common to see passengers eat or drink (even in a cautious manner that keeps the surroundings clean), such behaviour is strictly prohibited in all areas of MTR stations, train compartments (except intercity trains), and most buses. This is due to concerns about maintaining cleanliness of public facilities, and there have been cases where misbehaving mainland Chinese visitors have been scolded by locals after refusing to stop consuming food and reacting to locals rudely. Drinking a few mouthfuls of pure water is usually tolerated, but it would be common for a local passenger to politely ask you to stop consuming or even dispose of your food if you're eating it obviously (for example, eating a hamburger and holding a coke). If this happens, just obey the request and reply politely, and you'll always be out of trouble.

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 cashiers seldom ask about your day. Staff in shops and restaurants might not even say "thank you" when you pay.


Superstition is part of 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 blends the Five Elements (Gold, Wood, 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 mean "you must die" and "you die easily". They love the numbers 18 (you will get rich), 369 (liveliness, longevity, lasting), 28 (easy to get rich), and 168 (get rich forever).

Hong Kong people love to joke about their superstitious thoughts but that doesn't mean they ignore them. When visiting your friends 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 in it. Breaking a mirror will bring you 7 unlucky years.


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 as either disrespectful or 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 you 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.


When the thermometer hits 30 degrees Celsius, 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 like cinemas and shopping malls. This is actually wise, since the extreme change in temperatures can make people feel ill.

In contrast, when the temperature starts to go under 20 degrees Celsius, people start wearing very warm clothing to protect themselves from the 'cold'.

Hong Kong women are known for their fairly conservative dress code, although wearing halter-necks and sleeveless tops is not uncommon and acceptable, while teenagers and young adults can very frequently be seen wearing hot pants or short shorts. 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 used to be. 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 decriminalised 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 recognised 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 personality are still widely respected. His suicide in 2003 shocked many, and his fans, mainly female, showed considerable support for his partner.

While gay pride parades have recently been held in Hong Kong, there is no obvious gay community in daily life. Coming out to strangers or in the office is still regarded as peculiar and most people 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 LGBT 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 LGBT events in Hong Kong, and indeed in Asia. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2009, it brings various international and regional LGBT films to Hong Kong. The festival is usually held in November. Hong Kong also held its second Gay Pride event in 2009, attracting over 1,800 people.


Learning Cantonese

Some of the universities and private institutions offer Cantonese lessons for foreigners. This is a good way for those living in Hong Kong for an extended period of time to learn the local language. Like Taiwan and Macau, but unlike mainland China, the script taught is traditional Chinese.

Learning Mandarin

Although Mandarin is not the language of Hong Kong, it is nevertheless very important and most people will speak it to some degree for dealing with the mainland. It also happens to be much easier to learn than Cantonese. The universities and institutes do offer short and long term Mandarin language courses, and although more expensive than the mainland it is much easier to arrange travel and stay in Hong Kong.


Unless you are already a citizen or permanent resident of Hong Kong then you will need an employment visa in order to work. This usually involves potential employers making an application to the Immigration Department on your behalf; crucially you should have skills that are probably not available from the local job market. Spouses of employment visa holders can apply for a dependent visa that has no limitations for working within Hong Kong, although it will terminate at the same time of the visa of the main holder.

Citizens of the People's Republic of China also require an employment visa in order to work in Hong Kong. Spouses who are citizens of the People's Republic of China will also face issues in obtaining a dependent visa unless they have been living outside the People's Republic of China for more than one year.

In 2006, the Hong Kong Government introduced a new program called the Quality Migrant Application Scheme which targets highly skilled workers (preferably university educated) to come and settle in Hong Kong and seek employment. For more information, visit the website of the Hong Kong Immigration Department. Hong Kong does feature a small ESL market, teachers will typically need a Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers in Hong Kong can expect to earn $12,000 - $25,000 (monthly) and will usually teach 30 to 40 hours a week. Contracts will sometimes include accommodation and airfare.

You are eligible to apply for permanent residency after living in Hong Kong on a temporary permit for 7 years or more continuously, which allows you to live and work in Hong Kong indefinitely with no restrictions. Note that you have to be physically residing in Hong Kong during this time without any long absences. Permanent residency can also be obtained by investing a large amount of money in a local business. Check with the immigration department for more details.

Young people between 18 and 30 years old who are citizens of Australia, Austria,Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and United Kingdom are eligible to apply for a 12 month working holiday visa (only 6 months for Austrian citizens), allowing them to take up temporary work and a short period of study in Hong Kong. Visit the Immigration Department's website for more information.


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