Certain values and habits permeate everyday life in Hong Kong, but while they're prevalent, your experience of the city's cultural mores depends on the locals who cross your path – not everyone is the same. Here are some tips to help you navigate the social seas of this metropolis.
Some locals find hugging and cheek kissing too intimate; others secretly wish for more. Generally speaking, a simple ‘Hello, how are you?’ and a light handshake will do. Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.
The cornerstone of human relations in this part of the world. Think status and respect: be courteous and never lose your temper in public.
If you present someone with a gift, they may appear reluctant for fear of seeming greedy, but insist and they’ll give in. Don’t be surprised if they don't unwrap a gift in front of you, though; to do so is traditionally considered impolite.
- Dining Out
Most Hong Kongers like to 'go Dutch' when dining out with friends. The usual practice is to split the bill evenly, rather than for each person to pay for what they ordered or asking for separate cheques.
Red symbolises good luck, happiness and wealth (though writing in red can convey anger and unfriendliness). White is the colour of death in Chinese culture, so think twice before giving white flowers or attending an elderly person's birthday celebration in white.
- Sanitary Consumption
Dishes are meant to be shared at Chinese meals. Expensive restaurants provide serving chopsticks or spoons with each dish; most budget places don't, but you can ask for them.
- Mind Your Chopsticks
Don’t stand your chopsticks upright in the middle of a bowl – that resembles two incense sticks at a graveside offering. Nearly all restaurants have forks; don't be afraid to ask for one.
- Spirit of Sharing
Take a few pieces of food from a communal dish at a time, preferably those nearest to you. It is not necessary to shove half the dish into your bowl in one go. For shared staples, it is fine to fill up your whole bowl.
- Tea Language
When someone refills your dainty teacup, you can tap two fingers (index and middle) gently on the table twice instead of saying thank you with your mouth stuffed. Mastering this (allegedly) centuries-old gesture will endear you to your hosts.
- Bones & Tissues
Your plate is the preferred spot for bones, but at budget places diners put them on the table beside their plates or bowls. If you find that disconcerting, place a tissue under or over your rejects.
- Open Rice
Legions of food critics, amateur or otherwise, post reports and photos on the user-driven, bilingual restaurant-review website www.openrice.com every day.
- Dim Sum
Morning dim sum is a daily ritual for many retirees and a tasty excuse for a family reunion at the weekend. Now family and food vie for attention with smartphones.
- Tea Break
When mid-afternoon comes, cha chaan tang (teahouses) are full of elderly folks debating the morning’s meat prices and stock-market fluctuations. These humble cafes function as community focal points for the aged and housewives to swap gossip and commentary. They're also bolt-holes for many a stressed office worker.
- Late-Night Sweets
After dinner, locals like to head to a dessert shop for sweet soups and other Chinese-style or fusion desserts, such as black sesame soup and durian crepes.
- Steamy Winter
In winter, a hotpot at a dai pai dong (food stall) or even a restaurant is a soul-warming, convivial experience. Dip slivers of meat, seafood and vegetables in a vat of steaming broth. Consume and repeat.
- Jockey Club
Step into any Jockey Club off-course betting centre (often found in public housing estates, near markets or in transport terminals) on any race day or night, and you’ll be assailed by a maelstrom of emotions as punters struggle to defy the odds. Occasionally, you’ll hear a squeal of joy, but more often than not invective peppers deep sighs of desperation as numerals streak across the TV screens every 30 minutes. Outside, high rollers squat on the pavement en masse, heads buried in race cards, in search of the forever elusive winning formula.
- Stocks & Shares
Similarly, look out for the hole-in-the-wall brokerage firms on weekdays and you’ll find crowds of (not all small-time) investors deeply engrossed in the live stock-market updates on the wall-mounted panels.
Full-scale gentrification has yet to arrive in these areas, but the dictates of urban development are already changing their character.
- Aberdeen & Ap Lei Chau
Go on a boat ride in the city's most famous typhoon shelter, watch the dragon boat races, and explore the markets and temples of Hong Kong's 'People of the Water'.
- Yau Ma Tei
Stroll Shanghai Street for traditional barbers, Chinese wedding costume–makers and artisans of other time-honoured crafts.
- Sham Shui Po
Find flea markets, 1930s shophouses, postwar housing estates and even an ancient tomb in this resilient working-class district.
- Sai Ying Pun
West of Sheung Wan, the pungent smells of dried seafood and Chinese herbal medicine lead up to hilly residential streets and neighbourhood restaurants.