An Expat Guide to Culture in Hong Kong

This blog is contributed by Sabrina Bucknole, Further UK

Home to 235 islands, untouched mountain ranges, sprawling country parks and iconic cities, Hong Kong’s landscapes are as surprising and beautiful as the culture. Whether you’re planning on moving to Hong Kong or you’ve just arrived, getting to know the ins and outs of the local culture can help you settle in smoothly and avoid any cultural mishaps.

To help expats understand and integrate into Hong Kong’s immersive culture, here are a few essential things to learn about local life – from the language through to work practices.

As the region’s official language, it would be both wise and polite for expats to learn Cantonese. If you’ve never learned a foreign language before, learning Cantonese is going to be tricky, but it will help you better understand and communicate with the locals.

That said, “many locals do understand basic English. In terms of getting around, the road signs, public transportation announcements are all in English too. There is also a lively expat community in Hong Kong” says Ski Yeo, Founder of Big Foot Tour, and Singaporean expat who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 10 years.

Even though English is widely spoken, you should at least learn a few basic phrases in Cantonese to help you integrate and feel at home. For example, “there are eateries where they only have menus written in Cantonese. In this regard, it will be useful to pick up some basic phrases. Plus, knowing Cantonese may give you an advantage in terms of getting a good bargain at the markets!” says Ski.

If you’re moving from a country that takes a relaxed and laid-back approach to life, you’ll have some adjusting to do when you get to Hong Kong. The pace here “is generally faster. I love how people in Hong Kong walk fast, talk fast and eat really fast!” says Ski. The region’s fast-paced lifestyle is mostly due to its competitive and ambitious society.

People in Hong Kong are hard-working and have an innate passion to get ahead, make a better life, have a successful career and so forth – reminiscent of communities elsewhere in China.

For expats, Hong Kong’s ‘rush-rush’ nature may take some getting used to as the fast-paced lifestyle can be intimidating at times. When eating out, for example, “you may be required to share a table, especially during peak dining hours. As you eat, the eatery’s staff may clear the empty plates. Once you are done with your food, the staff may expect you to leave immediately. Rather than being offended by how ‘rude’ the staff are, this is usually just their way of being efficient in doing business. After all, they have other customers waiting in line and they wish to serve as many as possible!” elaborates Ski.

If you’re moving to Hong Kong for work, there are a few essential things you need to know about working practices. The people of Hong Kong have a reputation for being extremely hard-working, to the point that overtime often becomes an expectation. A few of the most challenging adjustments for expat employees to make are the lengthy working hours and heavy workloads.

When working in Hong Kong, you’ll come to find that staying late is a common occurrence. Rather than heading for the door as soon as the clock strikes 5 pm, you’ll need to become accustomed to working that little bit extra, especially if you want to build a good relationship with your colleagues.

These deep-set cultural norms can be frustrating for new arrivals, yet slowly but surely, professionals are acknowledging the damaging health effects of overworking. Local doctors even highlight the health risks of overworking and offer advice to employees in Hong Kong about how they can cope with heavy workloads and overtime.

To ensure you keep in good health while working, you may want to think about taking out a global health plan to help you easily access high-quality medical facilities abroad.

As Asia’s culinary capital, you’ll discover an abundance of delicious food options from all corners of the globe. Whether you’re looking for Cantonese, French, Italian, Indian or Japanese cuisine, Hong Kong’s food scene is as diverse as it is delicious. Above all, Hong Kong is well-known for its epic Cantonese cuisine. Some must-tries include “Yuen Yeung – a tea and coffee mix, unique to Hong Kong and in my opinion, the best of both worlds” says Ski.

Traditional Cantonese soup is also a national favourite as Ski explains; “We love a good bowl of hot soup in Hong Kong. I would say that this is almost an indispensable part of Cantonese dining, even on hot and humid days. We choose soup based on the occasion. For example, herbal soup for nutritional value, soup for festivities and celebrations, soup with more luxury ingredients (scallops and abalone)”.

Sampling the local cuisine is a truly incredible way to immerse yourself into the culture. Not only will you discover more delectable food options that you’ll undoubtedly become obsessed with, but you’ll also gain some insight into the region’s rich culture.

“Talking about food, a distinct culture is that freshness is king” adds Ski. He continues to explain that “at the wet market, you’ll find live chickens, live frogs, live fish, etc. Personally, I think this is quite an experience, as compared to shopping at the supermarket. However, definitely not for the faint-hearted!”.

A Hong Kong wet market is a traditional food market, selling cooked Cantonese cuisine, as well as raw meat, seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, and more. Some cooked food stalls have menus transcribed into English, but you’ll also find those which are only written in Cantonese. In a case like this, don’t be afraid to raise your hand to get the attention of a waiter and indicate which dish you’re interested in.

If you’re a foodie, you’ll adore the abundance of fresh food on offer in a traditional wet market. The experience of shopping and dining is more than enough reason to visit a local wet market.

“Generally, as compared to Western countries like the USA or the UK, people in Hong Kong eat out more frequently. Cooking at home usually involves simple meals such as noodles or rice-based dishes. Kitchens in Hong Kong homes are usually small, so socially, most of us tend to head out for food, drinks and gatherings” says Ski.

“It helps that the cost of eating out in Hong Kong is relatively lower than the countries previously mentioned” adds Ski. In fact, restaurant prices are around 50% cheaper in Hong Kong than they are in London.

Eating out in Hong Kong is very much a social activity, usually enjoyed by large groups. In traditional Chinese restaurants, for example, tables are large and circular, to fit large families or groups of friends. You’ll often find that the locals like to dine in groups, which is due to the fact that most dishes are shared.

When dining out, food is usually placed at the centre of the table for all to share. Eating food directly from the centre of the table is considered impolite which is why you should place the food into your bowl and then eat it.

At the end of each course, it’s polite to leave pieces of food on your plate to show that you were satisfied with your meal. If you don’t do this then your host may feel embarrassed and assume you did not receive enough food.

When it comes to living and adapting to a new culture, there are plenty of things to learn in order to avoid any cultural mishaps. That said, the locals are not unforgiving, and as a new arrival, you’re sure to slip up now and then!

As long as you keep an open mind, learn from your mistakes and research as much as possible before your big move, you’ll be all the better for it. Once there, experience absolutely everything you can and take every opportunity to learn about the local culture and customs to help you settle into your new home.

Arthur Information

Sabrina Bucknole (

A professional copywriter from the United Kingdom

When she’s not looking for her next adventure abroad, she spends her time writing about travel, expats and international living. 

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