Hong Kong Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Cultural Atlas Editors,
  • Tenacity
  • Energy
  • Entrepreneurism
  • Confucianism
  • Face

Hong Kong is a territory of China that is separately governed and has a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong was under British control as a central port of trade before being reclaimed by China in 1997 as a ‘Special Administrative Region’. Today, it is one of the biggest financial hubs in the world. Lifestyles in Hong Kong are urban-centric and cosmopolitan, with the majority of the population being highly educated. The international mindset that comes with its global economic positioning, as well as the influence of British governance, has integrated values of the English-speaking West into the Asian society. While 92% of the population is ethnically Chinese, the culture differs distinctly from that of mainland China.

Social Distinctions

Overall, the Chinese population of Hong Kong can be largely divided into three groups: Hong Kong locals, migrants from mainland China, and anglicised (or westernised) Hong Kongers. Language proficiency is arguably the most obvious and reliable indicator of group identity. Local Hong Kongers tend to speak mostly Cantonese, passable English and very limited Mandarin. Some may refuse to speak Mandarin even if they can. Migrants from mainland China generally speak Mandarin and may not speak Cantonese or English at all (the exceptions being highly skilled migrants). Anglicised Hong Kongers often speak fluent and unaccented English and vary greatly in terms of Mandarin proficiency. In addition to these three groups, there is also a significant non-Chinese population (roughly 8% or 580,000 people).2 Most of them are foreign domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, with the biggest nationalities being Filipinos and Indonesians.

Anglicised Hong Kongers are the group that Westerners are most likely to encounter as business partners or migrants to English-speaking countries. They are people who typically attended English Medium schools or international schools, lived or studied abroad, and/or have dual (or more) nationality. Many of their families migrated to western countries before the end of British rule, but returned afterwards in search of better economic opportunities. They often work in financial, legal, or international business/trade sectors. Culturally, they can be described as highly westernised, except with a much stronger emphasis on traditional family values, education and financial success. When interacting with them, one may simply follow British etiquette or that of the English-speaking West in general. The same can be said for local Hong Kongers, who are usually familiar with western etiquette.

Local Hong Kongers often strongly disassociate their identity from mainland China, seeing themselves as being very different despite having similar ancestry and governance. In contrast, migrants from mainland China can be quite proud of the mainland Chinese culture and may not feel obliged to adapt to local or western etiquette, even if they live and work in Hong Kong or other countries. It is advisable to respect and observe this Chinese etiquette when interacting with those who have strong ties with China (e.g. employees of Chinese firms and Chinese officials in Hong Kong).

Daily Life

Hong Kong is home to one of the world market’s most important and competitive global economies. The success of it has given daily life a fast-paced, entrepreneurial and expeditious quality to it. There is an extreme emphasis on schooling. Children often feel intense pressure from their parents, teachers and peer group to excel. Those from wealthy families or private schools face even higher expectations. Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to demanding standards, being busy throughout one’s life is strongly valued. To be in stressful circumstances in Hong Kong is seen as evidence that one is industrious and tenacious. Some Hong Kongers may even exaggerate their workload size and difficulty to make themselves seem more productive and dedicated.

Class status is determined by one’s wealth and social influence in Hong Kong. Power is often gained through familial or government connections. A lower working class is loosely formed by those who have recently immigrated and found employment as domestic house-workers. The level of education and English proficiency one attains also heavily influences one’s social standing.

Hong Kong also has a high population density that means housing is largely based in the metropolis. Space is extremely limited and cities are traversed with the aid of elevators, sky-bridges, corridors and underground passageways. It is possible to navigate through large parts of cities without touching real ground. In these ‘concrete jungles’, there are few parks and one often has to venture out into the mountains for outdoor recreation. As such, though physical activity is valued, the culture places a more immediate value on intellectual efforts, such as pursuing academic and business excellence.

Traditional Values

Complementing the modern-day and Western characteristics of Hong Kong are the traditional Asian attributes that still prevail in society, such as the cultural concept of ‘face’. This is the quality embedded in most Asian cultures that indicates a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. By complimenting a person, showing them respect or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose face and save or build face. Therefore, individuals in Hong Kong usually act deliberately and with to protect their self-worth and peer perception. Conservative conduct is the norm, as people don’t want to stand out and/or risk losing face by doing something inappropriate.

Confucianism has also had a significant influence in Hong Kong. This way of thinking puts emphasis on the importance of healthy human interactions by promoting the idea that relationships between people should be unequal but with clearly defined hierarchical roles (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). It is thought that when this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations among individuals and society as a whole. However, Hong Kongers are arguably more influenced by Western ideas such as freedom of speech, rule of law and due to their period of rule. Though Confucianism forms the basis for many of Hong Kong’s cultural roots, few people (especially among the young generation) uphold all its values. Today, local Hong Kongere largely reject the concepts of natural inequality and hierarchical roles. 

Age is one of the few remaining traditional factors that forms a visible social strata. Age determines the gradations of respect in Hong Kong, with its importance emphasised through ‘’. This is a core Confucian concept that requires one to show parents and elders utter respect and devotion. It can sometimes involve unconditional obedience to seniors by, for example, defaulting arguments so they win. traditionally entails reverence of one’s ancestor and many people in Hong Kong regularly hold ceremonies or rituals to worship their ancestors by lighting incense.

Hong Kong is more than Western societies. Individuals often perceive themselves to be members of groups rather than autonomous actors. These groups reflect or come to define who its members are and often expect a high level of loyalty. For example, the group’s interests usually supersede those of the individual, even if they conflict. Furthermore, group members expect to receive preferential treatment over anyone who is not part of the group. In return for this loyalty, an individual gains a sense of belonging, protection and unity.


1 Census and Statistics Department, 2016
2 Census and Statistics Department, 2016

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