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Hong Kong: Destination Guides

Common cultural misconceptions about Hong Kong

Our breakdown of common cultural misconceptions and differences about Hong Kong.


Dressed by densely-packed, brightly-lit high rises, there’s no mistaking the Hong Kong skyline. Raised between differing cultures of east and west, the city’s unique character can be difficult to uncover. As the majority of Hong Kong residents are Cantonese, the city’s mainstream culture is primarily Chinese; a fact that has lead to many misconceptions about the city and its people. With a progressively global, modern front and increasing international ties, Hong Kong is a unique cultural force to be reckoned with that should be considered on its own terms.


Just like China

Hong Kong is 98% Chinese (Cantonese) and is indeed officially back beneath the rule of Mainland China, so it is easy to see why many people simply extend their conceptions of China onto those of Hong Kong.  


On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) operating beneath the policy ‘one country, two systems.’ This means that Hong Kong would, for the most part, remain independent in governing itself. As a result, Hong Kong is capitalist, and still bears many cultural marks of British rule.


For one, English language is commonly spoken in Hong Kong. Cars are driven on the left hand side of the road, and the city has chosen to retain English civil laws, healthcare, public housing and education systems. Christmas holidays are also commonly celebrated.


In fact, certain Hong Kong attitudes towards Mainland Chinese are palpably tense. Many Mainland Chinese take day-trips to Hong Kong to purchase living supplies and produce cheaply, and so, it is argued, place a strain on the city’s resources.  This is a separate and much more complicated social issue, but illustrates the clear division between Chinese Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese.



Systems of politeness and accepted social conduct are quite thorough in Hong Kong, and may seem complicated and confusing to a foreigner. Basic markers of politeness in other cultures such as holding a door open or chatting to a cashier at a supermarket are considered strange in Hong Kong, just as small talk and body contact in public is taken as rude, obtrusive or even vulgar. Speaking loudly or addressing someone you’ve just met by their first name is also considered incredibly rude.


Social conduct in Hong Kong very much hinges on a system of hierarchy, based on age, professional and social position. There are separate sets of politeness markers for interacting with those of a higher rank, such as lowering your eyes when speaking to a superior. Whilst this may seem to some as somewhat elitist, it is simply a means of designating respect to others.


This system of conduct may seem contrived, cold and over-regulated to those of other cultures, but is really just another way of expressing politeness as respect for other people and the overall social order. It is in no way indicative of any inherent degrees of snobbishness fostered by the city’s populace.  


Not just a shopping mall

A booming international centre of trade, Hong Kong is widely known as a global shopping mecca. With a relatively low-valued currency and wide range of international products, many conceive Hong Kong as simply a giant shopping mall.


One look at the clusters of neon shop fronts against crowds of skyscrapers is enough to affirm this idea. Hong Kong has around 7,500 skyscrapers: more than any other city in the world. The city’s malls are amongst the world’s biggest, and attract shoppers keen to enjoy the low value of the Hong Kong dollar from around the globe. Numerous travel websites and guides exist with the sole purpose of helping you plan the best shopping route.


But what’s lesser known is the city’s growing arts and culture scene, its vibrant student populace and rapidly developing character. The Hong Kong Arts Festival, now succeeded by Art Basel Hong Kong, provided incentive for other world-class galleries to grace the city. In 2008, the Hong Kong Arts Festival drew over 100 galleries and 20,000 international guests. Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 will feature over 2,000 international artists. International students make up 37.7% of the University of Hong Kong’s student population, and 37.4% of that at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


Now that you’ve learned that there’s more to Hong Kong then shopping, why not start browsing courses in Hong Kong now and plan your study abroad adventure?


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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.