Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hong Kong Culture Shock

The view from "The Peak".

Hong Kong is a fantastic city, a megatropolis that combines ancient Chinese tradition with high-tech modernity. There always seems to be things to do here, particularly if you are a fan of food consumption. I am tempted to say that HK is a city that never sleeps, but that would be untrue, as the city does like a good sleep-in - a great many shops and restaurants are open late, but breakfast is harder to find than you'd expect in a city with such a great food culture. I've had an awesome time here, met some great people and learned many things.

BUT... after a week among the graceful, respectful and polite Thais, our arrival in HK came as quite a shock to the system. My first impression of Hong Kong was that it was a city full of assholes. Fortunately the impression only lasted less than 24 hours, but in that short time I was treated to a real lesson in the differences between Chinese culture and that of my more familiar SE Asia. Years of hanging out with Chinese-Australias failed to prepare me for this.

In Thailand, everyone seems pretty chilled - why, one of their most famous monuments is the "lounging buddha". I didn't see a single person running for the train, pushing through a crowd, or looking particularly stressed out. HK has a really different edge to it; my friends warned me about this, but witnessing it first-hand was stunning and hilarious. Lesson One was in the queue for a bus at HK airport. The line was quite long, which led to various attempts (seemingly all by elderly Hongkies) to get on the bus before anyone else. One guy walked up near the front of the line and asked where the bus was going. Upon receiving his answer, he sneakily stayed where he was, as if he'd been at the front of the line all along. Unfortunately for him, the couple he asked were familiar with this tactic and reminded him where the back of the line was. Once the bus arrived and opened its doors, what was once an orderly queue descended into a rabble, with people from the rear rushing to the front as if the queue had never existed. One old lady was trying to push past us, but when Andi purposefully moved his suitcase to block her path, she actually climbed through a fence in order to jump the queue. She must have been about 70.

Granny don't take no mess
Which leads me to an interesting facet of Asian culture - the old lady with attitude. Western grandmothers tend to be fairly quiet, good-natured and are a bit intimidated by people between the ages of 11 and 60. Anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, Springvale or Box Hill, will know that they are different kettle of fish. You'll find lots of scary Asian grannies who will take no crap from anyone. Having reached a grand old age and popped out lots of offspring, they seem to have decided that they've earned the right to do whatever the hell they want. This includes barging to the front of queues, giving anyone who displeases them a piece of their mind, and jabbing unsuspecting victims with their walking sticks when words just aren't enough. While I suspect that the Chinese have more of this brand of senior citizen than other Asian nations (like the exceedingly polite Japanese, Indonesians and Thais), anyone who has met my late Indonesian nenek would recognise this as not just a Chinese thing.
For all the Asian females reading this, I may be describing your future.

How to be a Hongky, Part 1: Talking Like a Hongky Ah
To put more "flavour" into the conversation, Malaysians love to put lah on the end of every phrase, while Indonesians use sih, dong or loh. To talk English like a Hongky, end every phrase with ah; it doesn't matter if its a statement or a question. Typical conversation:
"How much is that ah?"
"Twenty ah."
"Eh, too much ah. Fifteen ah."
"Ok ah."
"Thank you ah."

Got to give respect to the Cantonese - their language is probably the hardest ever devised by mankind. To basically need to be a genius to get your head around the 6 tones (Mandarin only has 4). For those who don't understand how the tonal system in Chinese works, it means that a word can have a variety of completely different meanings depending on whether you say it with a rising tone, falling tone, a flat tone and so on. And that's without even mentioning the writing. Add to this the fact that most Hongkies speak at least a bit of 2 other notoriously difficult languages (English and Mandarin), and they get much props from me on that front.

How to be a Hongky, Part 1a: Being offensive in Cantonese (this section comes with a coarse language warning, at least for Cantonese speakers.)
Cantonese insults are quite creative. And as in almost every culture, the worst stuff you can say to someone relates to their mama. Below are some examples: (these may not be 100% correct by the way)
Diu! - ****!
Diu lay! - **** you!
Diu lay lo mo! - **** your mama!
Diu lay lo mo chao hay! - **** your mama's stinky ####!

Pok gai! - Literally "to fall over in the street". Equivalent to "drop dead!"
Pok gai ham ga zhan! - I hope you and all your family die in the street!

Ham sap - horny
Ham sap gwai lo - horny Westerner

Thanks to Helen and Vivian for those.

How to be a Hongky Part 2: Learning the Hong Kong Attitude
A Russian co-worker once informed me that "We Russians are the only people ruder than the Chinese." Well, I haven't been to Russia, but he was certainly onto something about the Chinese, at least in HK.
Walking around the city and people-watching, the term that seems to best describe Hongkies is self-absorbed. Everyone seems locked into their own little world, unaware that other people exist outside their own bubble. This is reflected in the way people walk around. There are 2 possible modes of walking in the busy HK streets:

1. Frantically push past people, squeezing you body through the crowd. If you bump someone, don't apologise, make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge that the person exists. After all, that person is not important - the only thing that matters is getting where you want to go.

2. Dawdle as if you have absolutely nowhere to go and nothing to do. Look mostly at the ground. Walk slowly and aimlessly, occasionally stopping in the middle of the footpath to chat or look around. Pay no mind to the fact that there is a crowd of people behind you trying to get past, as they are not important. If you want to sms someone, do it while walking, or alternatively if you have one of those hand-held miniature computer game consoles, play it while walking through a busy crowd. Don't worry about looking up to avoid people bumping into you, that's their responsibility.

Walking gets downright deadly when it starts raining and everyone pulls out their umbrellas. The tines of an umbrella can easily poke you in the eye, and this seems especially likely in a city which is (a) extremely crowded, (b) full of short people, and (c) full of people who don't seem to care if they do poke you.

Lesson Two in Hong Kong rudeness was at the Stanford Hotel (or Sie-Tan-Fook, as the Cantonese pronounced Stanford). In Bangkok, our hotel staff bent over backwards to make us feel welcome, helping us with out bags and showing us the rooms. At the Stanford, after lugging our heavy baggage from the bus stop, the extent of their helpfulness after check in was "here's your key." Thanks a bunch.

The Chinese are renowned for their business acumen and ability to make money. Ironic then that the art of customer service has never really sunk in here. I'm sure in business school they teach you that being friendly to your customers will make them feel valued, meaning they will come back and thus bring you more money. This doesn't mean much to many Chinese workers, who will give you the bare minimum and take out all the trivialities like smiles, "Hello" and "Thankyou".

In Thailand, in every place of business you enter or walk past, you are greeted with the ubiquitous "Sawadee-kaa" in a warm and gentle tone. In Indonesia people greet you with a smile and every exchange is followed by a friendly "terima kasih" (thank you) and "sama-sama" (same to you). Most Hongkies in service occupations will just stare at you until you tell them what you want. Then they will perform the task with a complete lack of joy. It's amazing how many waiting staff look like they are about to yell at you. The ultimate was the old lady selling fruit slushies on the roadside who told us off for the heinous crime of asking what a few of the drinks were. "So many questions, so many fingers pointing! And for such a small inexpensive thing. Hurry up and make a choice!"

Upper-echelon restaurants tend to be much better in terms of friendly service, and I have to say that one place in Shenzhen (across the border in mainland China) had perhaps the loveliest and most enthusiastic service of anywhere I have ever been. My Chinese colleagues assure me that is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

How to be a Hongky Part 3: Hongky Names
One interesting aspect of Chinese people outside China is the names they pick for themselves. For example, Chinese Indonesians usually adopt Indonesian names, yet tend to pick far more flamboyant names than native Indonesians. The funniest example I have come across was a guy named Ifan Satria Nusantara, which translates as "Ifan the Warrior of the Archipelago".

Chinese in English-speaking countries (like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia) can get even more original with their names. As well as a full Chinese name, they are often given an English name; or in many cases, they select an English name themselves. There are various categories - regular, surname-as-first-name, and just plain out-there names.

Regular names: These are those English names that Chinese just love. This category includes names like Penny, Jackie, Lawrence and Kenneth. Malaysian Chinese love to name their kids Kelvin and Eugene, while Indonesian Chinese have a peculiar affinity for the names Irwin and Rudy.

Surname-as-first-name: This has become quite popular amongst Westerners - picking a name which usually a surname, but using it as a first name instead. Chinese take this to the extreme. Examples are Jackson, Harris, Davidson, Wellington and Wilson.

Out-there names: This usually happens when a Chinese teenager with only a Chinese name decides on an English name without consulting the advice of others. The strong teenage desire to be different/funky/cool leads to some really unorthodox name choices. 3 that I have heard about are Raysond (he was unable to choose between Jason and Raymond), Potato, and Cereal. I'm not kidding. I imagine you would get sick of having the same conversations over and over again:

"Hi, I'm Potato. Nice to meet you. Yeah, that's right. Potato. No, seriously! My name is Potato. Just like the vegetable... why are you looking at me like that?"

Like this? You'll also like:

Hong Kong / Macau / Shenzhen - weird Chinese food and persistent salesmen

Hong Kong names, part 2

The tale of the "Grass-Mud Horse" (or "F*** your Mother")

Salam from Indonesia, March 2006

Jakarta travel notes

Salam from Malaysia, March 2006


  1. Loving this... capturing the Hk life perfectly lol :-)

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  2. HILARIOUS write-up, very accurate :)

  3. As for asian grannies doing whatever the hell they like... i get the feeling it has something to do with asian culture generally having quite a matriarcal system.

  4. Ah, I worked out when I was over there that it's not quite rudeness. They go about their business and it takes precedence on the language frivolities. So they seem brusque, but it's not personnal at all....
    I've now worked that out and accept it as such: a cultural difference. they don't mean to be rude! :)

  5. Your description of HK rudeness brought back memories!

  6. Doesnt ring true to me, I'm back in HK tomorrow night, second time this year.

    I've never experienced any deliberate rudeness.

    I travel all the time on public transport over there, it's always spotlessy clean compared to the filthy trains and busses in Brisbane.

    Very little security or cops on the trains either.

  7. @ Anonymous (Oct 22): I'm not sure if it's deliberate rudeness, but there is a different cultural conception of customer service in HK compared to many other places. Particularly as I flew there from Thailand - the contrast is enormous. Obviously, it depends where you go and who you know, but that was certainly my impression.

    I totally agree about the public transport in HK. Light years ahead of anything in Australia. And while HK obviously has its own criminal element, there doesn't seem to be the threat of drunken aggression that is common in Australian cities at night.

  8. The last time I went to Hong Kong on year 2010, I got a different impression.

    I got good service and most of the time, I was treated like a proper guest.

    Oh well.

  9. @ Michelle,

    I guess it depends where you go. Undoubtedly there are places that will treated you like royalty in HK. My experiences were not so nice (and a lot of people I've spoken to had similar experiences), and in a sense I'm comparing it to other places in Asia which tend to be much more polite (Thailand, Japan, Indonesia). But I'm glad to hear that you were treated well.

  10. hhahhahahahahahahahhahahhahahahahahahhahhahahahahahhahhhahahhah!

    you got granny-poked!!!

    You're officially been HongKongied :D

    I grew up there and loved the place but I loved reading your view of things...many of them are true!

    The granny in question, poked my foot with her pointy lil umbrella cuz she'd couldn't catch her tram and I was the only soft, 'prod-able' thing around. :D

  11. Dude, great blog! You write like a brainy standup comedian. Are you one? :-)

  12. @ The Filipino:

    I am neither brainy nor a stand-up comedian. Thanks for the vote of confidence though!
    Enjoyed your blog too.

  13. I just used the Pinyin of my Chinese name as my English name, not because I'm a teenager and want to be different, but because I can't find one that I'm happy with. My own name turned out to be just fine, as it's quite easy to pronounce by native speakers.

  14. Wow! Really strange to read this! I've been in hk 3 times. 1999, 2008 and 2011. I never once experienced any rudeness at all from anyone. When going into a store to shop, hkers don't flock all over you like in other Asian countries, they leave you to look around first by yourself, until you give them a nod wanting their attention. Then they come to ask if you want help. This is exactly my way of culture from Sweden and that's why me and my friends thought hk was the best. Its like an oasis in the midst of asian chaos countries like indonesia and thailand. No idiots stalking you wherever you went, looking at you with a dollar sign in their eyes. Hkrs tend to themselves very similar to north European culture. They don't think ur special just because your a foreigner, but that in my opinion is not rudeness. It's just you thinking of yourself as more special and unique than you are. A trait alot of us westerners have when traveling outside of Europe or America. In my opinion Thais and Indonesians are just kissing ur ass and they cheat u aswell. In hk the prices in stores are the prices, just like any western country, perfect as it should be!

    1. @ Anon: it really depends on where you shop. Certainly some places are as you describe. I don't want people "kissing my ass". I do expect someone working in a shop - in Sweden, HK, Thailand or anywhere else - to exhibit some level of friendliness and politeness, given that I'm potentially going to give them my money. A lot of people working in customer service in HK just appear not to give a f*ck.

      Regarding Indonesia, because of my family background, I experience the country both as a foreigner and as a local, in different ways. Indonesians in general - and Thais, in my more limited experience - are polite and friendly people. My Indonesian relatives experience the same politeness as I do as a foreigner.
      In my many travels throughout Indonesia, I've never had anyone serving me tell me to hurry up and stop wasting their time, because I tried to ask what flavour something was. This happened in my third day in HK, and there weren't even any other customers in the shop.

  15. Dude, great blog man seresly man.I love it.I vist it all most evry day.But I don't see to many post form you for 2012.


  16. My hongky Grandma is exactly as described!!!

  17. Absolutely hilarious and sooo true too!! I lived there as a teen from 1993-1997 and everything you wrote about is spot on!

  18. I do not entirely agree with your description of hong kong based on my own previous experience, but overall it's very accurate! Well done mate! Hope you'll be better served next time you to there... If u would. :)

  19. I'm 6'2" and have lived in mainland China for 5 years. The worst for me are the super short little Chinese grandmothers that elbow their way through a crowded bus. Their elbows end up hitting me in the groin. Happened more than a few times!

  20. This is hilarious. I am keeping an open mind but what you said is true mostly. I do not agree on the Japanese being polite part though. They mostly be polite to increase personal reputation and business revenue. And, I must say HK is changing every year. Now there are more mainland chinese influence so if you are in the "tourist" areas of the city, you may bump into more mainland chinese instead of the locals.
    As for the names, I came across people with Apple, Blueberry, Money, Adelaide before...Imagine calling your girl Adelaide?
    But, overall good laughs. Thanks for sharing.

  21. This is absolutely brilliant! I'm a British born Chinese who visits HK every few years for family and I hate most things about HK about the convenience of transport, variety of food and shops. It is the people I hate most about HK and they are outright rude and think they rule the world or the 5m circumference...I understand and speak chinese, although I sometimes pretend to be a foreigner when i'm there as I can get away from persistent sales people. But this is a very accurate observation of HK people/culture. Great read, great piece to share with others to prove I'm not exaggerating when I tell them about the "HK-ways".

  22. This is very one-sided and you are severely stereotyping Hong Kong people. I was born and bred here in Hong Kong, and personally find this very offensive. What you mentioned, you may have encountered - but you can encounter this ANYWHERE else in the world, too. Hong Kong has it's high's and low's depending on the area you are in - the same as withing ANY other city or country.
    Though this may seem like just an attempt to fight for my birth place, I can assure you that there is complete truth to what I am saying.
    I am well travelled, especially for my rather young age, and am also, like yourself, Eurasian, and enveloped in the cultures of quite a few countries. All countries have their positives and negatives, don't pour down and shit on Hong Kong, it makes you sound completely ignorant and down right rude.
    Some of the comments you have made disgust me, it should disgust yourself as well.

  23. Hong Kong has a population of more than 7 million people, so the crush of the populace can be daunting, especially for those who have relocated from a small or medium-sized city.