Cultures Explained: Hong Kong — Why are Locals So Rude and Unfriendly?

If you’ve visited Hong Kong and experienced a culture shock of how seemingly unfriendly the locals are, you’re not alone.

“唔好阻住地球轉啦”, was what a complete stranger said to me brusquely on my first trip to Hong Kong. In Cantonese, the phrase literally translates to, “don’t obstruct the earth from spinning”. At that moment I knew I’d gotten onto someone’s nerves.

I took a quick glance at the stranger but he’d already overtaken me on the escalator, and so had many others. I felt like a displaced comet that got nudged into earth’s orbit. I just wanted to fall off the face of this earth and never return to Hong Kong again.

And the reason for getting that nasty remark? I was standing on the wrong side of the escalator in an MTR station. Ouch.

I’d be lying if I said that didn’t leave a bad impression of Hong Kongers on me. But looking back now, I’m glad that wasn’t the most impressionable memory I have of Hong Kong.

Junkboat at Hong Kong harbour - Hong Kong Cultures Explained

Visiting Hong Kong for the first time can be a nerve-racking experience, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the culture.

Here are some common impressions (and misconceptions) that travellers have of Hong Kongers, and reasons why we perceive them as rude and unfriendly:

“Hong Kongers are impatient”

People crossing traffic in Hong Kong - Hong Kong Cultures Explained

Every hour is rush hour in Hong Kong. People want to get things done fast and conveniently. If they can take lunch in the fastest possible way, a bowl of instant noodles with a slice of ham will suffice. And that’s actual food sold in Hong Kong cafes.

Road in Hong Kong city at night - Hong Kongers rude and unfriendly

The strive for efficiency isn’t the only reason why Hong Kongers are in a constant rush. It’s also because they’re used to, and value, punctuality.

Public transportation in Hong Kong is efficient, affordable and reliable. The MTR train system is reputably on time, allowing commuters to buffer just the right amount of time needed for transportation in-between places to be punctual. The minibuses are also known to be speedy and cost-effective, so commuters are simply used to being on the fast track.

Slow sign on road

Time is money, and this is especially true in a fast-paced city — people rush to places and race to get things done. For those living in Singapore, this may sound familiar to you — kiasu hor?

So it’s normal for people to get impatient if you fall behind the speed they’re accustomed to. But once you sense the rhythm of pace, you’ll find momentum amongst the chaos and perhaps even appreciate how quickly things move.

“Service staff in Hong Kong are rude and unfriendly”

Busy cha caan teng in Hong Kong

It’s a common perception among tourists that service staff in Hong Kong are fierce and unfriendly, or even rude.

An acquaintance once told me that she ate instant noodles for almost every meal in her hotel room because it was stressful eating in a cha caan teng (Hong Kong-style cafe). “Not like they serve better food in the cafes anyway”, she quipped as she tried to justify herself.

While I don’t agree with her lousy decision in life, I can understand why she felt that way. Street cafes in Hong Kong are often cramped, with service staff and customers trying to out-shout one another to get orders across. Most service staff in cafes attend to many tables and they simply don’t have the time to be friendly to every patron. So if they do come off as rude to you, it’s not intentional.

Even for myself who’s a frequent traveller to Hong Kong, I sometimes still find ordering food challenging in Hong Kong, though it’s definitely not something to be fearful of.

Here are some things you should know when eating at a cha caan teng, dai pai dong (open-air food stall), or popular restaurant in Hong Kong:

Ordering food in a cha caan teng

1) Decide on what to order before getting the service staff’s attention. Service staff can get very busy and may lose patience if they’re made to wait while you pore over the menu. If you aren’t sure what’s good, do a little research on the restaurant beforehand. Or check out our tried-and-tested ultimate food guide to Hong Kong 😉

2) Be prepared to share a table with strangers. Sharing tables with other diners is a common practice in Hong Kong, there’s just no way around it. Most people don’t even ask if the empty seat next to you is occupied before sitting down.

3) Though it’s not a must, preparing the exact change for your meal is always appreciated by the service staff.

“Hong Kongers sound like they’re always arguing”

Street market in Hong Kong - Hong Kongers rude and unfriendly

My first venture into a wet market in Hong Kong was a daunting one. Within the tight space, stallholders and buyers were arguing loudly with one another, hurling curt words at each other. Or so I thought.

Turns out, the loud exchanges between the locals were mere conversations — greeting each other loudly to grab attention, and haggling of prices.

MongKok Sai Yong Choi Street of Hong Kong - Hong Kongers rude and unfriendly

To non-native ears, Cantonese is a boisterous language that sounds crude. Like Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese is a tonal language, which means that variations in tone distinguish words or phrases. Mandarin has four tones while Cantonese has six (debatable to be nine)! And when a language with rising and falling tones is spoken quickly, speakers may sound like they’re agitated.

So, imagine how loud it can be in a market when everyone is talking and trying to be heard simultaneously. An argument you hear on the streets may very well just be a normal conversation.

Read more: An Introvert’s Guide to Hong Kong

Understanding quirks of a society that’s different from yours

Street of Hong Kong - Hong Kong Cultures Explained

It may surprise you now if I were to tell you that I really like Hong Kong. In fact, since that harrowing MTR experience, I’ve revisited Hong Kong close to a dozen times more, almost once every year.

I love the energy of the city, the myriad of food options, and the authenticity of its people. The MTR incident that happened eons ago is now nothing more than a coffee table talk I share with friends and fellow travellers.

What I did to change my perception of Hong Kong was simple — understanding that every society has its own societal and cultural norms that can be different from mine. Hong Kongers may seem unfriendly to our standards, but who knows, we Singaporeans may seem impolite by Japanese standards too.

travellers in Hong Kong sai kung pier - Hong Kongers rude and unfriendly

Manners maketh man. This ain’t a civics and moral lesson but as travellers, we’re ambassadors of our countries after all. And just like how the saying goes — when in Rome, do as the Romans do, follow the customs of the locals and you’ll likely to adapt better with fewer frustrations.

It’s also useful to learn some basic phrases in the language of the destination you’re visiting. In Hong Kong, most local shopkeepers are older folks who do not speak any English or even Mandarin. You won’t be in a situation where you’ll have to sign out where the washroom is. Here are some phrases you may find handy:

EnglishCantoneseCantonese Pronunciation
Hello你好nei hou
Do you speak English?你識唔識講英文呀?nei sik mm sik gong ying man ah?
Do you have an English menu?你地有冇英文餐牌呀?nei dei yao mou ying men caan paai ah?
I’d like to order (getting the waiter’s attention)唔該, 寫嘢mm goi, se ye
Can I get the bill, please?唔該, 埋單mm goi, maai daan
How much is this?呢個幾多錢呀?ni gor gei dor chin ah?
Where is the washroom?唔該,廁所喺邊度?mm goi, chi sor hai bin dou?
Thank you (very much) — for a service唔該 (嗮)mm goi (saai)
Thank you (very much) — when gifted something多謝 (嗮)dor zeh (saai)

Understanding the two variations of “thank you” in Cantonese can be confusing for non-native speakers, so here’s how you can remember:

唔該 (mm goi) — Is a polite “excuse me” in a crowded street, a sincere “please” when asking for favours, and a grateful “thanks” when you’re receiving a service or favour.

多謝 (dor zeh) — Is a “thank you” when you receive a gift.

People love travelling for different reasons. Many travel to witness the most mesmerising sights of the world, others travel to seek new adventures. Whatever your intentions may be, we hope you will learn and gain more, to be a better, braver, and smarter version of yourself.

This article is part of a series where we uncover and honour the cultural differences of communities all over the world. What other cultures would you like to know more about? Let us know in the comments below.


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9 COMMENTS

  1. Let’s not make excuses for those rude HK people. The place probably has the highest number of jerks per capita in the world. Fyi I was born there and hate going back there. So much impotent hate, arrogance, insecurity, bad attitudes. Absolutely toxic place.

  2. Edelyn Chua, why are you soft peddling the fact that Hong Kongers are absolute A – holes? A simple internet search will give you zillions of horror stories about HK Chinese even though a lot of them don’t like being called Chinese. ( self hate) if you wrote Chinese speak a dialect of Chinese and celebrate Chinese holidays then you’re a Chinese. For that matter if you internet Chinese you’ll get a lot of negative comments about all sorts of Chinese from many places particularly mainland Chinese but HK Chinese take the cake for the gold medal for being top award winners in being an arrogant annoying loud mouth bitchy selfish impatient prick azzzzz holes. You as a writer shouldn’t write false or half truths or paint things in an artificial way or sugar coat it if you want to be credible.

    • Hi Billy, thank you for your comment. We take each and every comment seriously as we see them as pointers for improvement. Our readers are our best critics but we also want to put forth that we do not tolerate hate.
      As content writers, we do our best to portray travel stories in the most neutral, non-biased, and definitely non-politically-charged way possible. We do exactly what we wish to change — people’s perception of societies through “simple internet search” and “horror stories” they read online. Bringing travel-related insights to our readers is what we strive to do, for we want to let people become better and kinder travellers, especially when travelling to a society different from their own. If my article has irked you, I urge you to read and reread it, twice, thrice, more… because only through understanding differences will you be able to accept differences.
      Thank you.
      Edelyn

      • Hi Edelyn Chua,
        What I’ve written is not hate it’s the truth. I’m calling black black and white white.
        What I’ve written is not from just reading from the internet. I’m sharing my first hand experiences with HK Chinese. I still repeat this. A simple internet search typing HK Chinese will give you many negative hits and comments about these people. I’ve lived in Hong Kong longer than your age. How old are you? I’m guessing 24-25 by your present profile photo? I’ve seen a lot, done a lot and experienced a lot living in HK. Whenever anyone hears about HK Chinese it’s usually with negative connotations. It’s just a bad ill mannered barbaric culture. You’re definitely sugar coating what you’ve written. You still are not convinced? Around 1999-2002 time frame the Hong Kong government had a campaign TV advertisement telling the Hong Kong people to be nice to the tourists and to be warm and friendly and to smile more to visitors. I’ve never in my life been to any countries where the government needs to constantly remind it’s citizens to act like civil human beings and to be civilized. The HK government bombarded these ads on tv on a daily basis for 4-5 years to remind its citizens to smile and to be courteous and to be nice. I love to travel and I love meeting people and interacting with the locals wherever I travel. I can unbiasedly tell you at the risk of being falsely accused of hating by you your first poster mentioned these people are number one jerks per capital worldwide. I fully agree with this person. I’ve never ever, I repeat again never ever met any other people like Hong Kongers/Cantonese as aggressive and rude and azzzholes anywhere in the world but in Hong Kong and even in Guangzhou but that’s for another story. I’d even stretch it further and say Cantonese too. I found other Chinese elsewhere like northern Chinese to be a lot friendlier. I’m a well traveled individual and I have enough experiences and comparisons to state this about these people on what I’ve just said.

  3. HK is the only place that Ive traveled once and never wanted to go back. Almost everyone are rude, no courtesy and offensive. Even the Hotel Front desk are having an emotional issues.

    The people are full of themselves and ego especially how they look down on south east asian. The country is rich but people are poor spiritually and materially.

  4. As a local, born and raised here and lived abroad for long time. Every time I come back Hong Kong I am afraid that I do not enjoy spending any time with locals. I grew up in a family which is poor, from a very young age we encountered a lot of stereotypes, and obvious discrimination, extended to school and workplaces. I am a female in the banking industry and I can’t stress enough how backward thinking people are here. Local men mostly are sexist, women have to be acted in a certain sexually favored way in order to get promoted or her career would just be stagnant. I got several sexual harrassment that actually messed up with my mental health. Local people are fake and they would come to you only when you look “cool” or well-off, that also include my relatives. I am speaking as a local and all my best friends are not from here. Horrible!

  5. Mannerism of hongkongers is outta this world bad. They’re renowned for being worse than angry New Yorkers. Search up HK in Google and you will have millions of other people sharing the same experience as I did. Do the same for Taipei, Kyoto or Shanghai and no articles will come up. Hong Kong is honestly rude and subpar, but the locals won’t admit it or change their attitude

  6. I lived in hong kong for 21 years, i come from western Europe , Hong kong is in my opinion a really rude place like no other , it’s soul crushing to live there, people are truly inhuman and full of themselves , racist , judgemental .
    Never made any local friends in 20 years , all friends were other expatriates or hkongers who were educated abroad .
    had awful experiences at work with people , just plain terrible .
    the city has modern infrastructures but people think like in the 12 th century or so .
    i left hong kong in 2022 and will never ever go back there , not even in transit , or even a few hours .

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