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.
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”
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.
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.
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”
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:
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”
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.
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
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.
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:
|Do you speak English?
|nei sik mm sik gong ying man ah?
|Do you have an English menu?
|nei dei yao mou ying men caan paai ah?
|I’d like to order (getting the waiter’s attention)
|mm goi, se ye
|Can I get the bill, please?
|mm goi, maai daan
|How much is this?
|ni gor gei dor chin ah?
|Where is the washroom?
|mm goi, chi sor hai bin dou?
|Thank you (very much) — for a service
|mm goi (saai)
|Thank you (very much) — when gifted something
|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.