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Hong Kong Information
Custom & Culture

A Successful Relocation Requires Cultural Understanding

A successful posting in a foreign country requires preparation; a basic understanding of the culture and custom of the host country will not only help you adjust and adapt, but get better results from interaction with the locals both socially and in business.

In Business

Business Cards

Business cards are an important accessory when doing business with the Chinese; it is a way to assess who you are by what position you hold within the company you work for. 

You will need a Chinese name, as business cards are typically printed with your English name on one side and Chinese on the other - have a trusted colleague or secretary create a Chinese name for you, it will normally sound quite similar to your English name.

When presenting and receiving business cards, always use both hands followed by a slight nod of the head. When presenting to Chinese, present the Chinese side up, unless they are very Westernized. When you have received the card from a business associate, study it for a few moments.  This indicates that you have noted their position in the company.


Outward appearance counts for a lot in Hong Kong, it is therefore important that you look the part.  Suits are the norm, except in some more casual companies, and are worn even in the hottest of weather. Casual dress is catching on but suits are still worn to client meetings.


Business entertaining is quite often conducted in restaurants. The Chinese believe that one should always develop a personal relationship with a potential business partner before engaging in any business deal.  Eating and especially drinking together is an important part of establishing this relationship.  Do not be too hasty in trying to broach the subject of business - it will come up in its own time.
When invited to dinner by a Chinese businessman and it is clear that he is the host, do not offer to pay nor suggest that each should pay his share.   This will be taken as an insult and cause the Chinese to loose face.  It will be expected that you return the favor of the hospitality in the near future at a restaurant of equivalent quality.
For Chinese dining etiquette, see "Banqueting" below. 

Form of Address

It is customary for the Chinese to address each other quite formally, i.e. Mr. or Ms. so and so.  Quite often, a Chinese takes on a Western first name, in which case it is easy to identify what his last name is. If, however, this is not the case, the surname is always written first, for example a Chinese name such as Tung Chee Hua is understood to be Mr. C.H. Tung, Tung being the surname.


When a beverage is offered, it is polite to initially decline and then to accept when further pressed.  Even if you are adamant that you would not like anything to drink, it is quite likely that something, even just a glass of water, will appear anyway.  When acting as host, always remember to offer your guests a beverage before you start your meeting.  After your meeting, escort your guests to the reception area or the elevator lobby to see them off.


The Chinese are punctual. If you are to be late to a meeting, call to inform them of this.

What is face ?

Face is a measure of one’s status, reputation, character and honour.  Hierarchical relationships are upheld by face. Relationships are based upon face and the giving of face.  If a person causes another to lose face,  it is almost guaranteed that the relationship will be on thin ice, and certainly any business transactions will be adversely effected.

To avoid losing face or causing anyone to lose face, steer clear of:

  • criticizing or pointing out mistakes in public, especially if this is in respect to your senior, elder, teacher or boss;
  • doing or saying anything that would exclude someone or cause the group to be humiliated;
  • losing your cool, having temper tantrums or shouting at someone and having an open conflict;
  • pointing or shaking a finger in someone's face;
  • refusing and refuting someone outright – an employee will agree with the boss publicly but will privately carry on with the way he was doing things before.  This is seen as a courtesy in any Asian country, whilst seen as dishonest in the West.

Face can be saved by:

  • discretely and delicately pointing out errors or problems without blame;
  • learning the difference between an Asian 'yes' and 'no'.  A 'yes' may be heard but a 'no' observed (through body language);
  • giving a person a way out of a bad situation without him being humiliated.

When is a ‘yes’ and when is it a 'no' ?

A ‘yes’ means yes when:

  • the answer holds no negative overtone and is followed by plans to fulfill the commitment;
  • 'maybe' is given as an answer

A ‘yes’means no when:

  • it is followed by ‘but’, ‘it may be difficult’,‘it is not convenient’, or ‘there may be problems’;
  • there is a sucking in of air through the teeth;
  • a question or a request is ignored or talked around.  Don’t press when they pretend not to have heard the request.

Topics of Conversation that would best be avoided include:

  • religion, heated political discussions, emotions, affairs of the heart, intimate personal and family relationships,  sexual matters, faults of the host country.
Don't take offence when:
  • a Chinese asks personal questions, like how much money you make or how old you are.  You can answer with vague replies.  Don't, however, ask these personal questions of a Chinese. A definite double standard exists in this regard.

Social Etiquette

Banqueting: Chinese Dining Etiquette

Entertaining at restaurants, whether it be business or social, is especially popular in Hong Kong. This is due to the limited space in apartments (Hong Kongers will spend huge amounts on entertainment, clothing and cars, but endure living in tiny flats).

Parties at Chinese restaurants will normally be seated at large round tables.  Food, served on large platters, will be placed in the middle of the table on 'lazy-susans". You will be faced with between eight and twelve courses, so pace yourself.  Follow these guidelines when at a Chinese restaurant with a host:

  • Allow the host to order - it is impolite to make suggestions;
  • Wait for the host before you begin to eat;
  • At an up-market restaurant, one of the head waiters may serve the food at the table, otherwise you should use the serving spoon to serve yourself a little of whatever is closest to you.  One piece at a time is the usual manner;
  • It is considered rude to reach over the table or turn the lazy-susan for a particular dish until everyone has had a first serving; wait for the dish to come to you. Once everyone has had a little of everything, you may turn the lazy-susan;
  • Try a little of everything - refusing to eat what has been ordered especially for you, as the guest, is seen as disrespectful of the host;
  • The host may also take it upon himself to serve you,  allow this honor;
  • Using chopsticks: always lay your chopsticks on the chopstick rest provided and not on your bowl or your plate. Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice – this is reminiscent of funerary ritual;
  • The Chinese do not normally eat with their hands, as this is considered unhygienic, exceptions to this, however, include peeling prawns;
  • Once you are replete leave a little in your bowl as an indication of this; don't take the last piece of food from the serving dish - this is an indication that you are not satisfied;
  • It is important to join in on the toasting.  If you would rather not drink alcohol, it is acceptable to ask for a soft drink.  A ceremonial greeting will be performed by the host who then raises his glass and says ‘ching’ (please). The guests then raise their glasses (observe how others are holding their drinks and follow suit) and say ‘yam seng’ or ‘gan bei'.  You don't have to down your whole glass of brandy, a sip will suffice.  Any reason is a good reason to drink a toast during a banquet, so be prepared.
  • The end of the meal is indicated when the fruit, usually orange slices, is served; guests tend to leave promptly after this, but follow your host's lead.
When Visiting a Chinese Family

If you have been invited to lunch or dinner at the home of a Chinese family, it is polite to :
  • Bring along some fruit, sweets, biscuits or chocolates for the host;
  • Be on time;
  • Remove your shoes before you enter the house;
  • Do not sit before being invited to do so;
  • Accept drinks and food with both hands;
  • To greet an elderly person even if you have not been introduced.

When presenting a gift, offer it with both hands; when receiving a gift, accept it with both hands. Some hints on gift giving:
  • Gifts are usually presented in pairs;
  • Gifts are not usually opened in front of the giver;
  • Some nice gifts to present are a food hamper, some cakes or cookies in a tin, a box of chocolates, a bottle of brandy;
  • Gifts to avoid: clocks, anything sharp, white, blue or black gifts, and  flowers which are all associated with funerals and death in general;
  • It is not necessary to take a gift to a dinner in a restaurant, unless it's a birthday party. Birthdays are celebrated as they are in the West.

Asian Smiles and Laughter

Smiles and laughter in Asia serve a rather different function than in the West.  Smiles may indeed portray happiness and joy but also hide sadness and embarrassment. 

To determine whether a smile is one of joy or of sadness it is imperative that you look at the eyes and body language.  A smile of embarrassment or sadness will not be expressed through the eyes as a smile of joy would be.  Don’t think that Asian smiles over the death of a pet dog is cold heartedness, but an attempt at protecting you from feeling their own feelings of remorse. 


The Chinese give compliments freely, which you are supposed to modestly decline, as they will do when you offer compliments back. 

Local Beliefs

Feng Shui

The Chinese are especially aware of the forces and effects of Fung Shui or geomancy on their environment and lives. There is not a tycoon in Hong Kong who does not have his favoured Feng Shui master; buildings are designed with Feng Shui principles in mind; and secretaries feel uneasy about working in an office that has not been inspected and certified "good Feng Shui" by a trained master. 

The flow and balance of energy, the intermingling of the elements - wood, fire, earth, metal and water - and how these relate specifically to you as a particular animal in the Chinese zodiac, are basic tenants of Feng Shui. It is a highly scientific and complicated system dependant upon calculations of birth date, energy grids, and positioning, though some would also say intuition highly influences the outcome, making the system more of an art than a science. 

If you are feeling uneasy with your new environment and things don't seem to be running smoothly, it might be a good idea to call in a Feng Shui master.  Find a fung shui master through referral and personal recommendation. The cost of having him come to your office or home can run as high as US$ 15 per square foot.  Alternatively, there are scores of books, and now websites, on the subject.

The Chinese Zodiac

A quick guide to the Chinese Zodiac. Find your year of birth and follow it back to the zodiac animal stated to the left.  





Last Updated: 4 March, 2004