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Home > Hong Kong Hotels > Hong Kong People

Hong Kong Travel Guide - with Wired Destinations


Discount Hotels in Hong Kong : Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, New Territories, Lantau Island


The People of Hong Kong – with Wired Destinations

Outsiders may see Hong Kong's people as materialistic and brusque, if not rude. But there are reasons for this, including an obsession with success. The people of Hong Kong have a reputation for being the most business-minded, materialistic, competitive and restless population on the planet. No other city in the world has such a complex, unsettled society of people. It is a place where everyone moves at lightning speed because time is money, and every minute costs. Love it or hate it, life in Hong Kong is addictive, and even those who have escaped to more peaceful places – vowing never to return – have been drawn back like iron filings to a magnet. Even the most jaded visitor usually finds something seductive about it.

Hong Kong's 6.8 million people are packed into just 1,100 km2, and certain areas have some of the world's highest population densities. During rush hour, overwhelming Hong Kong crowds of commuters squeeze themselves into trains and buses. Lunch hour in the Central District is a crazed feeding frenzy as thousands of office workers dash for restaurants, jostling and barging their way into tiny noodle shops and delicatessens. Elbowing strangers, stepping on toes, jumping queues and honking horns in traffic jams are unavoidable features of daily life here.

As a major trading port situated on the fertile Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) Delta, Hong Kong has long been a magnet for immigrants in search of a better life. New arrivals continue to flood in from China and overseas, all sharing one dream: to make money quickly and to enjoy spending it. This continual injection of new blood into the region is what gives Hong Kong its excitement and intensity.

For those seeking a settled, peaceful existence, Hong Kong will be a hard slap in the face. This place resounds with rags-to-riches tales of entrepreneurs who built up their business empires from scratch, and this promise of success is in the minds of almost every immigrant who heads here.

Hong Kong Ethnic Backgrounds

Hong Kong is, and always has been, Chinese. In spite of more than 150 years of colonial rule, the Chinese, who now make up 98 percent of the population, never had a sense of allegiance to the British Crown. Those of the older generation, who originated from elsewhere, often have identified with their home provinces or towns in China rather than Hong Kong. However, after a century and a half of separation from their homeland, local Chinese are naturally more inclined to view themselves as Hong Kong citizens rather than Han Chinese.

The vast majority of Hong Kong Chinese are Cantonese, and their dialect, cuisine and customs make up the fabric of society here. The Cantonese language often sounds harsh and argumentative to unaccustomed ears, but its humor, slang and interspersed English words make for lively, often hilarious conversation. Cantonese is also centuries older than Mandarin, the official language of China, which evolved later in the courts of Mongol emperors during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Therefore, the original rhythms and sounds of classical Tang and Song dynasty poetry are probably closer to modern-day Cantonese.

The Cantonese have traditionally been regarded as rebellious, ungovernable people who will take spontaneous action if angered, and they have always been feared and mistrusted by successive emperors and regimes. The Nationalist revolution, which toppled the Qing dynasty in 1912, was instigated by a Cantonese – Dr Sun Yatsen. In 1966, public discontent in Hong Kong erupted into serious rioting, ostensibly against an increase in Star Ferry fares. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, hundreds of Communist supporters besieged Government House; rioting and strikes broke out, and a bomb exploded on Hong Kong Island, injuring nine people. Since then, the Hong Kong government has been rather sensitive to public opinion.

Hong Kong's oldest landowners, the Hakka ("guest people"), immigrated from central and southern China centuries ago, fortifying villages around Hong Kong against marauding pirates. Hakka women are forbidden from inheriting land, which is passed down through sons only, so that the family can retain ownership of its land. The Tanka and Hoklo "boat people" once spent their lives on junks bobbing in the waters off Aberdeen, Yau Ma Tei and other typhoon shelters, but most of them have now come ashore to earn a living. The Tanka are allegedly the descendants of General Lu Tsun, who revolted against the emperor; after his death, his people were persecuted and deemed unworthy to live on land.

The Hoklo originate from Fuzhou (Fujian province) and were mainly fishermen and manual laborers. The sea goddess Tin Hau's birthday on the 23rd day of the third moon is celebrated by the descendants of these boat people, who sail in elaborately decorated fishing boats to her temples to pray for protection at sea.

From the 1930s onwards, thousands of immigrants began arriving from other parts of China, especially Shanghai and Fuzhou. Shanghai and Chiu Chow (Shantou) people, renowned for their cunning business acumen, clung together in powerful clan networks and established successful family businesses. As a result, many of Hong Kong's top professionals hail from these regions. The Chinese government had a formidable Shanghai clique under former President Jiang Zemin, who was once mayor of Shanghai.

Between 1978 and 1980, some 500,000 illegal immigrants from mainland China swam the shark-infested tidal waters, or climbed hills along the Sino-British border under the cover of darkness, to come to Hong Kong. Pitted against them were battalions of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese coastal gunboats, which cooperated with British and Gurkha troops, police and the Royal Navy and Air Force to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the territory.

Nowadays, mainlanders can enter Hong Kong legally on an entry permit. Once derided as ah tsar (country bumpkins) by the Hong Kong Chinese, many of them are now assimilated into the local culture. However, China-trained professionals such as doctors, nurses and engineers often have to accept menial jobs here because their credentials are not recognized by Hong Kong authorities. A medical board examination was set up in the 1990s to qualify Chinese doctors to practice in Hong Kong, but some mainland medical graduates feel that the test discriminates against them. The English section of the test alone eliminates many candidates.

Previously, it was difficult for mainland wives and children of Hong Kong men to register as local citizens. In 1997, 66,000 of these illegal immigrant children known as siu yunseh (little snakes) were deported, causing fierce debate over residency rights. Since then, priority has been given to these women and children in the quota of new arrivals allowed, but they still sometimes need to bribe mainland officials.

Foreign Devils and Ghost People

Hong Kong's cultural diversity is largely a result of the many different foreign nationals who have made their home here, either temporarily or permanently. Indeed, the two percent of the population that is not Chinese have made valuable contributions to cuisine, arts, culture and religion in Hong Kong, while assimilating Chinese customs and traditions.

American, Australian, Canadian, British and other European expatriates – gweilo ("ghost person" or "foreign devil") as they are known in Chinese – make up the majority of the foreign business community in Hong Kong. During British rule, expats were often given preferential treatment in the workplace, commanding much higher salaries than the Chinese. Today, these inequalities are less apparent.

One of the more established foreign communities in Hong Kong comprises the descendants of early merchant traders and soldiers who followed the Union Jack from the Indian subcontinent to Hong Kong: Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs and Parsees. Their descendants, many of whom speak fluent Cantonese and hold Hong Kong passports are not recognized as Chinese nationals even though they were born in the territory. However, most of them have now been granted British citizenship. The survival of this community is largely due to a family-oriented approach to running cost-effective, profitable companies.

A few thousand ex-Gurkha troops, who once served in the British army, are now working as security guards in Hong Kong; eventually, they will probably retire to their homes in Nepal.

Hong Kong is home to a large number of Filipinas working as amahs (domestic helpers). There are also many Filipinos working as singers and musicians. On Sundays and holidays, thousands of arnalis gather in Chater Garden, Statue Square and surrounding streets in Central on their day off from work.

Several thousand Vietnamese boat people, who first started arriving in 1975 after the Communist North Vietnamese took over their country, have stayed on in Hong Kong. In the 1970s and 1980s, asylum was granted to over 100,000 refugees, many of whom had no hope of resettlement abroad. But after international discussions to resolve the issue of the Vietnamese boat people, it was concluded that all Vietnamese were to be removed from local refugee camps by the end of 1995. Those deemed "economic migrants" were repatriated to Vietnam, by force when necessary, while political refugees, who comprised about 10 percent, were resettled elsewhere overseas.

Hong Kong Values

Traditional Chinese values such as humility, perseverance, reverence for ancestors and respect for elders have been adapted to Hong Kong's modern, capitalist society. In fact, its community is based upon a paternalistic, family-oriented system that was perpetuated by China's most venerable sage, Confucius. He believed that a person should always carefully examine motives before acting, since all individuals are directly responsible for their fate. Therefore, the Chinese believe that anything can be achieved through sheer will and hard work. Their attitude is, "If you don't have any money, then go out and earn some!" rather than relying on government support or charity to provide financial assistance for one's family.

With this work ethic in mind, many parents work at least nine or 10 hours a day, six days a week to provide for their children who will, one day, look after them in old age. Most of the family budget goes towards children's clothing, health care and education, so that they may enjoy what their parents never had in their youth. Children are expected to support their elderly parents and to honor the memory of deceased parents by regularly visiting their graves and making offerings.

The Chinese tend to be rather reserved about displays of affection; love is expressed through acts of kindness, rather than through words or embraces common in Western cultures. Family values are very strong, and parents dote on their children by spending time and money oil them. On Sundays and holidays, parents take the whole family, with grandparents in tow, for Western-style buffets, yum cha ("drinking tea"), or dim sum. After lunch, families wander around the streets and Hong Kong shopping malls and buy new toys and clothes for the children.

Money Madness

Successive famines, wars and political upheaval in China have taught the Hong Kong Chinese not to be complacent about financial security. They are eagle-eyed at spotting opportunities for making money, and for Hong Kong people, money DOES buy happiness, since material security is vital to one's sense of well-being. There is no other place in the world where people, rich or poor, are as business-minded and clued-in about property, stocks and horse-racing. It's no coincidence that kung hei fat choi - literally "Congratulations on your wealth" - is a common greeting at Lunar New Year.

The quest for wealth is also motivated by "face" or self-respect. Driving expensive cars, wearing designer labels and living in a beautiful apartment are ways of winning face.

At the end of a meal, diners will fight to pay the bill, since generosity also gains face. Face and guanxi – lifelong obligations of mutual assistance – are crucial to relationships. That's why the Chinese prefer to give business to family and friends rather than dealing with strangers, who might prove to be unreliable. In friends there is certainty.

Hong Kong people are often blamed for lacking a spirit of civic duty, but they are anything but miserly. Millions of dollars are donated annually to the Community Chest, a charitable organization in Hong Kong.

Security Overseas

Since the 1984 Sino-British agreement to return Hong Kong to China in 1997, emigration has been a constant feature of life in Hong Kong. During the 1980s and 1990s, around 60,000 people left each year to secure foreign passports, mainly from Canada, Australia and the United States. The price of such security has meant sacrificing businesses, family and friends, and starting out from scratch in an alien country. Many emigrants have returned to Hong Kong after establishing permanent residence overseas, shuttling back and forth annually to retain their status in both places. In theory, China insists that all ethnic Chinese Hong Kong residents are Chinese nationals; therefore, they are not entitled to foreign consular protection. However, Hong Kong residents are free to travel on foreign passports, since attempts to change their status could lead to economic disaster.

Pragmatism Versus Passion

For financial reasons, Hong Kong Chinese marry at an older age than mainland Chinese. Women generally marry at the age of 25 and men, at 28. Because of high property prices, most people, even married couples, have no choice but to live with their parents until they have saved enough money. Crammed living conditions, however, make life difficult for would-be lovers. Moments alone are rare, and the prying eyes of relatives are not conducive to romance. Among the few romantic retreats are public parks, and at night, the benches are often taken by courting couples. Another option is the love motel rented by the hour in Kowloon Tong, a popular escape for couples looking for a few hours of undisturbed passion.

Hong Kong is a capitalist society where Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fittest" predominates. Local tax laws give residents incentive to be among those that not only survive, but thrive. Hong Kong residents get to keep most of what they earn – income tax does not take away more than 15 percent of a worker's salary, and only around two percent of the working population pays the highest rate, with over half paying no income tax at all.

However, Hong Kong has a high cost of living due to rising inflation, limited land, the expense of bringing raw materials and food from China, and high import duties imposed upon petrol and cars. In spite of this, luxury cars score high points in the "face" game, and people will gladly blow all their cash on a Mercedes-Benz or BMW even though they can't afford much else. The cost of a parking space in certain residential blocks is the price of all apartment in other countries, and like property or stocks, speculators buy and sell parking spaces at enormous profits.

The government has generated enormous revenue from auctioning land to private developers who are willing to pay astronomical prices, and from taxes imposed on the sale and purchase of property. Before the Asian economic crisis, the property market remained the fastest and most reliable way of earning a buck.

The expected arrival of all additional two million immigrants from mainland China by the year 2000 prompted Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in 1997 to promise 85,000 new flats by 2002. The most costly method of releasing land to create more housing has been through urban renewal projects – purchasing run-down buildings in old areas, such as in parts of Kowloon, and often resettling the tenants elsewhere.

Old factory areas such as Cheung Sha Wan and Tsuen Wall and rural land in Sheung Shui and Fail Ling, have been developed into residential areas at minimal cost. However, the main problem of developing high-density residential areas in the New Territories is that of infrastructure – efficient transportation and employment opportunities are essential to draw people to move into this new housing. The earliest New Towns, as these developed areas are called, lacked these facilities, causing unemployment and social problems to soar.

A more cost-effective solution to the shortage of space for building new public housing has been land reclamation, as there is no need to compensate tenants or buy property.

Families living in public housing have the benefit of low rents, as well as shared income from family members, so they are relatively well-off compared to low-income families in other parts of the world. However, lower-middle-class families are often caught: they do not qualify for public housing, and most property prices are way out of their budget. Since the 1990s, the Hong Kong government has allocated "sandwich-class" housing for these families in the form of affordable rental or private property.


Less than half a year after Hong Kong left Britain's grasp, the territory's government moved to replace the use of English in schools with Cantonese. Although most Hong Kong people speak Cantonese, English has been the language of finance and trade in Hong Kong, and its linguistic bridge to the world. At handover time, 300 of Hong Kong's 424 high schools taught in Cantonese. Many of the remaining schools were told to change to Cantonese within a year. Those permitted to continue using English included some elite schools. Said one worried student: "People will become divided. The rich will speak English and become richer, and the poor will speak Chinese and become poorer." However, in the early 21st century, this trend is changing, and the government is promoting proficiency in foreign languages, including competency in English.

Hong Kong Education

Hong Kong's educational system is every bit as competitive as its business community. Children suffer tremendous pressure to gain entrance into prestigious schools. The most sought-after are English or bilingual schools because English is widely used in business, medicine and law. A number of students commit suicide each year because they fail an important exam. Parental pressure often proves too much for children, who spend most of their time doing homework, cramming for exams and studying foreign languages for overseas study. Tutors are hired to prepare even toddlers for kindergarten entrance exams, an ordeal that sometimes requires two hours of testing to determine a child's Chinese, English and arithmetic skills.

The government recently conducted a program to ascertain the standard of English spoken by teachers, to ensure that students get every opportunity to become confidently bilingual. The core competency remains Chinese, English and math. Language proficiency surveys conducted in the late 1990s have shown that the majority of school dropouts are competent in neither Chinese nor English, and that over 60 percent of students are more receptive to lessons taught in Chinese.

Many schools claim to use English, but teachers and students often resort to "Chinglish" – Cantonese peppered with English phrases – when studying English-language textbooks. Outside the classroom, English is seldom used. It's hardly surprising that the most popular, over-subscribed university courses are in science, business and engineering – more easily rote-learned and leading to more financially rewarding careers than the arts and humanities.

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