Hong Kong has a population of approximately seven million people situated within a land mass of 1,104 square kilometers (426 square miles) placing it among the most densely populated areas of the world. 95% of the city’s population are Chinese with the majority of Han decent originating mainly from nearby Guangdong province.

Since the handover to Chinese authorities, the western expatriate population has been gradually declining while the population of non western expats, in some cases, has been increasing. Estimates from 2008 put the number of expatriates in Hong Kong at about 70,000. Reasons for the decline relate, in most cases, to an evolution of the requirements of businesses operating in Hong Kong. Businesses have been localizing many positions and the size of packages offered to expats has been reduced in many cases.

By the numbers:

Growth rate: 0.8%
Literacy: 97.1% (overall); 98.7% males, 95.4% females
Life expectancy: 82.5 years (overall); 79.4 years males, 85.5% years females
Work force (2008): 3.66 million


For many, exploring a new culture is the primary reason for traveling to other parts of the planet while for others the reason is relocation. Whatever the reason you are coming to Hong Kong, prepare to be immersed in a vibrant bustling world that, in many ways, provides a remarkable example of the cultural amalgamation of east and west. Hong Kong can be both exotic and familiar at the same time. Understanding Hong Kong’s customs and norms can be both frustrating and immensely rewarding to those who choose to get beneath the surface. Most foreigners relate that the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know.

This section is meant to be a primer that will help to outline some of the basic concepts of Chinese culture and hopefully stir some interest in what is one of the most fascinating and ancient cultures on planet earth.

Ethnic groups

Before coming to Hong Kong many westerners have an overly simplified understanding of what to expect when they arrive. Overall, there are 56 distinct ethnic groups recognized in China with the Han Chinese comprising the majority. Overarching the ethnic differences are typical north-south, east-west and coastal-non-coastal differences seen elsewhere around the globe. The interrelationship between these factors creates a complexity found in few other countries.

In Hong Kong, the Cantonese, Taishanese, Hakka and Chiu Chow ethnic groups are the most prevalent. Taishanese have contributed significantly to the success of the city dominating the entertainment and business sectors of the economy while the Hakka were the original inhabitants of what started out as a sleepy fishing where Chinese emperors sent officials for punishment.


The underlying principles of most social values in Chinese culture come from Confucianism and Taoism; which is the most influential of the two is a long debated topic. Confucianism is influential in Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and – in different ways – Japan. It is based on the precept that humanity can be taught, improved and perfected by means of personal and communal self-cultivation/creation. Virtue and moral perfection figure prominently in Confucian thought.

Taoism has had regional influence in Asia for more than 2000 years and notable influence in western cultures since the 19th century.  The ‘Tao’ – literally path or way – emphasizes humility, moderation, and compassion.  There is a strong focus on nature, the relationship between man and the cosmos as well as health and longevity. Taoist spiritual thought is intertwined with many aspects of Chinese culture including martial arts and traditional medicine.

The relationship between confucian and taoist thought is so deeply rooted that it is difficult – if not impossible – to understand clearly where one begins and the other ends. The effect of modernity and western thought on Chinese culture – felt acutely in Hong Kong – has not made understanding by western minds any easier to come by. It is however a fascinating endeavor to undertake and will most likely lead those who attempt the journey to a much deeper understanding of the vast differences – and similarities – between eastern and western thought. In our Books, Films, and Music pages we have recommended a number of books that will help you gain a better understanding of the culture you are about to enter.

Superstition (or beliefs)

It is a reasonably safe statement to say that many Chinese are superstitious to one extent or another though the younger generation is certainly less so. That being said, it may be worthwhile as you read this section to ask yourself about common western superstitions such as “lucky number seven”, horoscopes etc, etc.

Some ‘classic’ Chinese superstitions

The number four is considered unlucky as it sounds similar to the Chinese word (to) die. White is considered unlucky as it is associated with funerals.

Using glue during pregnancy will cause a difficult birth.

A baby with wide and thick ears will live a prosperous life.

Lucky wedding colors – red, yellow and white

Unlucky wedding colors – black, blue and gray

Staircases should have an even number of steps.

Never marry a person who is three or six years younger or older.

While some of these beliefs (superstitions) may sound strange, one only need reminisce about parents or grandparents and the beliefs they held (or hold) to see that the east and west are not that far apart.


Logic is one of the most frustrating and difficult aspects of Chinese culture for westerners to understand. Gaining a basic understanding of Chinese perceptions of logic will go a long way to alleviating potential culture shock upon arrival in Hong Kong.

To start with, one must begin by assimilating the notion that while western logic (Greek or classical logic) has influence in China and Hong Kong, it is not the conventional wisdom (so to speak). In fact, the word logic in Chinese is a literal adoption from the English word it self pronounced “luo ji”. Historically logic was studied in China under a contemporary of Confucius named Mozi (Master Mo) however was thoroughly repressed during the Qin Dynasty due to the harsh tenets of legalism.

Buddhist or Indian logic is perhaps the best way to understand Chinese logic, however Buddhist logic cannot be understood in terms of classical western logic. It is, rather, a system in its own right influenced by the study of grammar and not mathematics as in the Greek system.

In simple, and hopefully understandable terms, Buddhist logic was not only logic for the sake of logic, it was also the philosophical basis for Buddhism itself. This is perhaps the most important distinction to make for the purposes of this section. The underlying principals of Chinese logic are rooted in Buddhist philosophy and thus quite different from western logic. Add to this the influence of Confucian thought on Chinese logic and the rationale behind the actions of Chinese people cannot be explained as simply as a+b=c. It is better understood (or not) as a culmination of an intricate set of influences emanating from Buddhist and Confucian thought.

It’s quite possible that you are more confused after reading this section than you were before you started. Just remember that when you start asking yourself, “Why in the world?” you probably won’t get a satisfactory answer. The confusion will eventually turn to fascination and reveal a world of thought that will never cease to amaze with its intricacies and eccentricities.

East meets west

In modern Hong Kong, time is money and wealth is king.  The city is brimming with malls full of all the world’s top brands. Shoppers with money to burn consume anything new and stylish. Asia accounts for 40% of the world’s luxury brand sales and Hong Kong ranks second on the Asian scale, second only to Japan –  and it’s a city, not a country.

The nightlife is geared towards the rich and drinking expensive champaign or whisky while smoking a 100 dollar cigar is certainly the norm. With the high lifestyle comes an underbelly supported by the Triads which are the Hong Kong equivalent of the mafia. For the most part however westerners will never see this side of the city. Hong Kong is all about business. Though some say it is not as welcoming and warm as other Asian cities, it is organized, clean (aside from the air at times), and to the point. Smoking bans are in place and people respect the cues (as opposed to much of the mainland).

More than a century of British rule encouraged a unique path of development in Hong Kong compared to other Asian cities. Some say that it is a prime example of how the east and west can be merged into something unique and better. Some disagree. Relocating to Hong Kong will provide you with the opportunity to judge for yourself. One way or the other, your journey will be nothing if not interesting.

Want to discover more great images of Hong Kong past and present? Visit our Pinterest page

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