At first glance, charismatic Hong Kong is all steel and glass skyscrapers and modern urban amenities, but there are signs that Hong Kong still is, in essence, Chinese. You need not look far to find feng shui, tai chi, or reflexology, for example.
Look to the designs of ultra-modern corporate buildings, the names of places, the flavours of Cantonese food, the Hong Kong lifestyle and pastimes. Closer inspection reveals the Chinese values, traditions and history that linger just beneath the veneer of westernisation. Chinese culture dates back thousands of years.
Bargaining in Hong Kong
The only way to shop is to haggle your way to the best possible price, or so Hong Kong's market vendors would have it. Bargaining can be a lengthy process, but don't give up too fast!
However, if you do not reach an agreement in what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time, simply smile, shrug and walk away. Chances are there is a competitor not too far away who will meet your price.
Food is an integral part of any culture, and never more so than in a culture that celebrates dining out. In Hong Kong, dim sum and congee take centre stage, with tea always close at hand.
The Chinese people of Hong Kong are mostly of Cantonese origin, yet the Chinese consist of many clans with their own practices, dialects and way of life. This is still particularly evident in the New Territories, where each and every village has its own performing arts, sports and community centres.
Today, more than half of the Chinese population in Hong Kong are Cantonese, although some descendants of the Hakka, Tanka and Hoklo clans which settled in Hong Kong remain. The term “Han-Chinese” is used to distinguish the ethnic majority (about 92% of the mainland Chinese population) from the various minorities in and around the greater China region.
Although archaeologists on Lantau Island unearthed an ancient burial ground dating back some 4,500 years, modern history has it that the Han-Chinese started migrating to the New Territories in the 12th century.
Historically, the Tanka were pearl divers in the Tolo Harbour, while the Hoklos, who came from the northern coast, were a seafaring people who made a living from fishing.
And in the 17th century, as Hong Kong and its people thrived, it attracted pirates who exploited the sheltered bays and natural harbours of the little islands around the coast as hideaways from which to launch their raids on passing boats.
Consequently, in order to protect their families, the original settlers there moved away from the coastal areas and headed for the interiors and mainland. Then, the Hakka, or the “guest people”, arrived from the north and settled in the recently vacated areas.
These people gave Hong Kong culture an interesting new twist: they lived in walled villages, and planted rice, pineapples, tea and incense – the fragrant plants that eventually gave Hong Kong its name.
Hong Kong Temples
Hong Kong has more than 600 fascinating temples, shrines and monasteries. Over 400 of these temples belong to the Buddhist faith.
Others are Taoist. Some 60 are dedicated to Tin Hau, protector of seafarers. All are worth a visit.
Lucky & Unlucky Numbers and Colours
The number 6 is a lucky number associated with blessings. And 8 is considered an auspicious number in Chinese culture, as it sounds like the Mandarin word for “prosperity”. The number 9 is also considered lucky, as it sounds like the word for “sufficient” in Chinese.
Taboo numbers (considered very unlucky) are 4 and 24, because they sound like words meaning “death” and “easy to die” in Cantonese. The numbers 73 and 84 sound like “funeral” and “having accidents”, respectively. Do try to avoid these in phone numbers, addresses and written correspondence.
Red is a lucky colour. According to Chinese tradition, many colours have negative connotations (black on yellow is only for the dead, for example). Pink, gold and silver are acceptable and, therefore, popular for giftwrap and envelopes.
Grace in strength and strength in grace are important tenets of the martial arts. Graceful, gentle movements belie the lethal strength in a flick of the wrist or a jab of a finger. This is the world of martial arts where art imitates life.
Chinese martial arts derive their movements from nature, be it the flow of water, the flight of birds, the slow prowling steps of a predatory animal or the swift strike of a snake. In times past, when one's prowess in martial arts determined if one lived or died, it was also used as a means to heal injuries sustained during a fight.
However, Chinese martial arts are not only used for fighting; they are also a form of exercise, whereby one's internal energy is focused to improve one's health. Many people in Hong Kong practise martial arts, from young children to senior citizens. The arts they practise are diverse: tai chi,Qi gong and kung fu, to name a few.
Tai chi chuan (popularly known as tai chi) is generally used as an aid to health and long life, as its slow-motion movements help improve balance and muscle tone and ease tension.
Qi gong also uses meditation, breathing techniques and postures to support physical health.
In fact, kung fu was first made popular in the West by one of Hong Kong's most famous sons, the late actor, Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan also has become hugely successful by bringing humour to the kung fu film genre.
First released in Hong Kong in 2004, Kung Fu Hustle is at once a parody of and a tribute to kung fu films.
Museums & Galleries: Mirrors of Culture
Much of Hong Kong's culture can be gleaned through its museums and galleries that highlight the various things close to the heart of the people. Other than conventional museums, some interesting ones include the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which showcases the fine art of tea drinking, the Hong Kong Racing Museum that tells visitors all about one of Hong Kong's favourite pastimes, as well as the Law Uk Folk Museum which offers a glimpse into the ancient way of life of the people.
Traditional Chinese stage performances are operas wherein stories from Chinese literature, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Mansion, come alive during festivals and special occasions.
The beginnings of Cantonese opera are difficult to trace. However, it is generally accepted that Cantonese opera originated in northern China and gradually migrated south to the province of Guangdong. Interestingly, all the stage roles, including those of women, were performed by males, until the 20th century.
Well-known Cantonese operas still performed include The Purple Hairpin and Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower.
Today, the younger generations seem to have less interest in their eastern stage legacy, preferring instead the operas and stage plays of the West and less traditional forms of entertainment.
Due in part to its past as a British colony, Hong Kong also has many modern theatres which show Western operas, orchestral and stage performances. The stage provides a reflection of the present day Hong Kong, where East meets West on an equal footing, which best describes what Hong Kong is all about.
Involving pressure points on the soles of the feet, this can be considered a type of massage. The notion is that different zones on the feet correspond with other parts of the body and so blocked energy in internal organs, for example, can be released by stimulating the correct zones on the soles of the feet.
The Chinese Junk
The junk is a traditional Chinese sailing rig with two to four sails on bamboo masts. The first ones were built in approximately 960 AD and were used as trading vessels and war ships throughout the history of China.
The Tanka's Stilt Village
The Tanka people have always lived on the sea and their junks doubled as homes for centuries past. Even today, they tend to live on their boats.
On the northwestern tip of Lantau Island, there is a stilt-house community of the Tanka people built over the seashore – Tai O fishing village. A Tanka house is a rare, yet inspiring sight.
Perching high above the water, the Tanka would rather brave tidal waves than the perils of land. No fool's logic, this, as, from the water's edge, they could easily see who approached them from any direction and, as far as the Tanka were concerned, the lush foliage of land concealed unfamiliar dangers.
Stilt-villages like this also exist in Vietnam and on Koh Panyi in Thailand.
On Kowloon, one may come across several intriguing walled structures that look a lot like fortresses. These are actually the walled villages that the Hakka people built to protect themselves from wild animals and the marauding pirates who plundered the coasts of Hong Kong in the 17th century.
The Kam Tin Walled Villages (Kat Hing Wai) of Yuen Long in the New Territories are a series of seven such villages with walls 18-feet thick.
The Sam Tung Uk Folk Museum in Tsuen Wan, is a replica of an original Hakka walled village.