Expats Relocating to Hong Kong: Where East Meets West

Hong Kong Family

Its Chinese heritage and 150 years of British rule have given
Hong Kong an interesting blend of Eastern and Western culture.

No one is quite sure how Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to Chinese rule will impact its current capitalistic business culture and democratic values. For now, perhaps the best way to understand Hong Kong is to think of it as a Chinese culture influenced by Western practices. Although its traditions and values are comparable to China’s, Hong Kong Chinese are more individualistic and take more risks than their counterparts in most other Asian societies. Following are some key themes that will help your expats better understand the Hong Kong culture.

Group-oriented individualism

In an individualistic society, the emphasis is on the rights, desires and goals of each person. Individuals pursue a career and a way of life that is best for them — and which takes priority over the needs of a company, a community, or sometimes even a family.

In a collectivist society, the emphasis is reversed. Group needs take precedence over individual desires, thus one who pursues individual goals or attention is often looked down upon.

Hong Kong is an interesting mix of both societies. Considered the financial and marketing capital of Asia, it is fertile ground for consumerism and entrepreneurialism, and this is reflected in the business-oriented style of its people.

At the same time, the collectivist ideals of several thousand years of Chinese history have given the people of Hong Kong a sense of loyalty to the group; they may pursue individual goals in terms of a their careers, but remain loyal to one company. The family is also a strong influencing factor.

On the ladder of life

As is true in other Asian nations, fixed hierarchical relationships are respected in Hong Kong, and preserving social harmony is important. People are expected to adhere to a certain decorum or behavior that includes showing respect for others and accepting the obligations that come with one’s position in the hierarchy.

This emphasis on hierarchy is reflected in the writings of Confucius, who taught that each person has a fixed place in the social order, with attendant obligations and responsibilities. It is also seen in the Chinese language. For example, there is no simple word for brother and sister as there is in English. Instead, there are more specific words for siblings that indicate whether a brother or sister is older or younger than the speaker.

The importance of face

Although the concept behind the value of “face” is not new to Americans, who understand the expression “to save face,” it is the key to a deeply held Asian value. People in Hong Kong go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to errors or emotions that may cause embarrassment to themselves or others. To damage another person’s face challenges that person’s position in the hierarchy, which, in turn, threatens the social order.

Culture and communication

While Americans have been taught to be direct, businesspeople in Hong Kong are seldom confrontational. They prefer to communicate indirectly, and whenever possible, will avoid saying the word “no.” They also use more nonverbal cues, or may simply suggest that a matter be given “further study” in order to avoid a negative reply. Open-ended questions are preferred, since they don’t force a person into a corner.

One good turn deserves another

There is no exact translation into English for the Chinese concept of guanxi, but it can best be thought of as a structured interdependence in which people provide reciprocal assistance for each other. When one person does a favor for another, he expects that person to provide some type of unspecified assistance in return. Guanxi relationships may exist with the clerk in a neighborhood store, with local government officials, or with business associates.

Life perspectives

Since the Chinese civilization dates back 4,000 years, the people of Hong Kong have a longer view of time than do many Westerners. In business, they are more apt to be influenced by the past and the long-term future. Although bottom-line profits are important, there is an emphasis on developing relationships over time that are based on trust. Also, events that occurred long ago in the Western view may exert a stronger influence on the Chinese.


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