Many first timers to Hong Kong come here to expect a huge culture shock. These people, especially ones from more larger, urban centres are often pleasantly surprised to find out that this isn’t really the case. Hong Kong’s culture in 2009 is quite westernized, likely due to habit, modernization and its colonial past (i.e. the exotic, still very Asian Hong Kong one sees in old Hollywood movies is nowhere to be found). For example, you would never see people, with the exception, perhaps of the elderly (or if it is part of a restaurant worker’s dress code) wear culture based clothing outside of special occasions like a wedding or Chinese New Year. Big name brands, ranging from Starbucks to Zara and Coach are found everywhere (there are three Starbuckses within walking distance to where I’m staying. Nope, not much different from downtown Toronto). Billboards advertising is EVERYWHERE and at this time of the year, many malls are decorated for Christmas (Hong Kong is only about 10% Christian, but many non-Christians still celebrate the more secular version (Santa, trees, tinsel, etc…). You actually see more “Merry Christmas” signs here than “Happy Holiday” or “Seasons’ Greetings”).
Of course, you can’t expect things to be exactly like home. Hong Kong is still Hong Kong. There are some differences. There are some local customs and foods that might be considered unusual in other parts of the world (since four is considered unlucky by many Chinese speakers, there are buildings that have eliminated all floors with the number “4” in it. There are even buildings that jump from the 39th floor to the 50th). Eight, on the other hand, is a lucky number. Prices can also be a shocker…sort of. A US dollar is about $7.50 Hong Kong, so get ready to see $28 lattes. A $100, three course meal is a very, very, very good deal. Another thing one from North America might notice is that Hong Kongers drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right. This is likely something which remained from the old colonial days as the United Kingdom also drives this way. Food, even at familiar restaurants might have localized items as well.
Language-wise, though everyone who was in the school system prior to the Chinese handover in 1997 has had some form of English instruction, don’t expect everyone to be fluent – English instruction to these kids is like a Canadian from English-speaking Canada’s French instruction. However, don’t let that deter you from trying local cuisine or shopping at non-internationally known stores. What’s the point of going to a different country if you’re going to spend your entire vacation only dining and shopping at your at-home favourites? If you are having trouble communicating with staff, sign language or pointing at pictures or product work. Also, going with someone who is familiar with some local customs or learning a few basic words help too. The important thing is to try.