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Nan Lian Garden at Kowloon Hong Kong, Asia

Hong Kong Travel Guide

Culture in Hong Kong

Perhaps you’ve seen Bruce Lee’s films and his fifty fists of fury? Or maybe you’ve admired the contemporary works of some of Hong Kong’s many artists? Just as the country’s various actors, films, art and food have crept into international consciousness, the country’s heritage is indebted to the various cultures that have permeated it. But who are the people and what makes them tick? Read on to discover.

Hong Kong has a population of 7.3 million people and nearly 95% of them are of Chinese descent. The remaining 5% is mainly a mix of other Asian populations who have migrated to Hong Kong over the decades, including Indians, Nepalese and Vietnamese. Estimates show that roughly 50% – 80% of the population practice a form of Buddhism. The other 30% or so practice Taoism.

Giant bronze Buddha statue in Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Giant bronze Buddha statue in Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Considering its diverse cultural heritage, it’s no wonder that Hong Kong boasts various different styles of architecture. The Mazu – or Sea Goddess – Temple, in Shek Pai Wan (Aberdeen Bay), is a prime example of the early Cantonese style and has all the trademarks associated with it: straight lines, pale brickwork, ornate colorful roof and the use of detailed reliefs. The British style in contrast – evident in the construction of the University of Hong Kong, the Murray House or City Hall – is very different. There is something of the early British Brutalist style about them with their cool colors and clean, rectangular shapes. Much of the remnants of the indigenous buildings built around fishing villages are still present. These constructions called Pang Uks – or houses on stilts – can still be found in Tai O and on Ma Wan Island.

The historic clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui designed by English architect Arthur Benison Hubback during World War I.
The historic clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui designed by English architect Arthur Benison Hubback during World War I.

Hong Kong also has a huge number of incredible must-see institutions for visual arts. We certainly recommend two of the most momentous structural triumphs in the whole of Hong Kong; H Queen’s (24 floors) and the Pedder Building (9 floors). Between them, they house 15 leading galleries of the art world. There are also many success stories attributed to contemporary modern artists hailing from Hong Kong and the country is well represented worldwide. Two of the younger contemporaries worth investigating while you are in Hong Kong include Leung Mee Ping and Stanley Wong (anothermountainman).

Outside formal museums, galleries and art houses, expect graffiti everywhere as you walk down the streets. Much like some European cities, graffiti is seen as artistic expression in Hong Kong with painstakingly created artwork lining the streets. Check out Art Lane and the Man Fung Building for a closer look at some of the best.

The country also boasts a healthy appreciation of the performing arts. Hong Kong cinema is famous the world over and has made its name internationally thanks in part to actors like Chow Yung-fat, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, and critically lauded directors such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai.

Opera is huge in Hong Kong. As well as a mix of sung and spoken word performances, you’ll find that this opera uses very specific string and wind instruments. Established in 2003, Opera Hong Kong is the perfect venue for watching such a show thanks to its continual efforts to uphold traditional operatic practices.

Hongkongers enjoy their sport with golf often considered the oldest and most popular form of pastime. Other favorite sports include football, cricket, horse racing, rugby and dragon boat racing.

Lion dancers celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong
Lion dancers celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

Festivals and Events in Hong Kong

There is a large variety of festivals and events to choose from in Hong Kong. And what better way to really get to know a culture and the people than during the time of celebration. Here are the top festivals of Hong Kong as recommended by our experts.

1. The Chinese New Year falls in either January or February depending on the Lunar Calendar that year. Expect the skies to alight with plenty of colorful fireworks, noisy drums, and a host of tourists from everywhere.

2. The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is perhaps a more unique cousin of the Chinese New Year Festival as it celebrates the traditions and folklore of the city. The celebrations center around the Pak Tai Temple (May 19-23).

3. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated either in May or June, depending on the dates mentioned in the lunar calendar. Some of the most beautiful and ornate dragon boats tough it out against each other to the sound of beating drums. It’s quite a spectacle!

Cuisine

Welcome to food paradise. From mouthwatering bite-sized snacks to noodle meals loaded with deliciously spicy sides, piping hot street food at stalls lining the bustling city center, glitzy restaurants in upscale neighborhoods, hidden bars, and long-established, family-run eateries in old Chinese neighborhoods, Hong Kong does it all and how!

Hong Kong cuisine is an amalgam of influences from around the world and comes with a strong Cantonese background, European flavors (especially British), Chinese indigenous recipes (Hokkien, Hakka, etc), the delicate balance of Japanese cuisine, and the bold richness of Southeast Asian cooking. The fierce demand for diversity and expertise in the food industry in Hong Kong has drawn chefs, restaurateurs and food chains from all over the world, adding to the city’s reputation as a gourmand’s mecca.

The Cantonese Influence

Since about 94% of the local population are Cantonese in ethnicity, it’s no wonder that a lot of dishes rely heavily on Cantonese ingredients: rich wine, spring onions, heavy use of garlic and sesame oil, and a number of sauces – soya, plum, and oyster. Apart from rice, which is a staple, expect all types of meat – from pork and beef to frog legs and snails.

Cantonese dimsums on the table at Hong Kong
Cantonese dimsums on the table at Hong Kong

Street Food and Fine Dining

Hong Kong has a robust dining out culture with most people opting not to cook a meal due to long work hours and the incredibly high number of restaurants in the island. There is an exhaustive range of food districts which makes exploring the city all the more fun. Whether it’s Kowloon City Causeway Bay, Lan Kwai Fong, Soho or Tsim Sha Tsui, street food and fine dining are always in close proximity.

Hawkers or food carts are portable food stalls that are found everywhere. They offer very quick meals at affordable prices. The food is perfect for nibbling on while wandering around the city. Make sure to pick the busiest – after all the locals know best – and you’ll be in for a treat!

Street food vendor in Hong Kong
Street food vendor in Hong Kong

There are many specialty shops that produce a particular type of food specific to an ethnic background. Some of the most popular are the beef jerky stores, Chinese pastry stores, and Hong Kong fast food outlets famous for pork cutlets, congee and noodle dishes. There are 60 Michelin starred restaurants in Hong Kong and when you consider the comparably small size of the city, this is an incredible feat. Celebrity chefs such as Alvin Leung and Joël Robuchon have come from far and wide to make their mark in this fast moving food industry.

Hong Kong’s Signature Dishes

  1. Sweet and sour pork is the most famous dish in Hong Kong. Known for its uniquely thick consistency, tangy taste and bright red color, this dish may have made its way into Chinese takeaway menus around the world, but Hong Kongers swear by their local variety!
  2. Dimsums – Ubiquitous juicy little parcels of meat wrapped in paper thin pastry dough and often served in pipin hot broth. A lot of time and care goes into making the broth which is typically prepared with duck, chicken and pork simmered in stock for a long time. You can find equally delicious deep-fried versions called wontons everywhere: these are smaller in size and served with any number of dipping sauces.
  3. Roast goose is a traditional specialty of Cantonese cuisine and has become a much loved dish in Hong Kong. The whole goose is usually roasted, cut into small pieces, served alongside some boiled rice and eaten with plum sauce.
Sweet and sour pork - one of Hong Kong's most famous dishes
Sweet and sour pork – one of Hong Kong’s most famous dishes

Dining Etiquette in Hong Kong

  • As in most other Southeast Asian countries, Hong Kong too relies on chopsticks rather than cutlery at most local to mid-range restaurants. You are usually provided with two pairs – one for serving yourself and the other to actually eat with.
  • Expect to be served hot water with your meals everywhere, unless you specify your preference. This is because local people believe that cold water is unsanitary.
  • Portion sizes in Hong Kong are typically smaller than what you may be used to at home. Expect a generous helping of rice or noodles with your mains and a dessert afterwards.

History

Take a walk around the city and you can’t help but notice the influence of Chinese dynasties and the British who ruled over Hong Kong until 1997. With notable dynasties including the Qin, the Han and the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese not only shaped and built mainland China, but also developed modern day Hong Kong by fending off bandits and pirates over the course of centuries. Today you can visit Cheung Po Tsai’s cave on Cheung Chau island with us, which was the stash house of one of the most notorious pirates in the South China Seas!

Cheung Chau island was the stash house of one of the most notorious pirates in the South China Seas!
Cheung Chau island was the stash house of one of the most notorious pirates in the South China Seas!

Many decades after the Song dynasty lost to Kublai Khan, the Mings took control and became the last imperial dynasty to be led by ethnic Han Chinese. It was during this time that the local people began constructing walled villages to protect themselves from bandits and rivals. Today, you could travel back in time through a tour of the 17th century walled village of Kat Hing Wai with us, which was home to 400 members of the Tang clan. One of the better maintained villages, the moat and chain iron gates are still there, 500 years on!

The Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty before the British colonial era, were responsible for architectural feats such as impressive Tai Fu Tai Mansion. The monuments still stands testament to the high living standards that the elite Qing people enjoyed.

It was the high demand for Chinese tea that led the British to China and Hong Kong. The colonists declared the first Opium War when China destroyed the opium that was illegally smuggled in. China finally lost the war and Hong Kong became part of the British Empire in 1842.

Growth and modernization projects were rolled out soon afterwards and continued further with the introduction of ferries, trams, buses and eventually airlines. Today, you can still visit the erstwhile Hong Kong Marine Police Headquarters which has been transformed as 1881 Heritage, a declared monument that also houses a luxury hotel and shopping mall. A perfect example of Victorian-era Hong Kong, it’s replete with historical artifacts and restored buildings.

The former Marine Police Headquarters of Hong Kong which has been transformed as 1881 Heritage
The former Marine Police Headquarters of Hong Kong which has been transformed as 1881 Heritage

There’s no better symbol of Hong Kong’s fortitude than the 44-meter redbrick and granite Clock Tower, a remnant of the old Kowloon Railway Station and an everlasting landmark. Not long after it was built, the British handed the region back to the Chinese. As part of the handover, Hong Kong became China’s first special administrative region and has maintained its own leadership until today, while still officially under Beijing’s control. The city now operates as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under China’s ‘one country – two rule system.’

Vibrant and modern, Hong Kong retains an old-style charm, a nod to the influence of the Chinese dynasties and the British that were part of its history. Plan a trip to this electrifying city and you’ll know why travelers from every part of the world succumb to its magic.

Excellent / 4.9 out of 5
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