Living In Hong Kong Newsletter

A Hong Kong social guide for expats

By: Bruce Cairnduff

For most expats, Hong Kong is a transient location. Very few Westerners call it home; most of us are here for a limited period of time before the next posting, or a permanent move elsewhere.


This creates a unique camaraderie within the expat community – with our time in the city limited, we make the very best of it. People throw themselves into new friendships and unexpected social situations; for example, we attend school plays and children’s birthday parties with expectations for our own social gratification as well as that of the little ones.

I’ve always enjoyed my son’s friend’s birthday parties, because I enjoy watching him bouncing off the walls with his friends, and throwing himself into whatever theme has been chosen for the event. But since arriving in Hong Kong, I now have more selfish reasons for attending these occasions: parents make an effort to socialise with other parents, and there are usually a couple of bottles of wine open next to the apple juice and water. This was not our experience in London, where parents stuck to separate corners and studiously avoided any inter-adult communication other than polite greetings.

As new arrivals, you can rely on more than just your children to find common ground with other expats. Your building complex is generally a good source of like-minded souls – most with similar problems getting settled, and replicating the comforts of some previous non-Asian lifestyle. Shared frustration with acclimatisation is as good a basis for a new friendship as shared enthusiasm for the positives of expat life in Hong Kong.

It helps that there is an unfortunate, but probably inevitable, barrier between the Western expats and the locals and mainlanders. It’s not just a barrier based on language and cultural differences; it is also based on the shared experience of being a foreigner in in a city where the deteriorating Western influence is succumbing to the overwhelming tsunami of Chinese political and economic control. We gravitate towards each other not only because it is easier, but because – even though we are trying to assimilate – we like to hold on to the individuality of our own culture.

We respect the local festivals, and those of our mainland neighbours, but we also embrace celebrations that we might have ignored at home; St Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, every rugby match involving European teams – and we do so surrounded by new and old friends on the same wavelength. Thankfully, there is no tax on wine in Hong Kong, so the lubrication of these friendships is a little cheaper than it would be in other expat locations!

I am still a relative “newbie” to expat life in Hong Kong (just over two years; you need to be here at least 10 years to be considered “established”), and as such I feel entitled to offer advice to any new arrivals: Accept every invitation, and attend every organised activity, especially those that you would have pointedly shunned at home. Definitely immerse yourself in local culture and customs, but don’t let them overwhelm you: as an expat in Hong Kong you have a proud social tradition to uphold – do justice to the institution!