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Hong Kong Traditions

Eating and Hospitality

If you don’t know how to use chopsticks already it is worth spending some time trying to learn, although most restaurants will provide you with a fork or spoon if you ask. Hong Kong hosts will also look sympathetically upon a gweilo that is struggling to connect food with mouth.

When dining out, washing your eating utensils is an important part of the pre-meal routine. Some restaurants will provide hot water for this purpose, whilst in others the tea that is poured at the start of the meal should be used for this purpose. Once that is done, the residual tea is usually poured into an empty bowl (rather than drank) and a fresh cup is poured.

According to tradition, the proper way of eating rice is to raise the bowl to the lips and use chopsticks to push the grains into the mouth.

This shows full enjoyment. Eating rice with the bowl on the table suggests dissatisfaction with the food.

Such etiquette, though, is starting to become a thing of the past.

Similarly, it used to be considered impolite to leave even one grain of rice in the bowl, but again few of the modern generation follow this custom.

At Cantonese restaurants and when dining in Hong Kong homes, dishes are usually shared. Diners normally serve themselves, although in some circumstances the host — or a waiter — may perform this duty.

For a large party, the table will typically be circular, possibly with a rotating centre that shuffles dishes between diners. In the absence of such a movable convenience, it is perfectly acceptable to reach across the table — just make sure that you take the morsel of food from the dish you want that is closest to you.

Chopstick etiquette is very important. You will be using two sets of chopsticks — one for serving from the communal dishes and a personal set of chopsticks for putting food in your mouth. Make sure you know which is which and do not confuse the two. Although there is no hardand- fast rule about how to distinguish the different types of chopstick, serving chopsticks tend to be slightly larger than personal ones and are often beige or ivory. Personal chopsticks are typically black.

If you are not provided with two sets of chopsticks — and this may be the case in some of the really local restaurants — then you should turn your personal chopsticks around and use only the handles for serving.

It is not particularly common for Chinese friends and business acquaintances to entertain at home, even among people that know each other very well. It is not that Hong Kongers want to keep friends out of their personal space; it is just that Hong Kong apartments are very small and locals often worry about losing face should guests not like their home or feel it is too humble.

It is more common for entertaining to take place in a restaurant or a private club. Many Hong Kong establishments have separate function rooms for this very purpose.

Unless you know your host very well, it’s probably best to let him order. The chances are that he will not select anything that is too exotic.

If you are really allergic to something speak up and be clear that you cannot try even a little bit under any circumstances.

When tea is poured into your cup, you can say thank you by tapping the surface of the table top gently with two fingers.

Desserts are not commonly served as part of a meal, but are reserved for special events (in which case they will be served between courses rather than at the end). Sweet dim sum — with egg custard or sweet potato fillings — are popular, though, but are usually ordered along with savoury items.

Many Hong Kongers are quite happy to queue for their food. The reasoning is that if there is queue, the food must be good. Restaurateurs have cottoned on to this, meaning that they want to have a queue of people outside their establishment as a sign that it is worth eating at.

Birthdays

To a certain extent, Western culture has taken over birthday celebrations in Hong Kong. Expect to find neatly-wrapped gifts and cakes with candles. But there are still some Chinese customs to take note of as well.

As with many other celebrations, lai see (red envelopes containing money) make a cameo appearance here. Some Chinese opt to give a gift instead, but money is still very popular.

Given the importance of red in Chinese culture — it symbolises luck and happiness — expect the colour to feature heavily during birthday celebrations. Not only are gifts often presented in red wrapping paper, but other things — from clothes to cards to decorations — are likely to be red as well. Sometimes even the food and drink will be red.

Look out for the ‘longevity noodles’. These steamed egg noodles are served at most traditional birthday parties. They are supposed to be particularly long to symbolise long life — so take care not to accidentally cut them. The noodles are often served with egg and dumplings.

The traditional cake to eat during Chinese birthday celebrations is a bun filled with lotus paste (sou bao). Each bun is individual; there is no big cake or pastry to share. It is still quite common for people to throw a party for a baby after the first month of his birth, in celebration of the fact that he or she has survived these early critical weeks.

Such parties are known as mun yut. Guests will receive brightly coloured eggs, painted red for good luck. Guests should bring presents or red lai see envelopes containing money for the newly-born.

These days, most Chinese celebrate their birthday according to the Western calendar — but some members of the older generation still adhere to the Chinese calendar, meaning that the actual day changes from year to year.

According to Chinese custom, 60 is a symbolically-important age and calls for a grand celebration. Every birthday after that takes on a renewed significance. The other birthday that is particularly important is the first one and may also be celebrated with some gusto.

Shenism

Shenism has been practised by the Chinese Han people for thousands of years.

The core focus of the belief system is the worship of shen, which can be translated as ‘spirits’ or ‘deities’. Such spirits dwell within nature and natural forces, within buildings and city structures and within human communities — hence the importance of ancestor worship, particularly of those that had noteworthy achievements during their lives.

Ancestor worship manifests itself in a number of ways in Hong Kong — not only through Shenism but also through the other religions outlined below.

Food is put on tombs in the belief that it will reach those in the afterlife. Copies of fake things — such as money and cars — are often burnt in the belief that they will reach the spirit world.

Taoism

Taoism is probably the organised religion in Hong Kong that has been most influenced by Shenism, and some consider that it originated from the same Han belief system.

Taoism is based on the teachings of a manuscript known as the Tao Te Ching, which was written around the 6th century BC. It is believed to have been written by a Chinese sage called Lao Tzu, who was the official record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court.

There are two schools of Taoism — philosophical Taoism, which is focused on the philosophical writings of Lao Tzu, and religious Taoism, which emphasises the importance of rituals aimed at obtaining immortality.

The concept of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ — opposing forces in the world, such as good and bad, darkness and light, hot and cold and so forth — is very important to Taoism. The idea is that everything in the world contains these forces, which are viewed as complementary rather than opposing. For example, a shadow cannot exist without both darkness and light.

Maintaining a balance of yin and yang is very important, since external influences often create a deficiency of one and an excess of the other. This concept is particularly important, for example, in Chinese medicine, where treatments are often prescribed to correct the balance. Thus if a person has a fever he or she may be considered to have too much yang and must be given something to either reduce the yang or increase the yin.

There is no single Taoist god. Rather, many different deities are worshipped in the religion’s temples.

The central philosophy of the religion promotes achieving harmony with nature, pursuing spiritual immortality and being virtuous.

Buddhism

Buddhism is based on the teachings of an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 2500 years ago.

According to popular legend, Siddhartha was moved by the suffering of humanity and embarked upon a quest to find a way to eliminate such suffering.

In his path towards enlightenment, Siddhartha made a crucial discovery that was to form the backbone of Buddhist teachings the world over. He concluded that the root cause of human suffering was anxiety about what the future might hold. When someone experiences pain, they long for it to stop. When someone experiences joy or happiness, they worry that it might eventually end.

Such cravings, the Buddha argued, lead to distress and pain. A much better approach to life, he reasoned, would be to focus on life as it is being lived in the present, and seek to experience the sensations of the moment without worrying about the future.

With this goal in mind the Buddha developed a series of meditative techniques that help to focus on what is and not what might be. Those that can truly block out human cravings and desires are said to have achieved a state of nirvana, though few can claim to have achieved this lofty goal.

Thus Buddhism is about finding peace within oneself and helping others to find peace themselves.

Given these objectives, the spiritual movement is not always viewed as a religion in the modern sense. Buddhism does not revolve around the belief in a personal god or superior being. However, there is nothing in the spiritual movement that forbids belief in one and so Buddhism can work in tandem with other religions.

Buddhists sometimes pay respect to images of the Buddha — but not in worship and not to ask favours. They do so simply as an expression of gratitude for the teaching.

Buddhists believe that life is both endless and subject to impermanence. Individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering in their many lives.

Confucianism

Confucianism is a belief system based on the teachings of a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. Confucius is actually the Latinised name of ‘Kong Fuzi’. Some regard Confucianism as a religion, others more as a guidebook for the way life should be lived.

Confucianism is essentially humanist, in the sense that it doesn’t centre itself around a belief in deities — although equally, as with Buddhism, doesn’t preclude worship of them. In fact, Confucius was a strong believer in the concept of heaven, and regarded this as a positive force in the world.

Although Buddhism and Confucianism may seem to have much in common, in the sense that they are philosophical belief systems that stem from the teachings of a single figure, they are very different.

Crucially, Confucius is not usually held to be the founder of Confucianism in the same way that Siddhartha Gautama is considered the founder of Buddhism. Rather, Confucius — as he himself admitted — sought to build upon an existing belief network that had been languishing with the passage of time. Confucius saw himself as a conservationist that was responsible for the continuity of cultural values.

Thus, Confucianism is actually an amalgamation of the traditional culture that existed during the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Confucianism is characterised by a highly optimistic view of human nature, believing that human beings can be improved and perfected through adherence to the Confucian line of thought.

Aside from its important ethical principles, Confucianism does not prescribe any specific rituals or practices.

Confucius built his life around furthering his own knowledge base. He believed that he could learn from absolutely anyone and encouraged his students to do the same. Confucius believed that higher knowledge was the route to a better society.

But there are limits. Confucius considered heaven and the afterlife to be beyond human capacity to understand, so it was better to concentrate on doing the right thing in this life rather than worrying about the next.

Confucianism would later, well after the scribe’s death, be instrumental in shaping Chinese society. The authoritarian political elite adopted his teachings as an immutable way in which society should be run.

This is why Mao Zedong, during his reign, tried so hard to rid Chinese society of its traditional Confucian roots.



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