How to be a Hong Kong local: 10 tips on faking it

Hong Kong CNN  — 

It’s the 18th anniversary of the establishment of Hong Kong Special Adminstrative Region (S.A.R.), aka the handover from British to Chinese rule.

But the city’s long history – archaeological reports suggest the area has supported human life since at least the Stone Age – has fostered a culture unique to this incredible city.

To recognize the 18th Establishment Day, here are 10 local tricks for Hong Kong visitors who want to avoid sticking out like a teetotaler in Wan Chai.

Hong Kong: Insider Travel Guide

1. How to hail a cross-harbor cab

To get a cab that’s willing to cross the harbor, you could do the obvious and look for one of the rare signs for a cross-harbor taxi stand.

Or you could just randomly flag down cabs and have an awkward shouting negotiation through the car window with the driver.

Or you could use the cross-harbor arm wave.

Extend one arm in front of oncoming cab and use the hand and wrist to make an ocean wave motion, indicating that you want the cab to metaphorically brave the harbor waters.

Yes, we know that cabs are legally obliged to take you wherever you want to go.

A true Hong Konger, however, knows that laws should be interpreted only as loose guidelines.

2. How to speak

Every sentence, in English or any other language, should be ended with a Cantonese final particle, such as: la, ar, wor, gar.

Suggested conversation for practice:

“Hong Kong is so awesome ar!”

“OK gar.” (Translation: I agree. It really is quite awesome.)

You can find out more about Cantonese final particles at

3. How to use an umbrella

Well, that's one way not to forget your umbrella.

The importance of the umbrella to Hong Kongers can’t be overestimated.

Rarely exalted, often abused, regularly left at a bar or in a car, the underdog tool is the Hong Konger’s best friend, come rain or shine.

People, particularly women, always have a little retractable umbrella on them that also has an anti-UV coating.

The umbrella keeps them relatively dry during downpours.

For a city that gets rain for six months of a year, its denizens really don’t like to get wet.

The other half of the year is usually hot with strong sunshine and the magical shield is pulled out again to block sun rays and keep the skin Fancl white.

Last year, it became a symbol for Hong Kong’s student-led democracy movement – for some even an ad hoc shield for pepper spray.

4. How to document life

Things Hong Kong people say at restaurants: “Oh, this dessert looks so cute! Hold on, can you take a photo of me and this dessert? Do one more with the flash off. I blinked, take another one.”

Next thing you know, eight sets of photos with the same dessert but a variation of faces are uploaded to Facebook while the cake collects dust.

Nothing in Hong Kong is more satisfying than flooding friends with photos of our food.

It can be more satisfying than eating the food itself.

So always ask if anyone wants to take a photo before setting your chopsticks into something.

5. How to ask for tissues

Asking for Kleenex will get you nowhere.

We know the little sheets of delicate paper for wiping fingers and noses as “tissue” or Tempo, the dominating brand in Hong Kong.

Most self-respecting Hong Kongers always have a wad of Tempo at the ready, partly because newspapers and magazines come with a complimentary pack.

Sometimes, promo folks hand them out at MTR exits just to make sure you aren’t without.

6. How to tip

Change is good. Except when it's weighing down your pockets.

Show your servers how much of a local you are and be stingy with tipping, or don’t tip at all.

A service charge is almost always included in the bill, so Hong Kong diners don’t bother tipping unless the waiter did something extraordinary such as de-boning your sweet and sour pork.

Tipping is more about getting rid of loose change really.

So it’s not uncommon for people to leave HK$4 tip (about 50 U.S. cents) for an HK$400 ($50) meal.

7. How to order food

Hong Kongers are very specific (picky) about what they want to order.

Customized meal orders at local diners rival Starbucks coffee orders or nuance.

Commonly heard orders include “iced lemon tea with less sweetness, no ice and lemon slices on the side,” as well as “fish ball noodles with no greens plus beef brisket soup base.”

Good thing there’s no chef snootiness to put up with here.

MORE: Cha chaan teng cheat sheet: What to order at the most popular eateries in Hong Kong

8. How to abbreviate

One thing Hong Kongers have in common with Australians – we like to abbreviate.

It’s either because we’re extremely lazy or extremely industrious – we can’t be bothered to say the full phrase or we need to fit in as many nouns as possible in a short amount of time.

Either way, we like it low on syllables.

The 7-Eleven convenience store is just “Seven” (pronounced “seh-fun”), Circle K is “OK” and the spam and egg sandwich is literally “sp-egg-wich” in Cantonese.

Our favorite is saying “sorry” – rendered as, simply, “sor.”

9. How to not hold up the line

Take it out! Take it out! Take it out!

When it comes to commuting, it’s all about not stopping.

The body must be constantly moving forward.

That’s why train and bus schedules are committed to memory and it’s also why it’s imperative Octopus cards (a reusable stored-value smart card ubiquitous in Hong Kong) are always topped up and taken out ahead of time when one needs to pay.

The idea is to pass nonchalantly through the MTR turnstile without having to slow down at all.

Don’t be the slowpoke tourist who fumbles to find the Octopus card at the bottom of your bag only after you hit the turnstile.

Or worse yet, not have enough credit on the card.

There’s nothing more blush-worthy than the haunting, high-pitched beep of a rejected Octopus and the walk of shame away from the turnstile.

MORE: Hong Kong’s MTR: Taking a ride on the world’s most envied metro system

10. How to count with hands

The best citizenship test, as immigration officials will tell you, is to count in the local dialect.

Take it up a notch and count in the local sign language.

These three numbers can really show off your local know-how: six, nine and 10.

The number six can be represented by holding up six fingers – if you’re a tourist.

Hong Kongers like to do it elegantly and use the “hang ten” hand sign to symbolize six.

Nine gets a graphic representation, by curling the index finger down to resemble the shape of the number “9.”

And to sweep your fruit vendor off her feet, make a cross with your index fingers to indicate that it’s exactly 10 apples you want.

The international sign for warding off vampires is the Hong Kong sign for the number preceding 11.