Top Taboos and Superstitions in Hong Kong
Ever wondered why some buildings in Hong Kong are missing the fourth floor, while others are built with a hole right in the middle? We have superstition to thank for that. While many in the west dismiss superstitious beliefs as being bogus, many Chinese people hold the belief that it is better to follow these centuries-old beliefs than to risk bad consequences. With Hongkongers’ superstitious beliefs in overdrive, navigating everyday life can feel like a minefield. Check out our list of common taboos and superstitions. Next time someone gives you the side eye for gifting them with a clock or hands you a green hat, you’ll know exactly why.
It’s not inaccurate to say that most things in Hong Kong are dictated by feng shui. Whether decorating a new flat or opening a new office – Hongkongers love to get a feng shui master in. A system that advocates harmony through the flow of energy in a space, it is believed that feng shui (“wind-water”) can have a positive effect on business and general happiness. Think it’s all baloney? Consider this: many global companies in Hong Kong also hire feng shui masters, like Disney before they built the theme park. A number of Hong Kong feng shui masters have also become celebrities (and pariahs!) in their own right.
Hongkongers are a superstitious bunch, and tend to avoid “haunted properties” at all costs. We don’t mean old buildings with ghost stories behind them – in Hong Kong, a residential property where death has occurred dramatically drops in value. It is believed that living in a space where someone has died would bring misfortune and discomfort. If you don’t believe in bad luck and are after a cheap apartment, property agent Squarefoot has compiled a list of homes in Hong Kong where people have passed away.
Red is the lucky colour, while black and white are not. Of course, no one is going to stop you from wearing black and white, but these colours should be avoided at celebratory events while red is definitely not to be worn at solemn ones (see weddings and funerals below).
Homonyms and Rhyming Words
Certain homonyms and rhyming words are celebrated, or avoided, in the Cantonese language. You know all about lucky number eight (baat, which rhymes with faat, “fortune and prosperity”) and unlucky number four (seh, which sounds like “death”). There’s also hung, the word for “empty”. It is the same tone as the word meaning “incidents related to death”, so instead of saying hung, people often say gut, which means luck, instead. Example: “I have a gut room in my house” – instead of a “hung room”. Now just think about the fact that Cantonese has six or nine tones, depending on who you’re talking to…
Never stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice. This resembles the way incense sticks are placed in a bowl to be offered to the dead. Similarly, it is also considered bad form to leave a single chopstick lying around, because it looks like a single incense stick.
Don’t gift a Chinese man with a green hat. Why? The story goes that back in the day China during imperial times, pimps were required to don green hats to show their trade. Eventually, the expression “wearing a green hat” came to mean that a man has been cheated on by his wife or girlfriend. Yikes!
The Chinese language’s old friend, the homonym, is once again the culprit for this taboo. You should never give some a clock as a present – in Chinese, “clock” rhymes with the word for “termination” or “sending someone to their end”, meaning inauspicious vibes all around. Watches are not immune from this taboo, either. In 2015, UK transport minister Baroness Susan Kramer gave the Mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, a watch as a gift. Ko was later quoted as saying that he would either re-gift the watch, or sell it to a scrap metal dealer. To be fair, it might be Ko’s diplomatic skills rather than the Baroness’s etiquette that needed fine-tuning – but to avoid any awkward moments, it’s best just to gift anything other than a timepiece. Still dead set on giving a friend a clock or watch? There is a way to combat this. Simply ask them to give you a dollar – so it’s technically not a gift.
Weddings and Funerals
Weddings and funerals are important affairs in the Chinese culture, so you can imagine why they’re riddled with taboos and superstitions. Red is the colour of the day at weddings, while black or white are to be avoided at all costs. It is also considered inauspicious for those who have had a death in the family to attend a wedding. There’s also a heartbreaking superstition that family members who are older than the person who died are not to attend the funeral, because it is believed to bring bad luck to them. At a funeral parlour, it is believed that funeral attendees cannot turn around or look behind them – again, because this would bring bad luck. Most funerals end with a meal at a restaurant before attendees head home: it is believed that they must leave the negative energy elsewhere so they don’t take it home with them. Times are changing, though – these days most Chinese brides take after the western tradition of getting married in a white gown, although many often change into a cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress, after the ceremony.
Chinese New Year
There are so many superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year that it demands a whole article of its own. For the first three days of Chinese New Year, nothing is cleaned in the house – this is so you don’t sweep the good luck away. Avoid saying anything related to death or inauspicious matters. Don’t even think about getting a haircut during CNY – it’s bad luck to be near sharp objects like scissors, which is why you’d find most hair salons closed for the period. You can also kiss books or magazines goodbye for a few days – the word for “book” rhymes with “losing”.
Think when it’s your Chinese zodiac year that it brings you good luck? Think again. It is believed that when your year comes round, the heavenly generals tai sui are out to get you, ensuring a year of bad luck. You can combat this by wearing certain trinkets or accessories. Unsure what to wear? Many Hongkongers consult a feng shui master.
Have you ever noticed buildings by the waterfront in Hong Kong that are structured with a hole in the middle – like The Repulse Bay, the government headquarters in Admiralty, and the Bel-Air residential building in Cyberport? This is said to allow the spirit dragons in the mountains to reach the water with ease. Preventing them from doing so will incur bad consequences for occupants of the buildings.
Andrea Lo is a freelance journalist and translator based in Hong Kong. After cutting her teeth in the industry as a staff writer at a lifestyle magazine, she embraced the freelance life in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her time exploring the best of Hong Kong’s dining and nightlife scene, trialling new fitness trends, and travelling to exotic locales – all in the name of “research”.