Dealing with 3 languages in Hong Kong

Michael MicheliniBlog, Lifestyle, Living1 Comment

Hong Kong is such a cosmopolitan place. Just taking a walk down the street and you can catch five different languages being spoken!

As a business owner here, which languages should you work towards servicing? Today we will give some pointers on all the various languages and cultures in this diverse region.

Cantonese Is The Official Language

This is the language of the land. It is named after the south China region “Canton” and is the original language before Mandarin and English came to town.

If you are targeting local Hong Kong buyers, they will be most comfortable and confident to buy from a business who speaks in their native tongue.

Hong Kong customers are very well educated and have bigger spending power. So they are a great market to target, but of course smaller than the global English market and the Mainland Chinese market.

On top of just the purpose of selling to them, doing business in Cantonese is still the most effective in Hong Kong. Sure, everything is in English – but to really dig into details with government and banks it would be best done in the local tongue.

English Language Is Fully Supported

So many foreigners (like me) can completely live in Hong Kong without speaking more than a handful of Cantonese. Back when it was overseen by the UK, the British implemented English training in the schools. On top of the English language in school system, it was also brought in for the government systems.

That is why we can benefit to this day as foreign business owners in Hong Kong. Everything in the business system supports English.

So as far as getting customers in Hong Kong – sure many Hong Kong people speak English. And those who are educated and younger generations will be totally comfortable speaking in English in a shop or restaurant here.

You can notice a lot of restaurants have laowai (foreigners) who are speaking in English only. And their businesses are doing really well.

It is also worth noting the location of these English-only businesses. They are almost all on the Hong Kong island side, to the west. This is the downtown area and the financial district. It could be in the up and coming area of Sheung Wan, but more than likely these businesses are from Central to Wan Chai districts. About 3 MTR stops wide.

So while this is a small area, it is a very dense and high net worth area where you can charge a premium for your products and services. Customers are willing to pay, they live there, they are paying a high rent and they want to be taken care of. They will demand to do business in English.

On the other hand, if you setup your local business on the Kowloon side, this is much more local. By being more local, by default it will be Cantonese “heavy” in the business side. Even on the banking, a lot of them will not be comfortable to speak in English and will call another staff to help service you.

So location of your business in Hong Kong also matters when deciding which type of customer you are targeting, and which language of staff you need to hire.

Mandarin, The Language of Mainland China

And last, but not least, is Mandarin. This is the official language of PRC (People’s Republic of China) and has been growing more and more in Hong Kong.

Again I don’t want this Global From Asia business blog to get political, but the trend has been more wealthy and affluent Mainland Chinese have been moving to Hong Kong. Buying property, investing in businesses, and other long term moves.

And they may not move here, but they come to HK for shopping! They know the prices are a bit cheaper as there isn’t as high of a tax on retail products. On top of the lower price, Chinese also trust Hong Kong quality and inspection processes more than in their home town. They feel more confident that the brand is really the brand, and what they buy will last a long time.

It’s just the fact. Some of you may get offense to this, but it is the reality from my experience being between China and Hong Kong for almost a decade now.

Now, as far as you as a business owner in Hong Kong, should you target Mainland Chinese? I would say so, they are coming here often and have money to spend! When you hire your sales staff, I’d recommend trying to find someone who can speak Mandarin, or at least one person on each shift. You may get lucky one day and a whole tour group walks into your shop with their wallets out ready to buy. You need to be prepared to service these Mainland Chinese shopping groups.

Hiring When Dealing With All of These Languages

So you’re probably overwhelmed now. Who do you target, local Hong Kong people, Westerners, or Mainland Chinese?

It depends on your business strategy and what you’re selling of course. When you start to hire, this is when you really need to make a stance.

What is your budget for the staff? Want to hire trilingual sales staff? The more languages and experience they have, the higher their salary they will demand. Is your product price a premium price or are you doing high volume?

I always recommend business owners to go premium instead of competing on price. Leave enough margin to hire quality staff, and ideally those who can speak all 3 languages, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

What Is Your Idea?

So what are you thinking after reading this? Feel out of place, far away from your home country that all spoke in 1 language and dealt with 1 currency.

Well then, welcome to Asia! Southeast Asia seems even more complex with a huge range of languages, borders, and currencies. We should be happy we’re in Hong Kong with customers who have high spending budgets and good education. You could build a great business servicing just 1 of these languages.

As they always say, focus is the key to success. Trying to cover all 3 language may hold you back.

So I ask you – how are you handling all these languages in Hong Kong for your company? Please leave a comment below and share with us!

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Tags: asia, career, china, entrepreneur, guide, hong kong, language, languages, tips

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