Hong Kong – Imperial no more

Followers of Metric Views may have noticed that one of our regular contributors, John Frewen-Lord, has just returned from a visit to the far east. In this post, he passes on some observations relating one of the countries he visited.

It has been said very often in Metric Views and elsewhere that Britain’s former colonies now put the ‘mother country’ to shame in respect of how they have essentially completed their conversion to the metric system, while the UK still lags behind. I recently visited Hong Kong, and found this to be true.

Hong Kong is of course now part of China, more accurately the Peoples Republic of China, and has been since 1997, but is designated as a separate Special Administrative Area. As such, and in spite of Beijing’s recent intrusions into its political affairs, it still essentially governs itself. The country consequently is an interesting mix of Chinese and British culture, lifestyles and ways of doing business. (For example, outside my hotel was a street party, which included a Scottish marching band, complete with bagpipes, yet all the band members were native ‘Hong Kongers’. It was a somewhat bizarre and certainly an incongruous clash of cultures.) It would be true to say however that the Chinese influence is gaining the upper hand.

One of the most obvious aspects that Hong Kong is leaving its British roots behind is in its (almost) total conversion to the metric system. How much of this is due to its own initiatives, and how much is due to pressure from China over the last 17 years, is hard to gauge, but whatever the reasons, imperial measures have almost disappeared.

In Hong Kong, I found the following:

  • All road signs are in metric units only. Speed limits ranged from 110 km/h on the expressways to 50 km/h on city streets.
  • All cars had metric speedometers only. Interestingly, I saw not a single LHD vehicle there, which surprised me considering the proximity of the border with mainland China.
  • On a city tour, the tour guide spoke only in metric units, including noting that he lived in an apartment of a mere 28 m², and that property prices in Hong Kong were in the order of HK$400 000/m². (The exchange rate is around HK$13 to the British £.)
  • A shop in Stanley Market would make up a suit or a dress for you in less than 24 hours. I noticed that the tape measures in use had metric units one side, and a strange set of units the other – certainly not imperial, most likely some form of traditional Chinese units.

I said earlier that Hong Kong is almost 100% metric – but not quite. A real estate agent I passed had the following sign on display:


I asked the proprietor, a lady in her late 40s or early 50s, what the numbers signified, and she said square feet! The two numbers for each property show gross and net areas. On asking why she showed imperial measures, she explained that it was purely tradition, but that it was a tradition that was fast disappearing, by pressure from Beijing if nothing else.

The following shows a collection of signs I managed to capture. Click on the picture for an enlarged version.



4 thoughts on “Hong Kong – Imperial no more”

  1. I would hope that the people in Hong Kong know that, although some people may be reluctant to make the change, SI is better for trade and tourism.


  2. I have myself also recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong. The road system is indeed totally metric, as the author states, though I did notice a couple of strange signs which used fractions to indicate distance ahead: ‘1/2 km’ and ‘1 1/2 km’. I have not seen that usage in fully metric countries before. Some other signs I saw were also ‘wordy’ in a way you normally only see in the UK, signs warning of bends ‘For next 3 km’ and telling drivers to ‘Keep in low gear for next 1 km’, but that to a certain extent probably reflects signage style back in the UK. There seemed to be less use of pictograms. On the basis of John Frewen-Lord’s observation of estate agents, I did take a close look at several such shops. The ads I saw all showed floor area in square feet, even in the Cantonese version, with two figures, for the gross and net area, given. I was intrigued by the very many small food shops which weighed out goods from bulk on mechanical scales. These dual-measure scales invariably seemed to have what looked like traditional Chinese measures on the outer scale and Imperial on the inner scale, but I have no way of knowing which scale was actually used. I purchased some bananas in a small supermarket. The electronic scale integrated into the shop counter flashed up ‘LB’ as the goods were laid on them and the till receipt showed the price per LB too. But everything packaged in the shop seemed to be in metric sizes, in as much as weight played a part, including sizes I had not seen before such as a 740 ml bottle of water, which I can only think is ‘half a 1.5 litre bottle, more or less’. I cannot say I ventured into many British style pubs or restaurants, only one in fact, but there the beer was priced by the pint, although served in a half-litre glass filled to just above the 50 cl line. It did cross my mind to ask if the extra liquid above the line amounted to a full 68 ml (since the UK pint is equal to 568 ml) but I am sure that would have drawn a very blank look and so did not bother. So my own experience of the place, living on a street with many traditional shops, was a little more nuanced.


  3. Being a local living in Hong Kong for decades, I would like to bring out a few facts about metrication in Hong Kong:

    1. The then British HK government started to promote metrication in Hong Kong in the 1970’s. All schools adopted the SI units in their text books and only SI units were then allowed in public examinations.

    2. Stringent efforts were spent on commerce and other public services by the government throughout the 1980s to adopt metrication, with notable success in custom declaration for cargoes, weather forecast, road and traffic, and engineering standards.

    3. Metrication in a few key areas did not materialize or are still in an infant stage due to the lack of will power to manage change on the part of the government. With the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China (which is much more advanced than HK in metrication) in 1997, the first HKSAR government Chief Executive even disbanded the Metrication Committee that had long championed the metric education and conversion. Since then, Hong Kong has remained stagnant on metrication and there are even signs of Imperial Units crawling back despite several generations having been trained on metrication at school. So, I cannot see the Chinese government having exerted any pressure on the HKSAR government in this aspect. Rather, the new HKSAR government appears to stay comfortable behind the Imperial tradition, perhaps to free itself from the problem amid all the political challenges it confronts.

    4. With metrication effort receding, the Imperial and traditional Chinese measurements are still dominant in Hong Kong today, as evidenced in:
    a. Fresh food/grocery market – mostly transacted in catty (1kg=1.65catty), some items in LB;
    b. Frozen meat market – mostly in LB;
    c. Supermarket – mostly sold in LB, some items in Catty, some stores selling in kg (or 100g). One large chain store promoting food sales in LB/ fine print in kg and with receipt pricing per kg.
    d. Real Property transaction – Despite metric units in the construction stage, property sales are promoted in sq.ft. The governmrnt used to sell subsidized homes in sq.m but no more propagating sq.m in their sales nowadays;
    e. Apparel – Predominantly sold in Imperial measures though some British and Japanese stores adopt dual measurements (cm and in.)
    f. Home fitting and minor projects – Imperial units are still widely used by tradesmen.
    g. The media – mixed usage; effort to adopt metrication units in their reports is not apparent. Rather, Imperial units are often used in TV shows and competitions (such as beauty contest), a fall back from the colonial times when a dual system approach was once adopted.


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