How did Hong Kong’s wide­spread tipping culture first arise?

Virtually every restaurant now expects something to be left behind with the settled bill – whatever the service may have been like. In some places, serving staff request a tip. Service charges are routinely added to the bill in certain establishments, but whether this “gratuity”, ostensibly for staff, eventually reaches them is at the manage­ment’s discretion.

Some old stagers aver that restaurant tipping in Asia is an American disease that spread, like many other consumerist habits, as part of the post-war world’s cultural cocacola-isation. But as with most generalisations, this explanation only gives part of the picture.

For thousands of years, and across cultures, a fine line has existed between tip and bribe. Various terms have been used to describe the phenomenon – probably most commonly the Arabic-derived baksheesh, which spread through the Middle East into India and beyond. On the China coast, cumshaw was the usual term; this derived from the Hokkien kam-hsia, which means thank you. In Hong Kong, tip-see (a Pidgin English approximation of tip) became common parlance from the 19th century and remains in everyday use.

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Whatever the name, the concept remains the same, one of a mutually agreed “gift” changing hands in order to get something done. In this sense, in Asia a tip was paid for services anticipated at some immediate or future point, rather than for services already rendered, as was usual in the West. From the late 19th century, the Indian Civil Service closely codified what was acceptable by way of an official gift, and the practice was followed in other British colonial territories. Anything other than fruit and flowers, or reason­able on-the-spot hospi­tality, had to be declined.

When China’s mercantile compradors were in the ascendancy, everything was arranged on commission – in essence, a glorified form of tip. Procurement, delivery and shipment of goods being traded, the engagement (and dismissal) of staff, guarantees of their conduct and reliability – everything that took place on or passed through the premises was subject to tips, of which the comprador took his cut.

The fortunes that could be amassed in these circumstances were phenomenal. As well as providing linguistic and cultural conveniences, the comprador system also allowed Western firms to plausibly look the other way when it came to profitable-but-questionable business activities; officially at least, they could disclaim any knowledge of “less orthodox” dealings that might have raised legal or ethical concerns elsewhere.

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In China, the need to “tip” poorly paid officials in order to get things done was historically understood. Posters displayed in all Hong Kong police stations in the early 1950s, when the city was flooded with refugees from China, stated very clearly, in Chinese, “You Do Not Need To Pay For Assistance In This Police Station.” Examples of these posters can be seen in the Police Museum on The Peak, and the conclusion to be drawn about practices elsewhere was obvious.

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So too was the irony, at a point in time when the Hong Kong Police were wryly referred to as “the very best that money could buy”. Other government depart­ments that issued – and could therefore interminably obstruct and delay – official paperwork, such as Urban Services (for hawker permits), Public Works (for building licences), and Fire Services (for hosing water on a blaze), were notorious for their employees’ tip-hungry ways. Until the Independent Commission Against Corruption was established in 1974, the official prohibition on “tips” in Hong Kong was rarely taken seriously.