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There has been a lot of hoo haa lately around whether calling a “Westerner” or a “white/Caucasian” person a “GWEILO” is offensive and/or racist. For those who are unaware, the term “Gweilo” is Cantonese “slang” which literally translates to“ghost man” or “foreign devil”. To use certain slang terms is common in various Chinese dialects to describe Westerners/white/Caucasian people. In Mandarin ( and more specifically used in China ( Putonghua)) the term “LAO WAI” is used, which literally translates to “Old Foreign” and used to describe what “Gweilo” in Cantonese is meant to describe. In Hokkien ( used in Malaysia/Singapore) the term “Ang Moh” is used literally translating to “red hair”.

Almost every Asian language and dialect has a slang word to describe Westerners/ white/Caucasians. For example in Bahasa Indonesian the term  “orang bule” is used and in Thai the term “Farang” is used. So why is it, that there has been hype around the offensiveness of using the term “Gwei Lo” when every other language and dialect does the same thing? I mean, this has been a contentious topic in Hong Kong media ( where Cantonese is the dialect spoken) and on Hong Kong social media, where people are in 2 minds about whether calling a Westerner/white person/Caucasian “Gwei Lo” is being discriminatory.

Even though the debate around these terms have been around for a very long time, it has been ignited more recently after a British man ( who has Australian citizenship) Francis William Haden lodged a discrimination lawsuit in Hong Kong courts for being called a “GWEILO” and said he was fired on racial grounds as a contractor working in Hong Kong. Now I can understand the lodging a complaint about being fired if it was done unfairly, but sorry, I don’t agree that being called a “Gweilo” is racial discrimination and this is why.

Historically, the term “Gweilo” was used to describe the European colonizers who invaded Hong Kong, bullied the locals and essentially instituted a British system of governance in the region. The locals called the colonizers “Gwei lo” because they were white/pale skinned and it was a passive aggressive way to vent their frustrations of being colonized and invaded. In addition, in a world which revolves around white privilege and supremacy why is it bad that we Chinese/Asians have our own terms to succinctly express our frustrations in being oppressed? Remember, the majority of Asia has been colonized by Europeans and as Asians/Chinese in the West, we are constantly oppressed, discriminated and treated as the perpetual foreigners no matter how long our families have been in the West… so what is the actual problem of having this one term?

Yonden Lhatoo (Chief News Editor for the SCMP) recently wrote an opinion piece for the SCMP asking the same question ( just more nuanced and not as extreme as my view), but nonetheless, he too questioned why are people making such a big deal over this:

The offending Cantonese term literally translates as “ghost man”, the pejorative intent harking back to the unpolitically correct days when passive-aggressive natives perceived those pale Europeans who colonised Hong Kong as being ghostlike foreign devils.

There’s no denying the xenophobic roots of the word, but the fact is, it’s now used so widely and commonly in this city that most of those pesky foreign devils don’t take it as a racist epithet.

Now, of course, that can change depending on the situation as well as the tone and delivery of the term, and it can be used as a disparaging descriptor.

But where do you draw the line? Some of you might remember the controversy back in 1998, when, during a debate in the legislature about attacks on the local currency, veteran politician James Tien Pei-chun referred to international speculators as gweilo.


I pretty much agree with his analysis, except the part where he mentioned about the “xenophobic roots” because this term was popularized in a time where local Hong Kong people were oppressed, bullied and their territory invaded. How can you not be angry about that? If you think about the history of white oppression everywhere then you can see why using this term is validated.

Moving away from Hong Kong and Asia, us Chinese have been in the West since the 1800s in the search for gold and for better opportunities. The lynchings, the riots, the racist legislation which were instituted at the time shows how oppression and discrimination has caused so much angst, pain and anger among many of us non whites. And even till today we are all still subjected to sinophobic discrimination in the West and Europe, all because China is a rising star politically, economically and socially.

So to end, I will keep my conclusion nice and short. If you are non-Asian and get offended when people call you a “Gwei lo” please get over it, and if you are Asian/Chinese and are offended on behalf of white/Western/Caucasian people being called a “Gwei lo” then you really need to re-assess your “Asian-ness” and go back to the history of colonialism and white/Western oppression.

Images via SCMP

To read the SCMP article, please click on: Is ‘gweilo’ really a racist word? Hong Kong just can’t decide and to read some background on these terms, please click on: Where the word gweilo comes from, and other names East Asians have for foreigners

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