Can a street name be biased? Some think so

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 October, 2009, 12:00am

What's in a name? Too much, say some people from ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, who want the Chinese name of a SoHo street changed because it's discriminatory.

Ali Ghazanfar says he's lived in Hong Kong for more than three decades but was only recently made aware of the Cantonese name for Mosque Street - Mo Lo Miu Gai - when he and a colleague hopped into a taxi to go to Friday prayers at the nearby Jamia Mosque. He said Mo Lo Mui Gai roughly translated into Mo Lo Temple Street, with mo lo, from the phrase mo lo cha, being a derogatory term for Indians or Pakistanis, much like gweilo is seen by some as a dig at Caucasians. In Hong Kong, it has historically referred to Sikhs and other South Asians engaged in low-class work.

With the passing of Hong Kong's anti-discrimination law, Ghazanfar, 63, said he thought a name change was in order.

The issue 'isn't actually concerning the Islamic community', said Ghazanfar, a British national originally from Pakistan. 'It is just a concern for the people who are from the subcontinent.'

The street's Cantonese name should read 'Wui Gaau Miu Gai', he said, explaining that wui gaau means Muslim.

His first attempt to enlighten Hong Kong officials was not successful. He was told by a Central and Western District councillor that the Lands Department believed a name change would cause disruption.

The councillor advised him to outline his position in a letter, and Ghazanfar said he would press ahead, convinced the street is small enough not to create headaches for much of the local population.

Ghazanfar plans to make his thoughts known to the Lands Department and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Mosque Street aside, there are at least three other streets in Hong Kong that feature the expression mo lo in their names. There is Mo Lo Sheung Gai (Upper Lascar Row, Sheung Wan), Mo Lo Har Gai (Lower Lascar Row, Sheung Wan) and Mo Lo Mui Gaau Ka Gai (Mosque Junction), which runs parallel to Mosque Street.

Ramesh Chugani, vice-president of the India Association, said any street names containing the term should be changed.

Mo lo 'does refer to Indians and Pakistanis in a bad way', said Chugani, who has been in Hong Kong for more than 40 years.

He said young Hongkongers did not use the expression that often, but there were still some older Chinese people 'who look down on Indians and Pakistanis'.

Keran Hayat, 21, is of Pakistani descent but born in Hong Kong. She, too, wants the term removed from street signs.

A programme director for a local ethnic minority advocacy group, she said she had been referred to as mo lo cha in Hong Kong. 'Inside it hurts our feelings,' she said. There were more polite ways to identify people in the city, and changing the street names might bring the issue to light.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has not received any complaints about street signs.

Commission spokeswoman Mariana Law said the matter was not directly related to the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which protects people from prejudice in employment, education and other settings.

'The EOC will keep this in view to see how the community perceives the matter in light of the new legislation, taking into account the historical perspectives and the need to accord cultural respect towards different racial groups,' she said.

Shahzada Saleem Ahmed, honorary secretary of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong, said the trustees of the Jamia Mosque, which borders Mosque Street, would study the issue and 'will be taking it up with the concerned parties involved'.

Jamia Mosque, erected in 1849 and rebuilt in 1915, is Hong Kong's oldest mosque and was once a place of worship for the city's Muslim police officers, according to a published account.

There are different reported explanations for the origins of the term mo lo. One view is that it came from moro, the Portuguese for Moor or Muslim. Another is that it derived from Moro, a Philippine name for Muslims in the country's south.

People interviewed on Mosque Street last week did not find the term mo lo derogatory, but none of them were from Indian or Pakistani backgrounds.

They disagreed about whether the street name should be changed, though most thought it would be too difficult to make the switch - imagining problems with address changes, deed alterations and driving directions.

Dr Hung Ching-tin, a sociologist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the term mo lo cha was derogatory 'especially 20 years back', but, like the label gweilo, the racist element had diminished over time.

'By and large ... it should not be that offensive to the extent that you want to change the name,' he said.