Racists are often confused people. I realised this two years ago when someone attacked me as a 'white supremacist'. Hmm. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Ethnic abuse has been in the news in Hong Kong recently following a court case about judges criticised in 'colourful' language. But even outside the courts, in ordinary conversation, people in Hong Kong are enormously confused about how racist convention allows them to be. On the street, you hear a litany of slang terms for ethnic groups. Any day of the week you'll hear young Chinese saying things like: 'That gweilo married a bun-mooi who is cute, although she is as dark as a mol a-cha or a haak-gwei.' [That Caucasian married a Filipina who is cute, although she is as dark-skinned as an Indian or a black person.] Until last year, you might have heard British sailors in Wan Chai saying 'Let's see what sort of beer Johnny Chinaman brews.' Are these statements racist? History can help answer the question. In the early days of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, British settlers referred to Chinese people as 'Chinamen'. Although some people think this is racist, historians say it is not pejorative, and is a direct translation of the Cantonese Chung gwok yan. In contrast, 'Chink' is definitely a racist word for Chinese, although thankfully it is almost unknown in Hong Kong. Indeed, a locally born real estate agent in Mid-Levels set up a business five years ago called Chinky Property. When asked why she chose that name, she said she understood 'chink' to be the sound of money. Last century, Caucasians were widely known as hoong mo lo, meaning 'red-haired fellow'. When Chinese people living in Hong Kong encountered British settlers using the word 'home', they heard it as hoong mo. For many years, Britain was actually referred to in Cantonese as Hoong Mo, or Red Hair. The phrase hoong so lok ngan, or 'red-beard-green-eyes', for Caucasians, is still widely known. In the 19th century and for much of this century, the general term for Caucasians was fan gwei lo, or 'foreign devil (or ghost) fellow'. Non-Chinese were not literally thought of as demons, but the phrase indicated the generally agreed principle, that they were not fully civilised humans. By the 1960s, this was shortened to gweilo. White people seriously confused the issue in the 1970s, when they started to refer to themselves as gweilo. This irony robbed the phrase of a lot of its negative power. Now it occupies the same grey area that the word 'nigger' does in America. Westerners freely call themselves gweilo, just as African-Americans refer to themselves, especially in pop culture, as 'niggaz'. But non-whites using gweilo or non-blacks using 'nigger' are in severe danger of causing offence. In polite conversation, sai-yan, 'Western person', or oi-gwok yan, 'overseas person', is used instead. Molo-gwai for Indians is a usage rooted in poor geography. The Moros were people from the Philippines and Indonesia. Hong Kongers pronounced 'Moro' as Molo, and applied it to all dark-skinned people. Part of Hollywood Road where there used to be a hostel for Indian seamen became known as Molo Gai - slang for 'Indian Street'. Another colloquial word for Indians in Hong Kong is A-cha. Acha is Hindi for 'okay', and is the first Indian word that most non-Indians pick up, since it is repeated so often in speech. The two are combined today as mol a-cha, although polite speakers prefer Yando yan, 'Indian person'. Black people are haak-gwai or haak-lo. Haak is the colour black. What's the polite alternative? 'There isn't one,' said the Cantonese speakers I asked. The influx of Filipino domestic helpers from the 1980s onwards led to new words being coined. Bun-mooi and bun-lo literally mean 'Filipino little sister' and 'Filipino guy', and are considered impolite. Hong Kong people have a negative nickname for people from across the border - A-Chaan, implying 'country bumpkin'. It is derived from the name of a memorable mainlander from a Hong Kong movie of about 20 years ago. The unofficial expert on racial abuse is John Dean of the Department of Home Affairs, who has studied discrimination in the territory. He reckons there are a lot of double standards at work. No one could use a word like 'chink' without expecting to be strongly criticised. Yet popular magazines use words such as gweilo and bun-mooi with careless abandon. 'People just don't realise they are being racist until you point it out to them,' he said. At the moment, it is evident that there's a huge shortfall in the racial sensitivity level of Hong Kong compared to many other modern cities. Many of this writer's Hong Kong friends professed shock two years ago at the racist attitudes of Australia's Pauline Hanson. They failed to notice that people with identical racist attitudes are a dollar a dozen in Hong Kong. I tried to point out this irony, but a mol a-cha who is also a white supremacist doesn't get much attention.