Racism against ‘gweilos’, like prejudice towards Chinese and domestic helpers, is rooted in old ideas
- Peter Kammerer says words and stereotypes used to describe Europeans and other Asians usually stem from outdated ideas
- Today, most Hongkongers aren’t racist and foreigners embrace the term ‘gweilo’, but sometimes the ugliness behind words seeps out
A recent comment to one of my columns stopped me short and got me thinking. I’ll have to paraphrase, as it was quickly removed by moderators, but it basically said that, as a white person, I had no right to make value judgments about Hong Kong. The inference is that my skin colour excludes me from saying what I feel is right or wrong about the city I have made my home. But it was not that sentiment that I found jarring; it was the blatant racism behind it.
I’ve no idea where in the world the commenter was from. What I do know, though, is that some places in Asia colloquially use derogatory words for foreigners and Hong Kong is arguably the biggest culprit. Such terms can invite racism. That’s not to excuse that each English-speaking country has a rich vein of insulting words for people from various cultures and religions.
Geneticists tell us that there is no such thing as race; to them, we are all descended from a common pair of ancestors whose offspring, over the millennia, moved to other continents in waves. The colour of skin and eyes, hair texture and physical features are determined by proximity to the equator and environmental conditions.
From a Western perspective, race was concocted by nations starting in the 15th century when Portugal pioneered slavery from Africa, evolving into a system of classifying people into groups to justify positions of power and wealth. Racism sprang from the laws and rules governments made, white people of Anglo-Saxon stock being the drafters and beneficiaries, and skin-colour determining position in society, with those with darker skin being worse-off.
We all know how that worked out for Asia – white spice traders and then imperialist powers who used force and trickery to steal resources and land. They were often rude and demeaning to locals, treating them as inferior. Unsurprisingly, many of the words used colloquially for foreigners in some of these places have a derogatory background, reflecting how poorly Europeans were originally thought of.
In Hong Kong, the most common Cantonese word is gweilo , meaning “foreign devil”; one of the more popular ones in Mandarin is guizi, also meaning devil; in Singapore and Malaysia, there’s ang mo kow, red-haired monkey; and in Indonesia, bule, which implies foreigners are ignorant and can be easily taken advantage of.
Tradition is why these words have persisted despite colonial powers having departed and, over time, the aura of hatred surrounding them has diminished. Foreigners are prone to embrace them. But they can still take on a derogatory nature when used in a particular setting or context; an old person pointing and snarling gweilo is hardly speaking in an endearing manner. But there are other words in Cantonese that are without doubt meant only to demean and, in this case, it’s people with darker skin.
Especially discriminatory is the term for South Asians, ah cha, while maids from the Philippines are referred to as either bun mui or bun bun which ranks them a degree or so below the Indonesian version, yan yan. All are racist in tone and reflect poorly on those who use them.
Foreigners who commit crimes are bound to give their community a bad name and, if it’s a regular occurrence, racism is inevitable. Despicable comments about Chinese like those from the co-founder of the Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana are also going to leave a sour taste.
But my experience is that the vast majority of Asians treat foreigners equally and with fairness. Sometimes, it’s to the point of embarrassment as when, during a recent hospital stay in Hong Kong, the nurses referred to me as “sir” rather than “uncle”, as they did the other middle-aged men in the ward. I get called “sir” from time to time by Hong Kong Chinese of all ages and put it down to the term being a too-polite British colonial throwback. But I’m no “sir”; if you must, call me gweilo.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post