At a film screening a few weeks ago, a Caucasian academic spoke a few words in heavily accented Cantonese and the lecture theatre broke into applause. The academic’s research area is Hong Kong films, so why should his ability to speak Cantonese be an occurrence of such novelty that it elicited fascination, even fawning adulation, from the mostly Chinese audience? It’s perhaps a reflection of the social milieu of the city, where “white” foreigners are not expected to know Chinese. If they do, even if it’s a perfunctory knowledge, there are still many Hongkongers who get teary-eyed that the “gweilo is learning our language!” The same courtesy or gratitude isn’t extended to other foreign residents and immigrants. Mainland Chinese, South Asians and other non-white persons for whom Cantonese is not their mother tongue are derided and even abused for their mispronunciations.

The only time  Caucasians were so exalted in pre-1840 China was during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), founded by the invading Mongols. Referred to as “people with coloured eyes” (semuren), resident Central Asians and Europeans were placed just beneath the Mongol ruling caste, but above the northerners and the southern barbarians (the Yangtze being the demarcation) in the social and political hierarchy.

This isn’t a censure against white people in Hong Kong, of course. There’s little that can be done about obsequiousness and racism.

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