European merchants in Canton, in 1858. Gweilo, meaning “ghost man”, refers to the pale skin of Europeans.
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim

Where the word gweilo comes from, and other names East Asians have for foreigners

Once considered offensive, the Cantonese slang for white man is now generally accepted, even embraced, by some expats as a light-hearted epithet

“Foreign devil” is how gweilo, that widely used epithet in Hong Kong for Caucasians, is usually translated. Composed of the Cantonese gwái” (“ghost”) and lóu” (“man, chap, regular guy”), gweilo/gwai lo literally means “ghost/devil man”, and has been considered pejorative, especially if prefaced by (“dead”), to give séi gwáilóu, akin to “damn foreigner”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest documentation, in an 1878 Far East glossary, is kwei-tsze, kuei-tzu ˘ (“devil”), with “kwai-lo” noted in 1969.

Such a descriptor was purportedly coined in early encounters in the Pearl River Delta with Europeans in reference to their pale skin. The recog­nition of this physical feature is also reflected in other languages. The Indonesian term for foreigner is orang bule – “orang” is “person” and “bule”, originally “bulai”, is “albino” – referring to the light hair and eye colour and pale skin of foreigners of European descent.

An autobiography by Martin Booth of growing up in colonial Hong Kong.

Hair colour is often among the physical features referred to, and in Singapore and Malaysia, a Caucasian foreigner is an angmoh, from the Hokkien “âng-mô紅毛 (“red hair”).

The default term for “foreigner” in Singapore and Malaysian English since the mid-20th century, its origin can be traced to 16th- and 17th-century contact between Minnan speakers in southern Fujian province and the Dutch, referring to what struck the locals about their looks.

Fort Antonio, built in 1644 by the Dutch in Danshui, Taiwan, is referred to by the Minnan-speaking locals as “ang mo fort”.

Returning to gweilo, another interpretation notes how the term “ghost” in Chinese is often used for “othering”, to reference a group considered different or foreign to one’s own, often pejoratively. The Japanese, for example, were referred to as 日本鬼子 Rìběn guǐzi or 鬼子兵 guizi bing (Putonghua for “Japanese devils”, “devil soldiers”) during the second Sino-Japanese war.

Yes, there is also a craft beer brand called Gweilo, which was started in Hong Kong by two expatriates.
Such epithets may well have long been used derogatorily, and some still consider them racial slurs. But semantic bleaching – the phenomenon of a word losing its shades of meaning – does occur. Words such as angmoh and gweilohave shifted in meaning to become less polemic, at least in certain contexts. In particular, gweilos themselves have increasingly taken ownership of the term, reappropriating it as a more lighthearted, endearing self-identification.

You can find blogs, bars and beers in Hong Kong, and even a Canadian cooking show, bearing the name.

Hungry ghosts might be released from hell only during the seventh month; the increasingly ubiquitous gweilo is, fortunately, almost always harmless.