A British-Australian citizen of European descent has filed a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, seeking damages and a written apology, after being called a “gweilo” (“demonic fellow”) at work. The word is controversial in Hong Kong, with some insisting that it’s a racial epithet against Caucasian people, and others contending that its literal meaning has been “bleached” and is no longer derogatory. There are even those who claim gweilo as a term of endearment.

Human beings are naturally tribal and using defamatory terms to refer to people who are different from one’s group, whether to underline mutual animosity or to affirm superiority, is likely to be universal. But just as the vestigial instincts to kill or steal have no place in a functional society, the calling of nasty names has no place in a modern, civilised world.

In this regard, Hong Kong has made progress in the last decade or so, with offensive slurs pertaining to ethnicity, occupation, disability and so on, no longer a feature of popular media and public discourse. However, in private conversations, in Hong Kong as elsewhere, anything goes. Then there is the problem of determining which names are insulting – hence the gweilo debate.

Historically, the Han Chinese have had a variety of names for other peoples who have lived around and among them. In ancient antiquity, words such as “yi”, “man”, “rong” and “di”, might have begun as innocuous designations, but with increased conflict between ethnic groups – not to mention the relative precociousness of the Han – those names gradually acquired a pejorative taint, akin to the word “barbarian”.

Popular from the second half of the 19th century onwards is the word “guizi” or “gui” (“demon”), which is pronounced “gwai” in Cantonese and Anglicised as “gwei”. By appending words such as lo (“fellow”), por (“hag”), jai (“boy”) and mui (“girl”) to gwei, one has the vocabulary to describe an entire demonic nuclear family.

Is ‘gweilo’ really a racist word? Hong Kong just can’t decide

The word gui/gwei has multiple meanings – including ghost, spirit and demon – and the spectral aspect is most often used to explain the racial slant to the sobriquet; Caucasian people are gui/gwei because of their lighter coloured skin, eyes and hair. I prefer the more malevolent “demon” because the name gui gained traction after the Chinese suffered at the hands of foreigners in the 19th and early 20th century.

After sustaining losses in wars waged on China by foreigners during this period, and the concomitant killing, raping, looting and, finally, the racial contempt with which the Chinese were regarded in their own country, calling foreigners “demons” was about the only weapon they had in their feeble arsenal. It explains why the Japanese, notorious for their brutality as invaders in the early 20th century, were also called gui or guizi, despite having the same coloration as the Chinese.

The Chinese reserved a special loathing for “deputy demons” (“erguizi”), individuals from the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and mainland China who assisted the Japanese in their invasion and subjugation of parts of the nation.

Despite its violent past, gwei or gweilo no longer carries much historical baggage, although I have, on occasion, heard it used with spite. Personally, I would err on the side of caution. Instead of the potentially offensive gweilo, I use neutral alternatives like “sai yan” (“Westerner”) and “ngoi-gwok yan” (“foreigner”), or I’ll ascertain the person’s nationality and use the proper appellation. Just as I wince every time someone calls me “bor jai” (“Singapore boy”), I don’t want to call anyone by a name they consider insulting.