Is ‘gweilo’ really a racist word? Hong Kong just can’t decide
Yonden Lhatoo shakes his head at the on-again, off-again debate over the use of the word that is obviously racist in its roots, but has become benign due to widespread acceptance among Caucasians themselves
Here we go again. The same old question that Hong Kong can never give a straight answer to after all these years: is it acceptable to use the word gweilo for Caucasian people, or anyone who’s not Chinese for that matter?
The latest catalyst for this on-again, off-again debate is the case of a British man who has filed a discrimination lawsuit against a construction contractor he worked for, citing what he called a “general underlying hostility towards non-Chinese employees”, who were referred to as “gweilo in a derogatory sense”.
The offending Cantonese term literally translates as “ghost man”, the pejorative intent harking back to the unpolitically correct days when passive-aggressive natives perceived those pale Europeans who colonised Hong Kong as being ghostlike foreign devils.
There’s no denying the xenophobic roots of the word, but the fact is, it’s now used so widely and commonly in this city that most of those pesky foreign devils don’t take it as a racist epithet.
Now, of course, that can change depending on the situation as well as the tone and delivery of the term, and it can be used as a disparaging descriptor.
But where do you draw the line? Some of you might remember the controversy back in 1998, when, during a debate in the legislature about attacks on the local currency, veteran politician James Tien Pei-chun referred to international speculators as gweilo.
“We should never let the gweilo know our last card,” he said. He defended it as just a slip of the tongue at the end of a long speech, when foreign diplomats complained it would spread prejudice against non-locals – an “us versus them” mentality.
The thing is, two decades later, not a single Caucasian colleague I’ve asked in my office feels unduly offended by the word. Many of them see no problem in regularly using it to describe themselves.
And one of them reminded me of the successful Gweilo Beer brand in Hong Kong, the brainchild of a bunch of – yes – gweilo, who have no qualms about using the word to make money.
“The trademark registry is quite conservative,” co-founder Ian Jebbitt, an intellectual property lawyer, told the Post. “It did initially reject it on the basis of it being derogatory, but I spent three months putting together a legal submission showing how the word is not being used in this racially deprecating manner … and it was accepted.” There you go, folks.
But I must remind you that our in-house Cantonese specialist at the Post, the lovely Luisa Tam, has reservations about using gweipo, the feminine version of the word. And this one has more to do with being sexist than racist. The word po, as she rightly points out, refers to older, rather than younger women. And we can’t have that.
I’m neither white nor fluorescent in any way to justify the tag, but I do get called a gweilo myself like any other member of an ethnic minority group in this city. Not South Asians and Africans, though – the Chinese have separate nicknames for them that are not so benign when it comes to offensive impact.
Just the other day, I was taking the lift to my flat when three construction workers got in. “See, I told you, there are so many gweilo in this building,” one of them said to his mates in Cantonese, making it obvious I was the evidence to prove his point.
I wasn’t in the least offended, but I did feel I should clarify matters right there and then, employing my limited grasp of the local dialect.
“I’m not a gweilo, dai lo [big brother],” I told him. “I’m ethnic Tibetan. Are you saying I’m a foreigner in this country?”
The lift doors opened for my floor just then, and I had to leave them hanging like that, jaws agape. Sticks and stones may break my bones...
Y onden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post