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The many meanings of ‘ghost’ from the Cantonese term ‘gweilo’

Exploring the history of a common Chinese phrase at the centre of a discrimination court case

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 6:53pm

From time to time, I hear some of my non-Chinese friends saying it is easier to learn Mandarin than Cantonese.

Which is easier can often depend on the individual concerned, or may be a matter for linguists to study, before drawing a conclusion.

But, it is also true that Cantonese has at least nine tones, which is five more than Mandarin, not to mention the many colloquialisms and slang, which are intertwined with the unique colonial history of the city, and other local cultural elements.

As a result, some commonly used terms can be problematic under certain circumstances today, including one which is now the subject of a court case deciding if its use amounts to racial discrimination.

That term is gweilo, or “ghost man”, popular local slang for non-Chinese people in general.

Many expats living in this city are familiar with it, and it’s perhaps among the first Cantonese words they learn.

A British blasting specialist has taken his former employer, a local construction company, to court, claiming it had not allowed him to hire skilled workers from overseas for a tunnel project because they were gweilo. He also complained he had heard his Chinese colleagues calling him gweilo in a derogatory way.

The matter has triggered some discussion among my foreign friends, with some laughingly saying they don’t mind its use – depending on the circumstances, of course.

It may take a sociologist or a historian to trace why Chinese people, or to be exact, those living in southern Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, started using the term in the old days.

Northern Chinese call Westerners laowai, which translates as a straightforward “old foreigner” – the “old” reference being widely used in Mandarin when addressing someone who is senior.

For instance, “old Wang” or “old Li” can be a respectful substitute for Mr Wang or Mr Li, while xiao, which means “little” or “small”, refers to someone younger, such as in “xiao Wang” or “xiao Li”.

It would be interesting to see academic research on what is behind all these different terms.

The British claimant pursuing his lawsuit may or may not have a valid case, but he did make a point by demanding anti-discrimination education for staff at the firm he worked for. This should apply to all local employers.

The point, though, is to what extent cultural and historic factors should be taken into account.

Take the term gwei, or “ghost”, for example. It is quite widely used for many purposes, other than describing foreigners.

In street language, a woman may sometimes refer to her very intimate male partner, or husband – alive or dead – as sei gwei, or sei gwei lo gong (literally “dead ghost”, or “dead ghost husband”).

Sometimes, Hongkongers also compliment veterans in their fields as lo gwei, or “old ghost”.

And to make things even more confusing for non-Chinese people, gwei is a generic term for different types of ghosts – some good, some bad, or evil to the Chinese.

In Mandarin, too, the term “ghost”, which is pronounced differently as gui, can mean something very different.

Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong

Older people can, in an affectionate way or even as a compliment, call smart and funny children xiao gui – “small ghost” or “little spirit”. The same term may be used for a foreign child.

Is it about racism, or a cultural gap?

The debate may be academic, or seen as making a fuss, but what matters more is to be aware of what might constitute racial discrimination, as we try to better understand and bridge cultural differences.