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Gweilo, Is This Popular Hong Kong Slang Term for Westerners Offensive or Not?

Picture of Matthew Keegan
Updated: 21 September 2017
If you’re a westerner who has ever lived or spent a good amount of time in Hong Kong, there’s one local word in particular that you’re likely to come across: “Gweilo” (鬼佬). This slang term is commonly used to describe westerners by native Cantonese speakers. But due to its history of being a racial slur, opinion remains divided on whether it still remains offensive or not. To use or not to use “gweilo,” that is the question…

Over the years, “gweilo” (鬼佬), used to describe a Caucasian male, and “gweipor” (鬼婆), a Caucasian woman, have become widely used and accepted forms of Cantonese slang. Some Caucasians even embrace the term and, in recent years have launched a brand of local craft beer called “Gweilo.”

Directly translated, “gwái (鬼) means “ghost,” and lóu (佬) means “man.” Together, “gweilo” literally means “ghost man” and is also sometimes translated into English as “foreign devil.”

The term is said to have been coined by the Chinese in early encounters with Europeans in reference to their pale skin, which was seen as being ghost-like.

In Cantonese “gweilo” translates as “ghost man” in English. Caption
In Cantonese “gweilo” translates as “ghost man” in English. Caption | © OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

Traditionally, the term gwái is an adjective that is used to express hate and disapproval, although gwáilóu is now generally considered to be an acceptable generic term for westerners. In fact, many Cantonese speakers frequently use the term and consider the term non-offensive.

In a recent article by HKFP, local Hong Kong journalist Catherine Wang argued that “gweilo” is not derogatory: “Yes, ‘gweilo’ points out whiteness. Yes, ‘gweilo’ can be used in a derogatory sense, like most phrases known to man,” she wrote. “But is gweilo morally corrupt, ‘extremely racist’, and inexcusable? No. Because behind ‘gweilo’, unlike most racially charged terms, is a history of resistance to oppression rather than its perpetration.”

Wang is arguing that because the term “gweilo” was a term coined through resistance to being oppressed (colonised) by Europeans, and not one that was coined through oppressing or enslaving others, it is somehow less racially motivated or offensive.

However, others see this logic as flawed and refuse to see past the term’s literal “offensive” meaning and history of it being used as a racial slur.

Some historians do link the term “gweilo” with having very clear ties to a racially derragotive use, one that is marked by suprematist views. In the account, the term “gweilo” is said to have meant “foreign devils or spirits” and referred to anyone not originating from the Middle Kingdom (China). This was because hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, foreigners were regarded as primitive barbarians, while the Chinese were the superior race living in the perfect country. It was thus originally a supremacist term.

These days, the word is commonly used by Cantonese speakers to describe white foreigners and has even shown up in popular culture.

In the 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee) is told not to teach martial arts to the “gweilo” anymore; however, Lee wants to teach to whoever wishes to learn.

More recently, in 2014, “Gweilo Beer,” a brand of craft beer, was founded by two British friends living in Hong Kong. The beer even won a gold medal at the 2015 Hong Kong International Beer Awards.

Caption | Courtesy of Gweilo Beer.

Whether you find the term offensive or not, there’s no denying that it’s become part of everyday use for Cantonese speakers. However, some Cantonese speakers prefer to use term sāi yàn (賽揚) — “western person” — which is considered to be the more polite alternative.

It remains up to the individual to decide whether or not they find the term “gweilo” offensive or if they feel it’s changed so much from its original meaning that they no longer consider it racially derogatory.

However, in keeping with a more open-minded society, one might hope that in years to come, we can dispense of all slang terms that seek to separate or divide us. After all, no matter our colour, creed or nationality, we are all part of one race – the human race.