What's a gwailouh?

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There comes a time in many a Hong Kong expatriate cultural commentator's life when he must face the word: gwai louh.

As anyone who's been simultaneously conscious and physically present in Hong Kong for more than three days knows, 'gwai louh' is the Cantonese slang term for a white-skinned foreigner. It's not a very nice term. I've seen it translated as 'foreign devil' most often, but this is only a rough attempt at nailing down its sense. For one thing, there's no direct reference to 'foreign' in the term 'gwai louh': 'gwai' means ghost or other unwholesome inhabitant of the netherworld; 'louh' simply means 'old guy'.

The first time I was called a gwai louh in Hong Kong I likely didn't even know it: it's just another two syllables you hear in the rushing stream of Cantonese in which you're immersed. It didn't take long, though, to recognize the term, since I was (and still am, of course) referred to as a 'gwai louh' in all sorts of settings.

So is 'gwai louh' a deeply offensive ethnic slur, or is it just a cute bit of linguistic shorthand? There are differing schools of thought.

On the one hand you've got the 'we don't mean anything by it; it's just the common term we use' school. This camp represents many local Chinese people I've spoken to. On the whole, I believe them, i.e. I'm sure they don't mean it as an insult. There's no denying, however, that when a GL gets into a disagreement with a local person over petty but temper-igniting issues such as bus queue etiquette or taxi-thieving, the term is often used with a great deal of meaning indeed.

Among us GLs ourselves, there's again a difference of opinion. Some GLs take the whole thing with the proverbial grain of salt, and even refer to themselves using the term ironically. Most of the time, perhaps more so in the past, I've fallen into this category. There are others, of course, who see no reason they should be referred to by an undeniably derogatory term, no matter how affectionately it is intended.

I've hinted that I'm not as easygoing as I once was about being called 'gwai louh'. I'm not quite sure why that is. I'm certainly no advocate of sweeping political correctness. Yet I have to admit there's an accumulated irritation with the term that's built up over my years here. Part of it is the unthinking assumption that the Cantonese linguistic barrier is impermeable to non-Chinese, e.g. when a shop assistant asks her colleague to 'help the gwai louh' because she doesn't want to deal with me. And some of it may be due to the increasing lack of charm I find at being singled out of crowds by children screeching 'Wah! Look at that huge tall gwai louh' (Mr Tall really is pretty tall).

You'd think gwai louh would be the kind of term that would fall out of common use as the education level continues to rise, and as more and more Hong Kong people gain international experience. There's no way of telling, of course, but I don't think there's been any such decline. Human nature being what it is, habits such as the use of GL are likely to remain firmly in place until there's some social sanction involved to uproot them.

Until that time comes, a gwai louh I shall be!

Comments

A 19th century gweilo

I just came across a book titled 'The "Fan Kwae" at Canton before Treaty Days, 1825-1844, by an old Resident'. Given that it was published in 1882, it seems the term has been around for a good long time, so I don't think there's too much chance of it falling out of common use just yet.

Interesting to see how the usage has shifted though, from 'fan kwae' (which exactly matches the 'foreign devil' translation above) in the past to 'gweilo' today. There's still no consensus on spelling either, with kwae, gwai, and gwei all attempting to represent the same Chinese word.

MrB

name calling

even less charming is the 'faai por' reference placed loudly close to me and the 'wah gaam faai' that often greets me from adults and children alike....in the western world i'd be called plump!!!!

fan gwai lo

iv heard the term "fan gwai lo" bein used...best of both terms! lol. personally i rly hate either terms bein used. i much prefer sei (west) yun + get cringey hearin gwai lo. btw im not white.

Hello all, this is a great

Hello all, this is a great site, although I am not an expat in hongkong, but I am a Chinese expat in England. This site is great, I can relate many topics here to my daily life in England and with that I have resolved many problems and dilemas. So thank you for providing this great site Mr Tall and MrB.

I have lived in the UK for 15+ years. Initially I came here to study, the first few times when I heard ppl referring me as the "Chinky" was really insulting. together with the odd occations when kids singing the " ching chung China man..." song on the bus and in public around me were absoultely unbearable. and actually, in a few occations, I got myself into trouble with the head master where someone was hurt... "DUN MESS WIF ME!!" haha I was a kid then.

As angry as I was at the time, I didnt think of the term we use in Cantonese to describe Westerners as "gwei lo" or "Foreign Devils" was really the same as when I was being called "Chinky". It got me thinking why is it I found it so insulting when I was called name but not when I used to call foreingers "gwei" or "devil".

Eventually I realised that before I came to the England I was an ignorant, naive and small minded person who has not had any contact with the outside world. And since then when ever I hear someone calls me "Chinky" or whatever I find insulting or abused just becos I am the minority, I would just feel sorry for them as they are just the ignorant, naive and small minded person like I was before I have had the contacct with the outside world.

Once again thanks for providing this site Mr Tall and MrB.

Ipnotised

I am a Chinese Candian now

I am a Chinese Candian now Working in HK, I can related your sentimental about names calling in different culture. I was refered as Chinks in Canada but I didn't find it insulting as once I know the history how imigrants from China get jobs at lower rates, and cause a bad taste with local residents. As in "Foriegn Devil" as refered to the 8 nation who invaded China during the Opium war. And it just become an customary name. Whether we can change a term that have been used for over a Century to something more decent, I think it might take some time.

DJ

It's really nice to hear

It's really nice to hear someone say that! I don't mind being called a gwei louh (or gwei po in my case!) but when you boil it down, it's really not very nice! I would never, never, never call someone a chinky - but you can call me gwei po if you like.
Just not a 'white bitch, who thinks she can do anything just because she's white' which I was called once. That one hurt.

Re.: What's a Gwailouh?

Having some spare time to peruse the net while drinking my coffee I came across this article and just have to add my 2 cents worth. I normally keep my opinions to myself when it comes to these sorts of topics (kind of like religion and politics) but this one has irked me for many many years and I just have to join in. Being called a gwailo is not something any foreigner should tolerate regardless of how it is said or under what conditions. It is a derogatory term which has no place in today's society.

As our anonymous friend from the UK pointed out, this sort of behaviour is not bound to Hong Kong people alone and is present all over the world wherever there are foreigners. However, western society tries to do away with such racial or derogatory terms and teach new generations that such language is not proper. Unfortunately, as our UK friend said, there are a lot of ignorant, naive and small minded people in the world that think name calling gives them credit in society and makes them big shots with their friends.

But back to Hong Kong and its affinity for colourful language and derogatory terms. The reason why people still go around calling foreigners gwailos is because it simply hasn't been told to them that using it is 'wrong', the same way Hong Kong people chew with their mouths open or openly belch in your face without a second thought or hint of embarassment while in conversation with you. This sort of behaviour and way of thinking has been passed down from generation to generation and still is today, and unfortunately even the supposed improving educational system does nothing to correct it.

At this point I'd like to share a little story with you. The place, San Francisco Chinatown...the crime, starting to understand the Cantonese dialect. Chinese people being the way they are stick together overseas and then its gwailo this and gwailo that and there goes another sei gwailo (yes, it sometimes isn't enough being a ghost man...sometimes we have to be dead ghost men). But then there's also the 'hak gwai' and the ubiquitous 'sei hak gwai', yes you've guessed it, black ghosts! Problem is that unlike their paler countrymen, African Americans started wondering why they heard the words 'hak gwai' every time they were around. Finally they did find out and made a fuss every time they heard it. Now they're called 'see yau kai' (soy sauce chicken) and are happier for it because 'hak gwai' is no longer used. Clever these Chinese people.

But back to the term 'gwailo'. Foreigners in Hong Kong should not tolerate the use of it and should make a point of telling people that the correct term to use to describe a foreigner is 'sai yan'. I have found in the past that although taken aback at first, Hong Kong people tend to adapt and even respect the new choice of term. This sort of behaviour cannot be left to the educational system to correct but instead starts with us foreigners by correcting our Chinese friends, colleagues or employees whenever the term gwailo is used. The important thing is not to lose sight of the objective, and that is to educate, not lose one's temper and go ballistic every time you hear 'gwailo' being bounced around. I've found in the past that it only takes one intervention to correct the problem.

At the end of the day its up to foreigners all over Hong Kong to decide for themselves whether they are fine with being called a 'gwailo' or 'secondary devil' (yes, secondary...not even primary), if they aren't then they should point it out when it happens. Same goes for all the other 'terms of endearment' like 'fei poh', 'dai pei lo', 'goh gwai' and so on.

Having said that I would suggest that anyone going on this sort of campaign choose their battles carefully as people in Hong Kong tend to be a tad electric these days. Start with people you know or work with, don't accost someone on the MTR and correct them as they may just go mental on you and the whole incident may very well appear on YouTube the following day courtesy of some candid cellphone.

Re.: What's a Gwailouh?

"Gwailouh" is a Chinese compound word consisting of "ghost" and "man". It originated likely about 200 years ago when foreigners, mainly the European colonial powers began to exert their influence and dominance on China. Although the USA and Canada were not colonial powers, the former did involved in wars with China and thus the term has been used for decades to call people who are foreigners and of pale (or white skin).
Why calling them ghost, as one would ask! Remember Chinese respect their ancesters who are already dead and burried. But if you had found them coming back to life and started walking, then they must look pale (no blood colour) and must be also very scary.
The second word "louh" refers to someone who is a man, age matters not, but hints at a person who is strong and might be also over-bearing. It is not used to describe someone who is old. Examples include Dai Jeg Louh (big strong man), and Hum Sub Louh (horny man), Go Louh (tall man), referring to either Chinese or non-Chinese.
Is Gwailouh insulting? It could be yes and no, depending on the mind of the user. Growing up in Hong Kong from childhood until my adult years, that's the way I learned how to describe "western foreigners" when I see one. Even working in Chinese restaurant in Canada where the majority of our customers are of Chinese ancestry, some still use this term when they talk with their boss and other waiters when the occasional "white" customers show up. But if you work in an office, two Chinese talking between themselves would never use this term to describe their other work colleagues.
It is not necessarily meant to be insulting in many situations, we are just too slow to find a more civilized and accurate term to use.
Gwail-Paw is a term for western-white foreigners.
Gwail-Mui is a term for western-white young women or girl, and some Chinese are not afraid or ashamed (they shouldn't be) to use it to describe their wife or bride.
My two cents.

Gweilo, gweipo etc

The terms "gweilo", "gweipor", "gwemui" "gweijai" are generally used by Cantonese Chinese speakers to describe Caucasian males and females. Often the term is among themselves, and when some Westerners who suddenly arrive in Hong hear the expression and actually ask an English speaking Hong Kong native Cantonese speaker, they are told that it the same as above and also that the term was once a derogatory term, but is not now. These Westerners thene continue to live and work in Hong Kong thinking that the word "gweilo" (in the case of a Caucasian male) is a term of endearment and even up up referring to themselves and other Caucasian guy's as a "gweilo". This is reinforced futher when they walk into a bookshop like PageOne or Dymocks, only to find a book written by a local Caucasian writer who name is Martin Booth (deceased) and who grew up in Hong Kong.

Sometime later the 'fresh' Caucasian guy may come across a non-Chines person with a better command of spoken Cantonese than his own, who will tell him that it it is not really nice way to describe a Caucasian man, woman boy, or girl. It will take some time for 'fresh' guy, who has been walking around Hong Kong merrily thinking that the word "gweilo" was a term of endearment, when in fact he may just as well as been called something like a "thick-headed bastard". I wonder how he would react then if he is told that it is only a term regularly used to describe a Caucasian guy.

Use your sense, and maintain your dignity not for your own sake, but the sake of all other Caucasians. When you hear a local Chinese calling you a "gweilo", pull him up about it and let him know that you are not going to be referred to in such a way. Failure to do so will let all other Cantonese Chinese speakers think you are happy with the term and next they will be calling you lots of other names too to your face. Safe in the knowledge that you can't really understand Cantonese and that you love being referred to as a "gweilo"!

I once hear a local woman say to her daughter in Cantonese while I was in the lift of our building togther, "say good morning to the "gweilo" if not he might come back and haunt you ate night". After which I spoke Cantonese back to her and doing so took the opportunity to refer to her as a Chinese hag (wong ming por).

Gwai loh, Lao Wai, Wai Guo Ren, Haole

When we moved to mainland China 14 years ago, we were always greeted with Lao Wai! Or Wai Guo Ren! Got extremely tired of hearing them, but in the time/place we lived, we had to put up with it. Used it ironically with each other. Of course, they are not as negative as Gwai Loh, just irritating.

Then moved to Hawaii and discovered that we were now Haole (literally, a person without Aloha, aloha being the breath of God--so very similar in meaning to a ghost). Haole being used very much the same way as gwai loh here. however, in HI everyone has nicknames for their ethnicity (Flip for Filipino, Portogee for Portuguese, etc), so though it's not pleasant, it is much more of something you just get used to and deal with. Again, we used it ironically.

So we move here and are now Gwai Loh. Yeah, I know it's not pleasant, and I know it's ignorant. However, I don't hear it that much (not nearly as much as I used to hear Lao Wai in China) and I have a tendency to ignore it as well. Do I like it? No. But I guess I have chosen to ignore rather than engage with it. Don't know if that's right or wrong, just what I've done.

Very interesting to read others' POV, though.

M

Gweilo

I certainly couldn't argue that I have been discriminated against in a negative way, more positive ways, but that's another story. Gweilo is a lazy term. Worse is said about Indians in particular. To say 'chinky' or 'slope' is ignorant and not appropriate behaviour. What I dont like is the fact that Chinese overseas dont tolerate these sorts of insults yet some Chinese in HK have no trouble in being openly rude to other races. You can't have it both ways.

Gweilo

"When you hear a local Chinese calling you a "gweilo", pull him up about it and let him know that you are not going to be referred to in such a way."
The word "gwelio" continues to evolve in the mind of the user. It is still used by some Chinese or HKers when they talk among themselves referring to foreign westerners. If someone calls you this name in your face, then you have the rights and reason to tell him you don't like being called such. But you had better be polite and choose your words carefully because when no offence or derogatory is intended in the first place, the guy can fire back asking what the fuss is all about. Tell him your name is Peter, or Mary, or you are Canadian, and start from there.

What a fuss! It was never

What a fuss! It was never meant to be rude.Historically it refers to someone you have little or no understanding.Like ghost for that matter.Invariably they are often dressed in white!Hence the name.
As the world is a much smaller place....perhaps the word may seems out of context now!

Gwai-louh

As a fourth generation San Francisco-born Cantonese, I was raised that 'gwai-louh' was a swear word that was demeaning to the targeted person. As an teen, I learned the word, 'hak-gwai' which is used similarly to black people. My parents' generation attached 'hak-gwai' and 'gwai-louh' with the same stigma as 'nigger'.   When I moved to SoCal and worked among many new immigrants from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Phillipines, Japan, Korea and Thailand.  My California-bred sensibilities was shocked to learn that sharp prejudice and bigoty existed between the Asian nationalities was commonplace.  I was educated to the many foreign and 'new world' slangs used by Asians to label one another, i.e., Vietnamese women were labeled 'Asian bimbos' by other Asian women.  I was suddenly aware that the 'political correctness' enigma only existed within the shores of the USA and promulgated by Western arrogance.  I can only imagine your shock and annoyance being the object of 'curiousity' when in public. I used to get the same when walking in SF Chinatown since I was obviously from the suburbs and not a local Chinese.  A few times, I was labeled a 'gwai-louh' or 'ABC' (American-born Chinese) since I do not speak the language (my parents used Chinese as their secret language to discuss adult topics in front of the kids) and have a NoCal accent.  I guess I am a honorary member of the 'gwai-louh' society since I married one and my children are mixed.  Just simply respond with the term 'lin doy' to those who label you.  It is a term I picked up from another ABC while attending Berkeley.  To summarize, I learned prejuduce and bigotry is simply a product of the human condition that we have to deal with the best we can.  If it is limited to calling each other names, se la vie.

no gwei, gum gwai

Very interesting the different views of these terms of "endearment."  In my circle of relatives and ethnic-Chinese friends of similar backgrounds (here in the US for several decades), we have come to describe people of other races (if that way at all) just as in American English -- as in "black", "white" or by ethnicity or nationality.  For example, hak-yun (black person), bak-yun (white person), mei-gok-yun (American person), heung-kong-yun (Hong Kong person).  The "gwei" has been omitted.  The old-fashioned terms are considered rude and uncouth.  Perhaps this is odd and not common, I don't know.  I think we speak in Chinese with the same habits as we do in English -- what we wouldn't say in English we won't say in Chinese.  Having friends, co-workers, associates and relatives-by-marriage of different backgrounds really helps to (hopefully) open your mind to the other guy's perspective so you wouldn't speak in a way that is offensive or hurtful to him.  What goes around, comes around.  But if we do use "gwei" it's because we really are talking about ghosts or spirits!

Vinnie.

interesting thread.  too

interesting thread.  too sensitive though.  i'm chinese but not canto and from my perspective and upbringing, gwai loh is just a reflection of how chinese people like to give nicknames to people, like how they'll refer to a fat kid as xiao zhu (little pig) or an old lady as lao puo zhi (old lady) or an old man as lao tou zhi (old man).  regardless of how the gwai loh term came about, i think it's now gotten to the point of just being a nickname for white folks.  as a few other comments have pointed, there is also hei gwai for black people or lao wai.  when i use it and when other people i know use it, there is no sinister meaning behind it and it's not meant to be derogatory -- it's just shorthand.  chinese people call other chinese people lao zhong (old chinese) too.   

an urge to "educate" locals

an urge to "educate" locals and "teach" them that the term is offensive seems a lot like having a chip on one's shoulder. it seems that Cantonese calls for a lot of metaphorical expressions and that's one of the examples.

it would seem silly if I let any of these words bug me to the point where I'd try and tell someone off for calling me a gweilo. this IMO would make sense if that person was more than just a random character on the street. but then I imagine a non-random person would either have enough respect for me that small comment would do it otherwise the relationship would simply turn less amicabe

there was a quote saying something to the offect that one would be offended when being called an S.O.B. only if he was not sure about his parents. sounds like another good metaphor

Re: An urge to educate locals

Hi there,

The term had been ironed into the local language for quite a few hundred years.  You have other variations in Mandarin and other dialects as well.

I would say in general it is not going to work.  Even if you rebuke them right back some might still call you just that when you are not around.  Actually some would keep on calling you gwailo or gwaipo just to irritate you.

Chill out, my friend.  It is usually harmless.  The majority of local folks in town do not hate foreigners.  I have to admit the language barrier is still somewhat in effect because quite a lot of us is still shy to talk.

Best Regards,

T

 

Having the advantage as a GL

Omg, thank you thank you for this site... It is the closest I can get to feeling alive again.. I miss Hong Kong so much that you had no idea.. unfortunately for work, I havent gone home in a long time. Not one day in my life that I dont miss home.I envy you that you love it in a foreign country because I dont. I am living in New York and I feel that I cant engage with the people here.. Maybe because you have the upper hand as being the gwai louh in Hong Kong, people generally treat you nicer... so there is a good thing to be white.. no offense there.. just speaking what i think..

Anyway, please keep continue with this blog.. I really enjoy it. Great job and hopefully one day I can go home to see my family and friends...

Unknown in Harbin

I've lived now in Harbin for two years.  I hardly ever hear gweilo, maybe once or twice a month, LOL.  OTOH, yáng guǐzi  and its variations I hear, oh, say 50 times a week.  Still, there is nothing in Putonghua or Cantonese or Wu that has the utter withering visceral hatred that is implicit in gaijin as used constantly in Japan.  I just let it go by; as my Putonghua gets better, I realize that they're just as hard on each other as they are on me, perhaps more so.