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Is the term ‘gweilo’ racist? Sure… but not in the way you think

Is the word “gweilo” racist or derogative? Yes. It is both. But not in the way that we are currently talking about it with respect to the fired British worker, Francis William Haden, who claims that he faced discrimination when his employer, Leighton Contractors, called him a gweilo.

When we hear that Lan Kwai Fong or Sai Ying Pun is “full of gweilos,” we probably think: nightlife, fine-dining, cosmopolitanism and rising property prices.

Whereas when we hear that Central full of “Bun Mui” (the racial and gendered Cantonese slang to describe Filipino domestic workers) on Sundays, we evoke media reports of crowding, disorder, poor hygiene and a general defilement of Hong Kong’s financial district.

white man

Photo: Pexels.

In other words, the term gweilo (literally, in Chinese, a “ghost man”) works to the advantage of white men in a city where a white complexion and masculinity are associated with good things.

It should therefore be no surprise that the majority of callers who identified themselves as Western males to the RTHK Radio 3 Backchat show on the topic last week were puzzled as to why the term was offensive at all. In fact, they were quite delighted to be gweilos!

Women were less pleased with “gweimui”/”gweipo.” And of course, south Asian minorities even less so when Cantonese racial epithets are used against them.

In other words, gweilo is a positive term that works to the advantage of visibly white males. So much so that marketing specialists have named a beer after the epithet and there is even a bar called Gweilo.

We don’t hang out in bars called “Bun Mui” or drink beers called “Ah Cha” (a slang word often used to describe those who appear to be of South Asian descent). Marketeers know that these names connote something less exciting than gweilo in the Hong Kong zeitgeist – namely poor people, women, and those that don’t look white.

Photo: gweilobeer.com.

That said, the term gweilo should never be used in the workplace, the LegCo, or in any part of public life. The only appropriate language to use in these places is inclusive language.

Employees should be referred to by their job titles or their names, not by their ethnicity, gender or anything else.

Further, if Leighton Contractors really are using a racial and gendered term to describe British employees and making them feel excluded as Mr. Haden claims, then they are almost certainly doing the same to other ethnic groups and women – Filipinos, Indonesians and South Asians, which is also unacceptable.

Indonesian domestic workers Causeway Bay Victoria Park

Photo: Amnesty International Hong Kong.

This is not to say that so-called white advantage or privilege is guaranteed in Hong Kong or elsewhere. In the United States, for example, lower class whites are derided as “white trash” or in England they are sometimes belittled as “chavs.”

Similarly, we are appalled to see Caucasians begging for money in Asia. But notice that our disdain for them comes from the fact that we assume that people who look white are privileged, and that it is therefore unseemly for them to be begging.

Notice, also, that it is white people themselves, not African Americans or Asians, who use these terms to discriminate against other whites.

The term gweilo is racist and derogatory precisely because, in its most common usage in Hong Kong, it celebrates white men over non-whites and women. And for this reason, I suggest that we refrain from using it at all.

Is the term 'gweilo' racist? Sure... but not in the way you think