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Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese Yale: gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] (About this soundlisten)) is a common Cantonese slang term for Westerners. In its unmodified form, it refers to light skinned people of European descent and has a history of racially deprecatory use. Cantonese speakers frequently use gwailou to refer to Westerners in general use, in a non-derogatory context, although whether this type of usage is offensive is disputed by both Cantonese and Westerners alike.[1][2]

Etymology and history[edit]

Gwái () means "ghost", and lóu () means "man". The term gwáilóu therefore literally means "ghostly man",[3] and is sometimes translated into English as "foreign devil".[4] In Chinese, "ghost" can be a derogatory term used as a curse or an insult.[5] The term ghost has also been used to describe other ethnic groups, for example, a 17th-century writer from Canton Qu Dajun wrote that Africans "look like ghosts", and gwáinòu (Chinese: ; literally: "ghost slave") was once used to describe African slaves.[6]


The term gwái () is an adjective that can be used to express hate and deprecation, an example being the local's expression of their hatred towards the Japanese during their occupation of Hong Kong in World War II with the same gwái. It conveys a general bad and negative feeling but is a somewhat obsolete and archaic/old-fashioned term nowadays and other more modern terms have largely replaced gwái for similarly negative meanings. Cantonese people sometimes call each other sēui gwái (衰鬼), which means bad person, though more often than not it is applied affectionately, similar to "Hey bitch!" in English when used affectionately. Nowadays, Cantonese speakers often refer to non-Chinese people by their ethnicity.

The pejorative sense of gwáilóu (鬼佬) can be specified when the term is prefaced by the adjective séi (Chinese: ; literally: "dead"), which would be equivalent to saying, of a white male, damn ghost-man (死鬼佬, Cantonese Yale: séi gwáilóu). Séi (死) is also commonly added to other terms to describe a person being bad, such as séi lóu (; "bad man") or séi chāailóu (差佬; "bad policeman").

Although originally considered racist and derogatory by non-Cantonese people,[7] gwáilóu is now generally considered to be an acceptable generic term for Westerners.[8] Many Cantonese speakers frequently use the term and consider the term non-derogatory. Also, some members of the Hong Kong community with European ancestry, particularly the younger generation, embrace the term.[9] Gwailou has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined incorrectly as such,[10] as most foreigners are not gwáilóu and not all gwáilóu are foreigners. While gwáilóu is commonly used by some Cantonese speakers in informal speech, the more polite alternative sāi yàn (西人; "Western person") is now used as well.[11] While "gwai" can be misinterpreted as derogatory, it can also be use to describe something that is foreign. Many times, this word is misinterpreted as something with a more negative connotation by Western culture.

Related terms[edit]

Gwailou is the most generic term to refer to a Caucasian foreigner, other Cantonese terms for foreigners include:[11][12]

Mandarin Chinese[edit]

A Boxer Rebellion pamphlet, circa 1899, that refers to foreigners as guizi.

Guizi (鬼子; pinyin: guǐzi) is a Mandarin Chinese slang term for foreigners, and has a long history of being used as a racially deprecating insult.

  • Riben guizi (日本鬼子; pinyin: rìběn guǐzi; literally: "Japanese devil") or dongyang guizi (東洋鬼子; pinyin: dōngyáng guǐzi; literally: "east ocean devil") - used to refer to Japanese.
  • Er guizi (二鬼子; pinyin: èr guǐzi; literally: "second devil") - used to refer to the Korean soldiers who were a part of the Japanese army during the Sino-Japanese war in World War II.[13]
  • Yang guizi (洋鬼子; pinyin: yáng guǐzi; literally: "Western/overseas devil") or xiyang guizi (西洋鬼子; pinyin: xiyáng guǐzi; literally: "west ocean devil") - used to refer to Westerners.

However, xiaogui (小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; literally: "little ghost") is a common term in Mandarin Chinese for a child. Therefore, some argue that gui () in Mandarin is just a neutral word that describes non-expectable or something hard to predict.

Laowai (老外; pinyin: lǎowài; literally: "old foreigner/outsider"), is the word most commonly used for foreigners, and is a less pejorative term than guizi. Although laowai literally means "old foreigner", but depending on context, "old" can be both a term of endearment and one of criticism.

In popular culture[edit]


  • Larry Feign's Lily Wong comic stories, about the buildup to the handover of Hong Kong to China, frequent uses the term, often in a derogatory sense used by Lily's father.



  • In the video game Alpha Protocol (2010), the main character Mike Thornton is referred to as "gweilo" by the Chinese triad leader Hong Shi.
  • In the computer game Deus Ex (2000), when the player embarks on the Hong Kong mission he is often disparagingly referred to as "gweilo" by locals when attempting to talk to them. The phrase is also used by the harvester leader and a weapons merchant in the 2011 prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution (other characters in the China chapters use laowai).
  • In the video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb (2003), Kai's Chinese men often say 'Kill the Gwai lo!' when they see Indy.
  • In the video game Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010), some Shanghai gang members refer to Kane or Lynch as gweilo.
  • In the video game Mafia II (2010), the protagonist Vito is derogatively referred to as "gweilo" by Chinese characters.
  • In the video game BioShock Infinite (2013), Booker DeWitt is called a "gweilo" by a Chinese prisoner in Finkton.



... While historically, "gwai lo" may have been used by Chinese people as a derogatory remark concerning foreigners, particularly European Westerners, the persons consulted by the Council indicate that it has since lost much of its derogatory overtone. The Council finds that the expression has also lost most of its religious meaning, so that "foreign devil" no longer carries the theological significance it once did. Based on its research, the Council understands that the expression has gone from being considered offensive to, at worst, merely "impolite."

According to CFMT-TV, "Gwei Lo" was used as "a self-deprecating term of endearment".[15] Others, however, particularly foreigners living in Hong Kong, and non-Chinese subjected to the term in Vancouver and Toronto, find it to be demeaning or racist. However, it is also used by some non-Chinese (sometimes jocularly) to address themselves in the context of experiencing discrimination by Chinese towards them.

  • In the HBO drama Deadwood (2004–2006), Chinese settler Mr. Wu frequently applies the term gwai lo to various white men.


  • "Gweilo: The rite of passage of a golden boy in colonial Hong Kong" was the title of the one-man show performed by Micah Sandt in Hong Kong (2016) adapted from the memoir by Martin Booth.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yu, Irene (7 November 2006). "MP shouldn't generalize". Richmond News. Archived from the original on 12 March 2007. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  2. ^ Brown, Jules. Gardner, Dinah. Hong Kong and Macau, 2002. Rough Guides publishing. ISBN 978-1-85828-872-7. p 399
  3. ^ Patrick J. Cummings; Hans-Georg Wolf (2011). A Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor. Hong Kong University Press. p. 69. ISBN 9789888083305.
  4. ^ Lafayette De Mente, Boyé (2000). The Chinese Have a Word for It: The Complete Guide to Chinese Thought and Culture. McGraw-Hill. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-658-01078-1.
  5. ^ Judith T. Zeitlin (2007). The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventheenth-century Chinese Literature. University of Hawaii Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0824830915.
  6. ^ Zhidong Hao (2011). Macau History and Society. Hong Kong University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-9888028542.
  7. ^ Oriental Expat. Gaijin, Farang, Gweilo – Confused? Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  8. ^ David Leffman; Jules Brown (2009). The Rough Guide to Hong Kong & Macau (7th ed.). Rough Guides. p. 338. ISBN 978-1848361881.
  9. ^ D'Souza, Ajay. "SBS Radio – I'm on the radio again! » The views and experiences of an Australian learning Cantonese". Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  10. ^ "gweilo – definition of gweilo in English – Oxford Dictionaries". Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  11. ^ a b Yip, Virginia; Matthews, Stephen (2001). Intermediate Cantonese: A Grammar and Workbook. London: Routledge. pp. 168–70. ISBN 0-415-19387-7.
  12. ^ Patrick J. Cummings; Hans-Georg Wolf (2011). A Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 67–68. ISBN 9789888083305.
  13. ^ 第一滴血──從日方史料還原平型關之戰日軍損失 (6) News of the Communist Party of China December 16, 2011
  14. ^ CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking Archived 7 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine., CBSC Decision 99/00-0220. Decided 6 July 2000
  15. ^ Appendix to 'CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking ' Archived 28 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.,CBSC Decision 99/00-0220. Decided 6 July 2000
  16. ^ South China Morning Post Review, 16 April 2016