Gweilo or gwai lo (鬼佬; Cantonese gwai2 lou2, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] ( listen)) is a common Cantonese slang term for foreigners although this does not apply to many other Asian races, and has a history of racially deprecatory use. Cantonese speakers frequently use the term "gweilo" to refer to foreigners in general and consider the term non-derogatory, which some members of the foreign community historically resented. Gweilo has now, however, been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined as such.
Etymology and history
Gwei (鬼, gui) means "ghost" or "devil", and lo (佬) means a man, regular guy, a chap or a bloke. The term gweilo therefore literally means "ghost man", and is sometimes translated into English as "foreign devil". Historically, Chinese people had the image of its borders continuously breached by "uncivilized tribes" given to mayhem and destruction, and they considered these people the four barbarians. In the 16th century when European sailors appeared in southern China, they were also similarly regarded as barbarians and given derogatory names. In Chinese, "ghost" can be a derogatory term used as a curse or an insult, and the word "ghost" had been used to describe foreigners. For example, a 17th-century writer from Canton Qu Dajun wrote that Africans "look like ghosts", and gui nu (ghost slave) was once used to describe African slaves.
The term gweilo or gwailo to describe white foreigners was popularised during the First and Second Opium Wars in response to the Unequal Treaties. In Southern parts of China, the term gwai lo was used. In Northern parts of China, the term "west ocean ghost" (西洋鬼子 xiyang guizi) was used, Europe being West of China. Although originally derogatory, gwai is now considered by some to be an acceptable generic term for Westerners in Hong Kong, for example gwai poh means a Caucasian woman, gwai mui a Caucasian girl, and gwai jai a Caucasian child. Gweilo has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined as such.
Nowadays, some Hong Kong residents and other Cantonese speakers often refer to non-Chinese people by their ethnicity. This is in sharp contrast to other parts of China, including the Cantonese-speaking south, where foreigners are most commonly referred to as (laowai (老外)). This literally means "old foreigner", but depending on context, "old" can be both a term of endearment and one of criticism.
The term gwei (鬼) in gweilo (鬼佬) 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 gwei (鬼). It conveys a general bad and negative feeling and is a somewhat obsolete and archaic/old-fashioned term nowadays and other more modern terms have largely replaced gwei (鬼) for similarly negative meanings.
The pejorative sense of gweilo (鬼佬) can be specified when the term is prefaced by the adjective sei (死, jyutping: sei2, meaning "dead" or "damned"); sei gweilo (死鬼佬), literally means "dead ghost man", thus means a bad gweilo, or a bad Caucasian. Sei (死) is also commonly added to other terms in order to describe the person or people being referred to as "bad", such as sei lo (死佬), meaning literally "dead man" or "bad guy" and sei chai lo (死差佬), literally "dead policeman" or "bad policeman". Cantonese people also can call each other sei gwei (死鬼), literally meaning "dead ghost", but refers to a bad person also, though more often than not it is applied affectionately, similar to "Hey bitch!" in English when used affectionately. The character gwei (鬼) itself can have negative connotations, even without the word sei (死), for example when it was attached to the Japanese military in the term guizi bing (鬼子兵) during their invasion of China which lasted from 1931 to 1945. However, the same term can also be applied derogatorily to any foreign military which was an enemy to China.
Historically, the term was considered racist by non-Cantonese people. Many Cantonese speakers, however, frequently use the term gweilo to refer to foreigners in general and they consider the term non-derogatory. On the other hand, some members of the Hong Kong community with foreign ancestry, particularly the younger generation, embrace the term. The term lo (佬) when used in other situations is generally quaint as it is a term that has mostly fallen out of use and the intentional use of it carries a certain comical sense. Gweilo has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined as such.
Gweilo is the most generic term, but variations include:
- To refer to a black foreigner: hakgwei (黑鬼; jyutping: haak1 gwai2, literally: "black ghost").
- To refer specifically to white boys: gweizai (鬼仔; jyutping: gwai2 zai2, literally: "ghost boy").
- To refer specifically to white girls: gweimui (鬼妹; jyutping: gwai2 mui1, literally: "ghost girl").
- To refer specifically to white women: gweipor (鬼婆; jyutping: gwai2 po4, literally: "ghost woman") which is also often spelled "gwai-poh" (por / poh refers to an old woman).
Due to its widespread use, the term gwei, which means ghost, has taken on the general meaning of "foreigner", although historically derogatory, it can refer to white people although other racial terms for Africans can be used for these people perceived to be non-white. Indians and Middle Eastern people are called ar-cha (阿差) or mor-law-chai (摩羅差). For further information, see Chinese Wikipedia link zh:摩羅差. Gweilo has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined as such.
The Cantonese term bak gwei means "white devil" and was used historically as a derogatory reference to Caucasians.
In Mandarin, guizi (Chinese: 鬼子; pinyin: guǐzi) is a similar term to gweilo. Guizi, however, can be used to refer to either the Japanese (specifically, 日本鬼子 rìběn guǐzi, "Japanese devil" or 東洋鬼子 dōngyáng guǐzi, "east ocean devil") or Europeans (洋鬼子 yáng guǐzi, "foreign devil, (west) ocean devil").
Laowai (老外 lǎowài, "old foreigner" or "old outsider") is a word usually used for Europeans, and is a less pejorative term in Mandarin than guizi. Also, cf. ang mo (Chinese: 紅毛; pinyin: hóng máo; POJ: âng-mo) meaning "red hair" (Hokkien).
Also, in Mandarin, xiaogui (Chinese: 小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; literally: "little ghost") is a common term for child. Based on that usage, some argue that (Chinese: 鬼; pinyin: guǐ) in Chinese is just a neutral word that describes non-expectable or something hard to predict.
In popular culture
- Larry Feign's Lily Wong comic stories, about the buildup to the handover of Hong Kong to China, make frequent references to the term, often in a derogatory sense used by Lily's father.
- In Big Trouble in Little China (1986), James Hong refers to Kurt Russell as a gwai lo.
- In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), Bruce Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee) is told to not teach martial arts to the Gweilo anymore; however, Lee wants to teach to whomever wishes to learn.
- In Out for a Kill (2003), Steven Seagal's character is frequently referred to as the "gweilo professor".
- In Balls of Fury (2007), Randy Daytona is often referred to as a gweilo as he is the only Caucasian player in the ping-pong school (George Lopez's character, though, attributes the term the wrong meaning of "round eyes" instead of a more generic term for foreigners with supernatural undertones of "ghost" or "devil").
- 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 Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010), some Shanghai gang members refer to Kane and/or Lynch as gweilo.
- In the video game Mafia 2 (2010), the protagonist Vito is derogatively referred to as "gweilo" by Chinese characters.
- In Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi the main character is referred to as a "yang guizi" by a Chinese employee as he manages a factory in futuristic Bangkok.
- Martin Booth's autiobiography, Gweilo: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood (2004) discusses the author's childhood in Hong Kong and applies the term gweilo as a racial epithet for Caucasians (as in white ghosts).
- Use of the term gwei to refer to Westerners is frequently referenced in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975).
- Gwei is used as a collective term for the Old Ones in Anthony Horowitz's The Power of Five (2005-2012). Gwei is the Chinese name for the Old Ones, and means "evil spirit" in the series.
- In Geoffry Morgan Pike's novel Henry Golightly (1974) by Geoffry Morgan Pike the main character is referred to as a "gwai lo" as he works on his boat in Macau and other parts of Asia.
- CFMT-TV in Toronto had a cooking show named Gwai Lo Cooking (1999) hosted by a Cantonese-speaking European chef, who was also the show's producer and the person who named the show. In response to some complaints, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that
... 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". Others, however, particularly foreigners living in Hong Kong, and non-Chinese subjected to the term in Vancouver and Toronto, find it to be demeaning and/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. It is translated as "cocksucker" by Wu himself.
- Yu, Irene (7 November 2006). "MP shouldn't generalize". Richmond News. Archived from the original on 12 March 2007. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
- Brown, Jules. Gardner, Dinah. Hong Kong and Macau, 2002. Rough Guides publishing. ISBN 978-1-85828-872-7. p 399
- 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.
- 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.
- Judith T. Zeitlin (2007). The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventheenth-century Chinese Literature. University of Hawaii Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0824830915.
- Zhidong Hao (2011). Macau History and Society. Hong Kong University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-9888028542.
- David Leffman, Jules Brown (2009). The Rough Guide to Hong Kong & Macau (7 ed.). Rough Guides. p. 338. ISBN 978-1848361881.
- 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.
- Yip, Virginia; Matthews, Stephen (2001). Intermediate Cantonese: A Grammar and Workbook. London: Routledge. pp. 168–70. ISBN 0-415-19387-7.
- Oriental Expat. Gaijin, Farang, Gweilo - Confused? Retrieved 10 December 2006.
- CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking, CBSC Decision 99/00-0220. Decided 6 July 2000
- Appendix to 'CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking ', CBSC Decision 99/00-0220. Decided 6 July 2000
- The dictionary definition of gwailo at Wiktionary