Is calling a Westerner a 鬼佬 Gwei Lo offensive?


A recent court case filed by a British worker (with dual Australian citizenship), Francis William Haden, against Leighton Contractors (Asia) for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination has ignited much debate and outrage from some quarters on Chinese social media.

Haden claims he was referred to as “Gwei Lo” and excluded from projects and prevented from hiring fellow Australians to work on a project as the partnering Chinese company did not want non-Chinese involved.

I fully support his pursuing justice if he feels that he was unfairly dismissed based on the colour of his skin however, I would not agree that being called a “Gwei Lo” in Hong Kong is racist.

For those that are not familiar with the meaning of “Gwei Lo”, its past is associated with the hostile days of colonialism and was used to describe Brits that invaded Hong Kong and bullied the locals into submission. The term or 鬼佬 literally translates as “Ghost Man” which locals used when referring to the “white foreign devils” that forced British rule and governance on them. The word originated as a form of defiance during a time in history when most Europeans were carving up China and the Far East, some with the fallacious belief that “Scientific Racism” justified conquest, destruction and enslavement of natives.

The debates I’ve seen on Chinese social media include a good mix of Chinese and shall we say politically correct Westerners that argue that the term “Gwei Lo” is a racial slur with malign connotations from the past and should not be used to describe Westerners in Hong Kong. I beg to differ. It is not a racial slur in the same context as the “N-word” or “Chinky.” The former originated from the 17th Century, when the African-American population were treated as nothing more than commodities in a global slave trade. The latter was the result of a colonial era that began when the Brits tumultuously dismantled China’s sovereignty, and when America witnessed the massacre of twenty Chinese men in Los Angeles during the race riots of 1871.

The context from which these racial slurs arose was one of institutionalised injustice, appropriated by a powerful, white majority that ritually subjugated smaller ethnic groups.  To be branded with a racial slur meant a fragmented life, shame and fear for being a lesser person than those born white. On a political level it was to live with no rights or limited rights, on a social level it was to endure discrimination without the possibility of reprieve and on a psychological level, it was to live under the constant threat of harassment and in some cases even death.

Unlike most racially charged terms, “Gwei Lo” has a history of resistance to oppression rather than its perpetration. Whilst I cannot deny the xenophobic roots of the word, the fact is that over the years semantic bleaching has shifted its meaning to become less polemic and it has evolved into a benign slang to describe not only Caucasians but even Chinese born overseas with a Western upbringing. I for one do not take it as a racist slur when my relatives refer to me as “Gwei Mui” 鬼妹 which literally translates as “Ghost Girl” since I was born in the UK and am married to a Caucasian.

Most of those pesky white foreigners don’t take it as a racist epithet either and these “Gwei Lo” 鬼佬 have taken ownership of the term and re-appropriated is as a more light-hearted and endearing form of self-identification.  In 2015 a group of Brits working in Hong Kong created a craft beer and named it “Gwei Lo Beer.” The name was initially rejected by the trade mark registry as it may be seen as a derogatory name, but intellectual property lawyer Ian Jebbitt put forward the legal case that “Gwei Lo” is no longer used in a racially deprecating manner in Hong Kong and won the legal case.  The Oxford Dictionary defines “Gwei Lo” as a foreigner, especially a westerner.

Whether the PC brigade like it or not, most countries in the Far East use a form of slang to describe Caucasians, such as “Ang Moh” in Malaysia and Singapore which translates as “Red Hair” or “Lao Wai” is used in China which translates as “Old Foreigner” and let’s not forget our American cousins refer to us Brits as “Limeys.” Unless these words are used with a string of expletives most Brits do not see them as a racial slur and the Europeans living in Hong Kong embrace and wear the label like a badge of honour, as it is used in endearing terms.

In summary, if you are non-Asian and outraged when Hong Kongers call you “Gwei Lo” please get over it and do not hijack the term as a racist slur and label us as politically incorrect. Identity politics is so old hat. We cannot change history and it is what it is. Just as we accept that colonialism was from an era when your ancestors were compelled by a “White Man’s Burden” to enlighten us “savages.”  If you are Chinese and offended on behalf of the Caucasians called “Gwei Lo” then please look up colonialism and Western oppression and reflect on your “Chinese-ness.”

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