Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese Yale: gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] (listen)) is a common Cantonese slang term for Westerners. In the absence of modifiers, it refers to white people and has a history of racially deprecatory and pejorative 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 (i.e., an ethnic slur) is disputed by both Cantonese and Westerners.
Etymology and historyEdit
Gwái (鬼) means "ghost" or "devil", and lóu (佬) means "man" or "guy". The literal translation of gwáilóu would thus be "ghostly man" or "devil man". It is sometimes translated into English as "foreign devil". In Chinese, "ghost" can be a derogatory term used as a curse or an insult. 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: 鬼奴; lit. 'ghost slave') was once used to describe African slaves.
The term gwái (鬼) is an adjective that can be used to express hate and deprecation, an example being the locals' 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 now days 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.
Gwáilóu is often considered to be an acceptable generic racial term for Westerners. Also, some members of the Hong Kong community with European ancestry (particularly those with limited or zero Cantonese fluency) are indifferent to the term, and those who believe that the best way to defang a word intended as a "slur" is to embrace it, and use gweilo to refer to non-Chinese in Hong Kong. Gwailóu has, in some instances, been recognised as simply referring to white foreigners in South East Asia and now appears on Oxford Dictionaries defined as such, although non-white foreigners are not gwáilóu. While gwáilóu is used by some Cantonese speakers in informal speech, the more polite alternative sāi yàn (西人; 'Western person') is now used as well, particularly if the conversation involves a non-Chinese person in order to avoid offense.
CFMT-TV in Toronto, Canada 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. According to CFMT-TV, "Gwei Lo" was used as "a self-deprecating term of endearment". 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".
- gwaijai (鬼仔; Cantonese Yale: gwáijái; lit. 'ghost boy') for a white boy.
- gwaimui (鬼妹; Cantonese Yale: gwáimūi; lit. 'ghost girl') for a white girl.
- gwaipo (鬼婆; Cantonese Yale: gwáipò; lit. 'ghost woman') for white woman.
- baakgwai (白鬼; Cantonese Yale: baahkgwái; lit. 'white ghost') for white people.
- haakgwai (黑鬼; Cantonese Yale: hāakgwái; lit. 'black ghost') for Black people.
- sai yan (西人; Cantonese Yale: sāi yàn; lit. 'western person') for Westerners.
- yeung yan (洋人; Cantonese Yale: yèung yàn; lit. 'overseas person') for Westerners.
- ngoigwok yan (外國人; Cantonese Yale: ngoih gwok yàn; lit. 'foreign country person') for foreign nationals.
- acha (阿差; Cantonese Yale: achā; from "acchā" meaning "good" in Hindi) for South Asians.
- molocha (摩囉差; Cantonese Yale: mōlōchā; lit. 'Mouro Indian') for South Asians.
- Riben guizi (日本鬼子; pinyin: rìběn guǐzi; lit. 'Japanese devil') or dongyang guizi (東洋鬼子; pinyin: dōngyáng guǐzi; lit. 'east ocean devil') – used to refer to Japanese.
- Er guizi (二鬼子; pinyin: èr guǐzi; lit. '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.
- Yang guizi (洋鬼子; pinyin: yáng guǐzi; lit. 'Western/overseas devil') or xiyang guizi (西洋鬼子; pinyin: xiyáng guǐzi; lit. 'west ocean devil') – used to refer to Westerners.
However, xiaogui (小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; lit. 'little ghost') is a common term in Mandarin Chinese for a child. Therefore, some argue that gui (鬼) in Mandarin is just a neutral word that describes something unexpected or hard to predict.
Laowai (老外; pinyin: lǎowài; lit. '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", depending on context, "old" can be both a term of endearment and one of criticism. The pejorative aspect of the term laowai comes from conjoining the words old and outsider, suggesting the described person to be visibly aged and unfamiliar, characteristics usually associated with apparitions or ghosts.
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