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.[1][2]


Etymology and historyEdit

Gwái () means "ghost" or "devil", and lóu () means "man" or "guy". The literal translation of gwáilóu would thus be "ghostly man" or "devil man".[3] It 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 [zh; zh-yue], wrote that Africans "look like ghosts", and gwáinòu (Chinese: ; lit. '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 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.[7] 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.[8] 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,[9] 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.[10]

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".[11] 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".[12]

Related termsEdit

Gwai is one of a number of terms to referring to non-Chinese people than can be considered controversial and potentially offensive; a list of such terms is given below:[10][13]

Mandarin ChineseEdit

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.

However, xiaogui (小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; lit. '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 something unexpected or hard to predict.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  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. Archived from the original on 21 December 2016. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  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. Archived from the original on 7 March 2021. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  6. ^ Zhidong Hao (2011). Macau History and Society. Hong Kong University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-9888028542.
  7. ^ David Leffman; Jules Brown (2009). The Rough Guide to Hong Kong & Macau (7th ed.). Rough Guides. p. 338. ISBN 978-1848361881.
  8. ^ D'Souza, Ajay. "SBS Radio – I'm on the radio again! » The views and experiences of an Australian learning Cantonese". Archived from the original on 18 March 2012. Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  9. ^ "gweilo – definition of gweilo in English – Oxford Dictionaries". Archived from the original on 21 June 2016. Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b Yip, Virginia; Matthews, Stephen (2001). Intermediate Cantonese: A Grammar and Workbook. London: Routledge. pp. 168–70. ISBN 0-415-19387-7.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ "CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking", Archived 7 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine, CBSC Decision 99/00-0220. Decided 6 July 2000
  13. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 7 March 2021. Retrieved 14 May 2020.
  14. ^ 第一滴血──從日方史料還原平型關之戰日軍損失 (6) Archived 3 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine News of the Communist Party of China December 16, 2011

External linksEdit