Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
I heard the word 'gweilo' within an hour of landing in Hong Kong. By the end of that first week, it had entered my vocabulary as a generic term for the expatriate. The full import of its possible meanings only come later. I’ve used the term to describe myself in front of locals because of its disarming impact. On occasions, in feedback, I’ve seen a few grimaces in discomfort, while others sniggered.
Thus it’s with some interest today that I read of Mr Francis Haden. He's claiming racial discrimination, in part, because folks at work called him ‘gweilo’. Haden is suing his employer, seeking HK$200,000 for hurt feelings.
There is a back story of course, although the details are sketchy. Haden works as a blasting engineer on construction sites. He’s alleging an underlying hostility towards non-Chinese with the use of ‘gweilo’ in a derogatory manner.
Lets back up a bit to consider the history. ‘Gweilo’ is the epithet used in Hong Kong for white people. The literal Chinese translation is 'foreign devil’. In Cantonese, the characters are Gwái ( 鬼) meaning "ghost", and lóu ( 佬) meaning "man". There are records of the term emerging in the 1800s during early encounters between local Chinese and European traders.
These days the word has morphed into general usage. It’s entered the Hong Kong lexicon as the common group name for white expatriates. It's a problematic term because of its origins. But many expatriates embrace it. The Galloping Gwais, an expatriate football team, enjoyed some success in the 1980's. As far back as 1958, the Hong Kong Police Dragon Boat team adopted the name ‘The Fan Gwais’ - the troublesome expats. Even the spelling of the word is contested. Take your pick - Gwailo or Gweilo?
In a sense, the white expatriates hijacked the term, flipped it in a lighthearted manner and de-weaponised it in the process. That’s kinda cool. So is the fact you can buy ‘Gweilo Beer’- it's an excellent brew.
But is the word racist or derogatory? That depends on how you understand the term, its usage and context. I’m leaning towards the view that context is critical here. How the word gets deployed makes a difference in deciding if it's racist or hurtful. In the interest of balance, I consulted an SJW acquittance, who came back with this response.
“Gweilo was never used to oppress a marginalised group. White expatriates are colonisers, and the word was used by colonised people to describe their colonisers.”
OK, that’s interesting. The reply infers that for the rich and privileged, labelling with racist language is fine and dandy. That response fits with the postmodern agenda of seeing all white people as oppressors. We are no further forward.
I can recall the term used to insult me. In a meeting, a local police officer took umbrage at my negative feedback for an idea he championed. He was fuming.
"You Gwailo's don’t understand.”
The room went silent. An unwritten rule was broken and a line crossed. He’d deployed the word to offend. I recognised that.
"I beg your pardon, Sir?"
He realised the offence caused, retreated and then apologised. That’s the distinction of context. Using Gweilo as a pejorative term has a sting.
I'd draw a comparison to the use of the n-word. This is fraught with danger as I’m stepping through a minefield of possible misinterpretation. Yet on a daily basis, black youth drop the n-word to each other in conversation, plus make liberal use of it in rap music.
But marvel at the reaction if a white person says the word. The consequences are serious; careers ruined, public and cyber attacks come piling in. Again context is the issue. Given black history white usage of the term is perceived as offensive and unacceptable. I get that.
Having said this, your average white expatriate in Hong Kong is not an under-dog nor repressed. Again, we circle back to context. How about 'Ah Cha' for the Indians and Pakistanis? This word is commonly used even today. I doubt this is helpful to community relations, said with or without malice.
Still, people in this town know the term 'gweilo' has an offensive use, and they sometimes deploy it as such. Likewise, it has applications that are more innocent.
Is another dynamic at play? These days for a subset of the population it's easy to see offence in any behaviour. Far too many people seek it in anything to garner victimhood. For example, the whole gender pronoun debacle is rooted in a victim culture. Yet, seeing the world through a lens of hyper-sensitivity makes us brittle. In turn, this gives us manufactured outrages with absurdity laid upon absurdity. Even the use of certain words can evoke claims of cultural appropriation.
While racism exists in Hong Kong, and that's not to be welcomed, the place is refreshing to be free of the postmodern nonsense that infects the West. The irrationality of identity politics, allied to deconstructionism, has left many intellectually bankrupt. For me, it is a dangerous slope to ban certain words or compel the use of others.
Anyway, we know that peer and social pressure is most effective in correcting behaviour to remove words or actions that society can no longer accept. After all, the law is a blunt tool that can produce undesirable outcomes. ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names can never hurt you’ was the mantra when I was a kid.
Further, as that great philosopher, Mrs De Havilland points out.
“The English laugh at the Scots, the Germans and the French; in turn the Germans, the Scots and the French laugh at the English. Meanwhile, Hong Kong people look down on Mainlanders and vice-versa. It all goes around and comes around. Get over it.”
I don’t know the details of Mr Haden's case nor can I predict the outcome. But I’m watching with great interest to see how the court unties this knot.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.