"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"While racism exists in Hong Kong, and that's not welcome, the place is refreshing to be free of the postmodern nonsense that infects the West."
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 expat. The full import of its possible meanings only come later.
I've used the word to describe myself in front of locals because of its disarming impact. On occasions I've seen a few grimaces of discomfort while others sniggered.
Thus, I read of Mr Francis Haden with some interest today. 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.
Of course, there is a back story, 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.
Let us 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. Many expatriates embrace it.
The Galloping Gwais, an expatriate football team, enjoyed some success in the 1980s. As far back as 1958, the Hong Kong Police Dragon Boat team adopted '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 to de-weaponised it. That's quite cool. So is the fact you can buy 'Gweilo Beer'- an excellent brew.
But is the word racist or derogatory? That depends on how you understand the term, 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. I consulted an SJW acquittance in the interest of balance, who came back with this response.
"Gweilo was never used to oppress a marginalised group. White expatriates are colonisers, and colonised people used the word to describe their colonisers."
OK, that's interesting. The reply infers that labelling with racist language is fine and dandy for the rich and privileged. That response fits the postmodern agenda of seeing all white people as oppressors. So, we are no further forward.
I can recall the term used to insult me. A local police officer took umbrage at my negative feedback for an idea he championed in a meeting. He was fuming;
"You Gwailo's don't understand."
The room went silent. He's broken an unwritten rule to cross 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; usage is fraught with danger as I'm stepping through a minefield of possible misinterpretation. Yet daily, 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 attacks and cyberattacks 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 underdog 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 improper use, and they sometimes deploy it. But, likewise, it has more innocent applications.
Is another dynamic at play? These days, it's easy for a subset of the population to see offence in any behaviour. Far too many people seek it in anything to garner victimhood. For example, the 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 welcome, 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 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 was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.