Who is a guai lo?

The term “guai lo” is commonly used by Cantonese speakers to refer to Westerners. It literally means “ghost man” or “devil man”. It is considered, by Chinese speakers, as an inoffensive, but convenient term to use to describe people of European origin. Personally I am not fond of the term, since the basic implication is that the Chinese  are real people, and the Westerners are something different.

I am participating in the British Columbia Senior Games in ice hockey. Our team of average age 68 will be competing in the 60+ division and will probably lose, but that is another matter. I went to the registration today and there was a group of three Chinese seniors leaving the arena speaking Cantonese. I chimed in and said words to the effect of “What event are you guys in, in this old geezers tournament?” There was laughter and they told me they were in ping poing. Then they asked me if I knew what a “guai lao” was. I told them that they were “guai los”, and we all chuckled and parted.

I speak Cantonese quite fluently, at least in so far as informal banter is concerned. I can’t imagine that they would think that I do not know what a “guai lo” is. I wonder why that is the first thing that came to their minds. But  somehow I am not surprised. Here you can read a post about ¨How to learn Chinese¨.


1 comment on “Who is a guai lo?


When I came across the term in Hong Kong, I thought something like, "Hmm… ‘ghost man’… history of foreign encroachment… lighter skin colour… isolated guys who never learn the language… Yep, it fits." So it entered my vocabulary as a culturally explicable, socially neutral, slightly humorous (from its slight absurdity), and, yes, convenient reference. Where disrespect of foreigners actually existed, it took more overt routes than mere joke names.The weird thing to me was to later start to see chic, cosmopolitan youngsters expressing surprise whenever I said "gwai lou", even though I never considered my context profane. Somehow, this aspect of "political correctness" had leaked through their society and trickled down to them, convincing them of their people’s horrible offense in using the phrase, and so they naturally began to shy away from it. They had been told whom to respect and how to respect them; it was an artificial respect, a veneer of politeness, even a sort of brainwashing. I could understand the usage of the term, but some of them no longer could.For me, "gwai lou" is probably here to stay, as it now fills a semantic hole, sometimes aptly and sometimes sarcastically describing aloof if well-intentioned Western sojourners, permanently foreign because local culture (language) is permanently out of their reach. Perhaps that’s as it should be; culture is not something to sacrifice in the name of acceptance. Gwai lous needn’t necessarily be assimilated; they also needn’t necessarily demand respect and villify those who may not like them, or stomp and flail and drive to extinction a pristine cultural expression just to defend their easily injured pride. In a way, "Gwai lou" represents an interpersonal distance or gap I’m not in a hurry to see filled. If and when "gwai lou" dies, something unique and, to me, exotic will have died in Cantonese culture; those foreign locales (or even the immigrant communities) will be a little closer to home, and I’ll have one less reason to want to interact with them. The world should not all be the same.

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