An Asian woman was asked to leave a store in Richmond, Canada, after she allegedly used a Cantonese term to describe a white person as a “ghost man” or “foreign devil.”
Eugene Ho was accompanying his girlfriend’s mother to a Shaw store in Richmond Centre shopping mall in November 2021 when the incident occurred, according to Richmond News. Ho wrote about their experience at the store in a Facebook post last month.
Ho and his girlfriend’s mother wanted to sign her up for a new cell phone number. One of the store’s staff members reportedly approached them and asked about the person who assisted them the last time they went to Shaw, to which the woman replied in Cantonese, “I think it’s a ‘gweilo.’”
“Gweilo” is a Cantonese term that translates literally to “ghost man” or “devil man.” The term has been historically used as a slur against white people that approximates to “foreign devil,” although it has been argued that the term has taken on more neutral connotations in present times. After their conversation, the staff member reportedly talked to the store’s manager, who happened to be Asian. Moments later, Ho and his girlfriend’s mother were asked to leave the store because she used a “slur.” The staff member explained that the term she used was “equivalent to the n-word based on his understanding.”
Ho reportedly apologized to the staff member, adding that he “grew up with this term not being a racist one… it just means ‘white guy’ to me.” He also noted that some of his white friends had referred to themselves using the term “white guy” in English and Cantonese.
The woman was subsequently banned from entering Shaw following the incident, Ho claimed in the Facebook post.
Speaking to Richmond News, Ho said his friends were confused about what happened at the store, as the Cantonese term has supposedly evolved over the decades. What was once a racial slur, he claimed, is now a “widely used and accepted” term “as a generic racial term for Westerners.”
“Even the Oxford English Dictionary’s latest definition from 2016 states, ‘a person who comes from a different country, especially from the western part of the world,’” Ho added.
Although Richmond City Councilor Chak Au, whose first language is Cantonese, agreed that the term’s meaning has evolved throughout the years, he still thinks it is important to consider every individual’s perspective since the city is “a diverse community with people coming from different cultural backgrounds.”
“We all need to learn from each other’s culture and perspectives,” Au told Richmond News. “After all, it’s all about creating better understanding among each other in our community. We can’t change other people’s minds—everyone has the right to feel offended.”
Jan Walls, director of the Asia-Canada program in the Faculty of Arts at Simon Fraser University, argued that the Cantonese term is in “no way equivalent to the N-word.” He also explained that it is more related to the Mandarin term “lao wai,” which describes Westerners: “The Mandarin prefix ‘lao’ is often used in a very nice way, such as ‘old friend’ or ‘old buddy.’ The Cantonese ‘lo’ is often used to denigrate the noun it’s attached to.” Jimmy Yan from Access Pro Bono suggested refraining from using specific words that could offend other people, explaining, “Just because you come from an ethnic minority community does not immunize you from using offensive racial slurs.”
On Monday, a Shaw spokesperson told Richmond News that its workers are permitted to “respectfully refuse service to a customer who is physically or verbally aggressive and/or abusive.”
The spokesperson also clarified that the mother of Ho’s girlfriend was not banned from the store and was simply asked to leave. The spokesperson added that Shaw reached out to Ho following the incident.
A British Australian man sued a company in Hong Kong after several of his colleagues called him a “gweilo” in September 2018.
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