Westerners, more often Europeans, staying or vacationing in Hong Kong have come to embrace the term gweilo (gwáilóu), a term native Cantonese speakers commonly use to refer to them which is loosely translated into English as “foreign devil”.
But the generally-accepted, friendly-sounding title is unlike others used by neighboring countries when referring to visiting White folks as pointed out by SCMP.
For instance, in the Philippines, Caucasians (regardless of nationality) are generally referred to as Kano, which is simply a shortened form of Americano. In Thailand, they are the Farang (White race); Indonesia, orang bule (Albino person), while in Singapore and Malaysia, the term is angmoh (red hair). In Mandarin, the term laowai, or foreigner, is most commonly used to refer to Caucasians.
Locals in other Asian countries merely use direct translations of their physical characteristics, while gweilo is a bit more complicated.
A combination of “gwái”, which means “ghost/devil”, and “lóu”, which means “man”, it literally means “ghostly/devil man”.
Indeed, the term refers to Westerners’ ghost-like pale skin, which originated from the Chinese who had early encounters with Europeans; however, it was historically used to connote an offensive racial slur expressing hate and depreciation.
In earlier times, Gwái in itself has conveyed a generally negative feeling as Cantonese people would sometimes call each other sēui gwái to mean he/she is a bad person.
Back then, it was also pejoratively used with the preface “séi” (dead). To say “séi gwáilóu” is akin to saying “damn foreign devil”. Over time, many have come to consider it to be an acceptable generic term for Caucasians and are now often used in non-derogatory context.
People in Hong Kong with European ancestry, especially the younger generation, have come to embrace the term today with some products and establishments in Hong Kong adopting the term as trendy brand names.
But while gweilo is now defined in the Oxford Dictionary as simply referring to foreigners, there is still some lingering debate whether the term is indeed derogatory or even racist. Some Cantonese speakers who find its use problematic would rather use term sāi yàn “western person” as an alternative.
Hong Kong Free Press’ Catherine Wang argued that the word was coined as a form of resistance to Europeans colonization (oppression) and not one that was coined through oppressing or enslaving others.
Explaining why it is important to understand its context before passing judgment, she wrote: “Yes, ‘gweilo’ points out whiteness. Yes, ‘gweilo’ can be used in a derogatory sense, like most phrases known to man. But is gweilo morally corrupt, ‘extremely racist’, and inexcusable? No. Because behind ‘gweilo’, unlike most racially charged terms, is a history of resistance to oppression rather than its perpetration.”