Foreign devil froth and foam

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The term “gweilo” is widely used in Hong Kong, with the word even adopted for a local beer brand:

Photo: Dickson Lee (SCMP [2/11/22])

Here we go again — we've been through it many times before (see "Selected readings" below for a sample).

The entry from Wiktionary:

Alternative forms


From Cantonese 鬼佬 (gwai2-lou2), from  (gwai2, “ghost”) +  (lou2, “guyman”)


gweilo (plural gweilos or gweilo)

    1. (colloquialethnic slur) A white person in China, (particularly) a man; a ‘foreign devil’.

Usage notes

Some expatriates in Hong Kong now use gweilo to jokingly refer to themselves.


Related terms

Now a judge in Hong Kong has declared that "gweilo" is not racist:

"Cantonese slang ‘gweilo’ not racist, judge rules in dismissing British engineer’s HK$1 million discrimination lawsuit", Brian Wong, SCMP (2/11/22)

Francis William Haden claimed he was the victim of prejudice when colleagues at Leighton Contractors (Asia) left him out of meetings and email chains
But District Court judge rules no basis existed to suggest use of the word in the workplace must entail racial hostility and Leighton had “reasonable” grounds to sack Haden.

Will that be the end of it?  Is "gweilo" really not racist?

Selected readings

On various types of "foreign devils", see this comment and the following posts:

[h.t. Jeff DeMarco]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 6:22 pm

    No, the word itself is not racist (any more than, say, "negro") but it can of course be used with racist intent. I am happy to refer to myself as a gweilo when in China, but if I were in Hong Kong and a local were to refer to me as such while at the same time indicating through non-verbal means that his opinion of me was considerably less than flattering, then I might well take offence.

  2. Martyn Cornell said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 7:26 pm

    Having lived in Hong Kong, and having been called a gweilo while I was there, I confess I found it amusing rather than racist. Chinese colleagues seemed surprised that I wasn't offended by being called a gweilo. But you can – or should – only take offence if someone is using a racist epithet to punch down. Anybody calling me a gweilo was generally punching up rather than punching down.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 7:57 pm

    Part of a long comment I made on 4/10/14 (leaving out remarks on "honky"):

    When I taught at the University of Hong Kong during 2002-3, I took Cantonese the whole year long. It was all in romanization, of course. Even though some of us could read and write Mandarin, I can't recall that our teacher ever once put a character on the board nor did he provide any materials with characters. Incidentally, he was one of the most experienced and highly respected teachers of Cantonese in Hong Kong.

    We were already fairly well along in the course when he introduced the names used to designate people from different countries, and the whole class was flabbergasted when nearly all of the terms he taught us were derogatory: Malays, Filipinos, blacks ("black devils"), Indians, …and on down the line. I think he taught us about two dozen different names for people from different countries, and they were nearly all patently pejorative.

    The longer the teacher went on, the more aghast we grew. Normally I didn't say very much in that class, except to repeat sample sentences, etc., but after awhile I couldn't take it any longer, and I asked the teacher whether he realized that all of these names were unflattering. I asked whether they had any other names for these groups, and he said, "No, that's just what we call them." I followed up by inquiring whether social commentators had addressed this problem of terminology for other peoples, and he just brushed my question aside by saying something like "Nobody makes a big deal over it."

    I think that about a third of the people in the class were so upset by his handling of the situation that they dropped it after that lesson. I should note that it was a very cosmopolitan class, with students (most of whom were professors and lecturers like myself) from around the globe — Iran, Korea, South America, Africa, Australia, England….

    I have a great deal of affection for Cantonese, as readers of Language Log are well aware, but this kind of negative terminology for people from elsewhere still deeply puzzles and troubles me. I really don't know how to comprehend this phenomenon.

    [Update: Everybody in that class took offense at being called "gweilo".]

  4. Jenny Chu said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 8:59 pm

    I've always been interested in what the alternatives are. "Westerner" seems to be the most neutral in English. Is 西人 equally neutral?

  5. AntC said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 9:44 pm

    From the SCMP article: his poor work relationship with colleagues was the real reason he lost his job.

    So being called gweilo was a cause of the breakdown in workplace relations?; or was a symptom?; or his complaining about being called gweilo was a symptom?

    I'm not sure those of us who've benefitted from our countries' historical hegemony over China are in a position to get all righteous. Foreign devils.

    (As I've posted before to Victor) the expats when I worked in HK were aware of gweilo, and treated it as a joke. Indeed there were cartoons in SCMP and the Straits Times using the word.

    What term should Cantonese/Chinese use to refer to people from Europe, America, Australasia, South Africa? Their chief common characteristic is white skin. I suppose English-speaking is what characterises them in HK.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 10:49 pm

    Most of the people in my Cantonese class at UHK were from countries that had never exercised hegemony over anyone.

  7. Xiyang Dada said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 11:31 pm

    AntC really hit the nail on the head. As a foreign devil myself, i exercise hegemony over everyone i can daily, just like all people without mongoloid physiology. Today i took over Italy and Uruguay. I would go for China if it hadn't already belonged to me inalienably since time immemorial. The imperialist and communist usurpers kind of get on my nerves, but they'll 回归 out of my land once they get a load of this new military prowess I'm flexing with my manly buddy.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 4:52 am

    Even more confused than I was in the "pee-pee, wee-wee" thread. When you say "nearly all of the terms he taught us were derogatory: Malays, Filipinos, blacks ("black devils"), Indians", which of those do you regard as derogatory ? For me, "Malay", "Filipino", "Indian" are just normal everday words describing people from Malay[asi]a, the Philippines, India and so on. What am I missing ?

  9. Pau Amma said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 5:58 am

    @Philip Taylor, I'm interpreting that as meaning the Cantonese exonyms for these ethnic groups were, not the English names (some of which may also be exonyms for all I know) VHM uses instead.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 6:56 am

    Fair enough, I should have realised that. But then I have to ask "How does one know that a word that one has never previously encountered is pejorative ?". Compound words and phrases, OK ("pig-f*cker" would clearly not be a compliment in most societies), but a bare word ? Suppose I told a Nepali that the normal British term for a Fijian was a "figger" — how would he be able to infer that "figger", used in such a context, was pejorative ?

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 9:30 am

    There's also a bit of a potential euphemism treadmill dynamic here. In a sufficiently ethnocentric/chauvinistic society, all labels for outsiders or various subgroups thereof will have a potentially pejorative charge, even if they are the default-"neutral" terms, in the sense that if a native speaker really wanted to be pejorative there would be more overtly negative synonyms available.

    But this at some level gets back to the question of the contested relationship between (contemporary) Western values and "universal" values. The notion that ones own racial/ethnic/tribal/caste/religious/etc. group is *not* in some sense superior to the barbarians who make up the rest of the world does not seem to be particularly intuitive as a matter of the historical and ethnographic record, and arose (or at least became culturally dominant) in the West really quite recently. So, e.g., Japanese "gaijin" comes with a bunch of potentially negative overtones and implicatures arising from the fact that Japanese culture is not yet so Westernized as to have wholly adopted the mores of Western white liberals who think "nationalism" is a pejorative and go around denouncing their own ancestors' bad behavior. If you are offended by "gaijin" you are, imho, offended by some fairly foundational features of Japanese culture. And maybe quite rightly so, but if so why have you chosen to be in Japan? Are you a missionary, with some plausible plan for conversion of the natives?

  12. Calvin said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 3:45 pm

    The term "gwei" (鬼) came from 洋鬼子 (foreign devil), which was introduced around the Opium War era when China was indeed experiencing foreign hegemony. Before then, foreigners were called 夷人 (foreigner) or 洋人 (foreigner came by the sea/ocean).

    And "lo" (佬) means "man", so gweilo (鬼佬) is "foreign devil man", and it derived terms (but less translated) include 鬼婆 (women), 鬼仔 (boy), and 鬼妹 (girl). Often time though people use them without realizing the derogatory connotation.

    When it comes to other groups, some of the original terms were neutral but because the manner the terms were used they took on the negative connotation.

    For example, 阿差 (for Indians) came from 衙差 (old term for government law enforcement personnel), because in the early colonial days the Indians most people saw were in the police force.

    Another term 賓妹 (for Filipino domestic workers) is shortened from 菲律賓+妹 (Filipino girl) — it became popular after domestic workers were first introduced to Hong Kong as most of them were from the Philippines in those days.

    These type of terms are not exclusive to foreigners: people from mainland China are called 阿燦 (after a character from a popular TV series), 大圈仔 (slang for Mainland triads); northerners are called 撈鬆 (Cantonese homonyms of Mandarin 老兄 "old brother").

    Nowadays people are more aware of these problematic terms and replacing them with more neutral ones like 西人 (Westerner), 南亞人 (Southeast Asian), 菲傭 (Filipino maid), 新移民 (new immigrant), etc.

  13. julie lee said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 4:29 pm

    When my mom first came to the U.S., she worked in a garment-

    stitching sweatshop in New York's Chinatown. Almost all the

    workers were Cantonese women. One day, one of them said: "My

    daughter is getting married." Another women asked (in

    Cantonese): "Hai yan hai gwei?" (Is he a human or a ghoul?) —

    meaning was he Chinese or a foreigner, gwei referring to gweilo

    "foreign ghoul/devil". It was said with good-natured humor.

  14. David C. said,

    February 14, 2022 @ 10:18 pm

    Adding to what J.W. Brewer has said, the names for outsiders are inevitably tied to the cultural context. Calling a person of East Asian appearance "chino" or "chinito"/"chinita" is usually done without malice in Latin America, and the names are sometimes terms of endearment, even for people who have no Asian heritage.

    The "problem" with 西人 is that, as with gweilo, it generally is meant to include only European-looking people. In Chinese-language media in North America it's partly been replaced by the euphemism 主流社會/人士 (literally, mainstream society/people) when referring to non-Chinese people in America.

    I find terms like 洋妞 (young foreign woman), which is not uncommon in Mandarin, more troublesome when it's almost always used in the context pursuing (泡) such a woman.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 15, 2022 @ 6:40 pm

    David C.: According to the DRAE, "chino/a" used as a term of endearment is from Quechua, not from the word for Chinese.

    While looking for that, I found an idiom that might be of interest to some here:

    ser algo chino básico

    1. loc. verb. coloq. Arg. Resultar incomprensible o difícil de desentrañar. La electrónica es chino básico para él.

    To be basic Chinese:

    1. Argentinian colloquial verbal locution. To be incomprehensible or hard to figure out. Electronics is basic Chinese to him.

    Maybe "elementary Chinese" would be a better translation?

  16. wanda said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 12:22 am

    @Philip Taylor: If all of them translated to something like "black devils" it would be pretty clear that the intent was pejorative.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 4:50 am

    … which is a phrase, not a word. That is exactly the point that I was seeking to make.

  18. Terpomo said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 8:54 pm

    I'd think the line between 'phrase' and 'word' is a bit fuzzier in a language written without spaces.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2022 @ 11:21 pm

    The lack of spaces is an artifact of the writing system, not the language. Sinitic languages written in the alphabet do have spaces.

  20. Rakau said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 4:07 pm

    In Aotearoa New Zealand non indigenous people are often called Pakeha. This is the Maori word for immigrants and was first used in the 1800s. It is sometimes used offensively but most Pakeha I know, wear the label with pride. I certainly do.

  21. Terpomo said,

    February 17, 2022 @ 5:06 pm

    Yes, but my point is people won't necessarily agree on where to put the spaces; I have a Mandarin-speaking friend who says his own instincts on where to place spaces when writing Pinyin vacillate.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    February 18, 2022 @ 7:51 am

    In any case: the question raised by Philip Taylor is still unanswered: how do you tell if these words are derogatory, in the absence of other knowledge?

    My best answer would be that a word's being 'derogatory' is like other aspects of its meaning: it can't be told is isolation for an unknown word, but it can be told from context and from how native speakers think of the word.

    I don't doubt that there was a good reason for taking them to be so, but it deserves explanation.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

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