Tuesday, September 30, 2008

from "Aussie Pete"

Taken from here: http://www.aussiepete.com/2008/05/ang-mo-in-singapore-and-lao-wai-or.html

13 May 2008
'Ang Mo' in Singapore and 'Lao Wai' or 'Gweilo' in China - Offensive to Westerners?

I promised I would write a blog on this one, so here it is. Although I will put forward my personal experiences, my intention is to try and remain impartial and with an open mind. I really invite comments from any others with personal experience or opinion on this topic.

Firstly, here is my take on the various terms. Although in my country of heritage, Australia, all three terms would be considered 'politically incorrect' and if used toward a foreigner whilst playing sport, would constitute a suspension from the game for a number of weeks and at the highest level of representative sports would ensure that the offending player would undertake mandatory counselling (under racial villification rules), as a foreigner living and working in Singapore and having spent much time in Shanghai, China, I am quite tolerant of the usage of these terms.

In my experience, I have been called all three of these names many times. If a friend or colleague refers to me in any of these ways, it is often with affection or without malice and therefore I take absolutely no offense. However, as with any 'name calling', any of these terms can be used in a derogetory manner - which I have also been exposed to. No country is without some level of racial divide or downright racism, but I have found these people to be the minority in this era of globalization. In this instance, I just feel sorry for the person offering the racial taunt, as it suggests an ignorance that may never be resolved, no matter how much education.

I also understand the cultural divide here - what is acceptable in one country, may not be in another. It is my choice to live and work in a foreign country, and must therefore learn to live with the differences and respect the cultures for what they are - I cannot personally try and change centuries of tradition and beliefs in another country, just because I was raised differently by my parents.

In summary, although I understand the 'passion' that both sides of this discussion adopt, I strongly believe that if we are to ask whether or not a term is offensive (as my topic suggests), the answer lies with the recipient. That is, no matter whether a term is used in a demeaning manner or if the intent is not to offend, this is of no consequence in the argument - if someone is offended by being called any particular name, then by definition, the term is offensive (to that person) and that person should be respected for their opinions and feelings. At the same time, if one is travelling to a foreign country, one must understand that cultures are different and should therefore be respectful themselves and more 'open minded' to various terms. It is however in my mind, never acceptable to 'talk down' to someone based upon difference of race, religion or any other factors - by working together we can make this world a better place.

Please feel free to comment candidly on this topic.

NB: I do not claim to be author of the following texts. All facts on terms below have been freely adopted under 'GNU free documentation licence' and by copyright cannot and have not been altered from the original state. The same free texts can be found on Wikipedia.

Some background facts on the usage of the term 'Ang Mo' in Singapore

Ang mo (simplified Chinese: 红毛; pinyin: hóng máo; POJ: âng-mo•) or sometimes Ang mo kow (red-haired monkeys), also spelled ang moh, is a racial epithet that originates from Hokkien (Min Nan) that is used to refer to white people in Malaysia and Singapore. Literally meaning 'red-haired', the term carries a strong stigma at present amongst a large proportion of the Caucasian minority. The term implies that the person referred to is a devil, a concept explicitly used in the Cantonese term gweilo ('foreign devil').

The term is widely regarded as a racist and derogatory by many Caucasians living in Singapore, but is widely used. It appears, for instance, in various Singaporean television programmes and films. The term was used in the film I Not Stupid, in which when several employees in the marketing department of their company resented a particular Caucasian individual because they perceived that preference had been shown to him because of his race.

Ang mo is believed to be the term originally used in the Singapore place-name Ang Mo Kio (now usually rendered thus: simplified Chinese: 宏茂桥; pinyin: hóng mào qiáo). The term may either refer to the rambutan, a fruit with a red skin covered with hairs; or to a bridge built by the British after which the nearby town was named.

Fort Santo Domingo in Tamshuei, Taiwan is known as the 'City of the Red-Haired' (Traditional Chinese: 紅毛城; pinyin: hóng máo chéng; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Âng-mn̂g-siâ; ) in Chinese. It was built by the Spanish in the 17th century.

Some background facts on the usage of the term 'Laowai'

Laowai (Chinese: 老外; pinyin: lǎowài) is one of several Chinese words for foreigner. Laowai literally translates as "old" (lao 老) "foreigner" (wai 外). It is an informal word that appears in both spoken and written Chinese. While some people consider laowai a casual and neutral word, others view it as a pejorative term.

Laowai is a commonly used Chinese word. It is the informal version for foreigner, waiguoren 外国人, which literally means "outside country person." There is some dispute about the correct Chinese characters used to write the word. While "老外" is the more common form, some argue that the character "佬", with the addition of the ren (person) radical (人字旁) is more correct. However, this form is grammatically awkward ("佬" is a slightly derogatory noun for an adult male), and infrequently used.

Lao 老, or "old", is frequently used to express long-term friendship, as in laopengyou, which means "old friend"; or respect, as in laoshi 老师, which means "old teacher." However, there are also words with clear negative connotations containing the character lao, such as lao dongxi 老东西 ("silly old fool"), laohan 老憨 ("simpleton") and lao gudong 老古董 ("old fogey, fuddy-duddy"). Lao is also used as an empty prefix in words for some animals, such as laohu 老虎 ("tiger") and laoshu 老鼠 ("rat, mouse"). (There is some disagreement about this "neutral" use of "lao" in front of these animal characters. In all of the cases mentioned and other cases (including 老鹰 laoying ("eagle") and 老狐狸 "laohuli" ("fox") the "lao" indiciates fear or discomfort. All these animals are considered unlucky or evil.)

Laowai is thus not a completely positive, or even neutral term, and its usage can imply "making fun of" foreigners. The recently published edition of the Chinese-language dictionary 现代汉语规范化词典 (Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian) states that laowai carries a bantering connotation (谐谑; xiexue). Further indication of the negative connotations of laowai is the fact that it is sometimes used synonymously with waihang (外行; amateur, or lay person).

A pejorative term for foreigner, yangguizi 洋鬼子, which literally means foreign devil, was in frequent use early in the 20th century, but today is rarely used and is recognized by Chinese as inappropriate and racist.

Laowai, as well as waiguoren, are commonly used terms that in everyday spoken Chinese refer to Caucasian foreigners, but not Asian foreigners or foreigners of African origin. While a White Westerner may be referred to as a laowai, someone from Japan will be called ribenren 日本人, the Chinese word for Japanese. Someone who has dark skin color and appears to be African in origin will be called heiren 黑人, which means black person. Sometimes the term laohei 老黑 is used for people of African decent, a term which also has pejorative connotations. The most pejorative term is heiguizi 黑鬼子, which literally translates as black devil.

Laowai is one of the first Chinese words that foreigners learn when they come to China. It has now entered the lexicon of China's expat community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. It frequently appears in English language literature and advertisements in China as ‘‘laowai’‘ or ‘‘lao wai’‘. It is very common to see ‘‘laowai’‘ used in blogs and websites administered by foreigners living in China. A Google search will come up with 10,000s of entries for ‘‘laowai’‘, including an English language Web portal Laowai.com that caters to expats in Shanghai. There is even a Beijing based drum'n'bass band named "Lao-Why?" that is composed of foreign and Chinese members.

In recent years the word ‘‘laowai’‘ has begun to stir up controversy within the expatriate community in China. In this way ‘‘laowai’‘ is similar to how Americans view the Spanish word gringo and Westerners view the Japanese word gaijin or the Thai word farang. This is because many foreigners in China believe that ‘‘laowai’‘ is a derogatory term. This is due to the fact that some Chinese frequently shout out "Laowai"! to foreigners passing by, which may then be followed up with laughter and taunting.

The official Chinese press has expressed concern about the inappropriate use of ‘‘laowai’‘ and foreign sensitivities surrounding the word. Editorials, written by foreigners and Chinese, have appeared in English and Chinese language newspapers about the subject. In response, local governments have launched campaigns aimed at educating the Chinese public about the appropriate usage of ‘‘laowai’‘.

Some background facts on the usage of the term 'Gweilo'

Gweilo (鬼佬; Jyutping: gwai2 lou2; Cantonese pronounced [kwɐ̌ɪ lə̌ʊ]; sometimes also spelt Gwailo) is a Cantonese term for people of the caucasian race (generally men), and has a long racially deprecatory history of use. It literally means "dead corpse that has come back to life", ghost" or "ghost man", and arose to describe the pale complexion, the sometimes "red hair and green/blue eyes" (traditional Chinese: 紅鬚綠眼; Cantonese Yale: hung4 sou1 luk6 ngaan5) of caucasians. When the term is translated into English, it is often translated as foreign devil. The term arose in the 19th century and is associated with the demonization of Europeans during the occupation of China by foreign powers .

The translation, foreign devil is appropriate when seen from the standpoint of the history of deprecatory use of the term and the common use of the living dead (鬼) inhabiting various levels of hell in Chinese Buddhism.In this sense, the translation foreign devil also has strong merit. The Chinese meaning of gwei (鬼) can mean "ghost" or "devil" in Chinese, because although Chinese religions such as Buddhism do not include beliefs parallel to the the Christian ideas of "God" there are indeed hells where devils reside. Furthermore, some Chinese do believe in ghosts, spirits, and reincarnation. The reason for calling caucasians as "hateful living dead" was probably because during the 1800s, when the Chinese first saw the caucasians with a comparatively much paler complexion, they thought that the Europeans were actually dead corpses that had come back to life. It also could also have expressed hatred, as when the same term gwei (鬼) was historically applied to express hatred of the the Japanese military which massacred many Chinese.

Nowadays, this term demonstrates that Hong Kong residents often refer to caucasians and other races by their race. This is in sharp contrast to the remainder of the People Republic of China where foreigners are most commonly referred to as "foreign friends" (waiguo pengyou 外国朋友) of "good old foreigner" (lao wai 老外). The character "lao" (老) is the same character use in "good old friend" (老友). This sharp contrast reflects the ill will that Hong Kong residents have had towards caucasian occupiers during the past several hundred years. Particularly Hong Kong residents use "Gweilo" as a racist term which betrays a racist and isolationism mentality among many towards caucasians.

One must keep in mind however that gwei (鬼) in gweilo (鬼佬) is indeed used to express the highest degree of hate and deprecation. A case in point is when many Chinese families watched as their mothers were killed and daughter taken into forced prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. At that time the term they chose to express their greatest hatred towards the Japanese was (鬼), the same gwei that is used for gweilo. "Guizi Bing" (鬼子兵) does not refer to a cute Casper-type ghost, but is closer in connotation to devil or Satan. Considering this, "foreign devil" does have merit as a translation to capture the full nuance of the term.

The pejorative sense is further intensified when the term is prefaced by the Chinese word sei (死, jyutping: sei2, meaning: death, damnation) as in sei gweilo (死鬼佬), literally meaning "dead ghost man", using the translation "dead" for "sei" (死) because it is only correct to be used as an adjective. However, the word "sei gweilo" is not really a term, but an adjective added to the term in order to describe the person or people referred to by the term as bad. When the word "sei" (死) is used as such to describe a living person, it means "bad". "Sei" (死) is commonly added to other terms in order to describe the person or people being referred to as "bad", such as "sei lo" (死佬), meaning literally "dead man" or "bad guy" and "sei chai lo" (死差佬), literally "dead policeman" or "bad policeman". Chinese people also can call each other "Sei gwei" (死鬼), literally meaning "dead ghost", but refers to a bad man also. Even without the word sei (死) the character (鬼) itself can express intense loathing as when it was attached to the Japanese military in the term "Guizi Bing" (鬼子兵) during their massacre of what some have estimated to be upwards to 30 millian Chinese during World War II.

Gweilo is the most generic term, but variations include:
- To refer specifically to European women: gweipor (鬼婆; jyutping: gwai2 po4, literally: "ghost woman") which is also often spelt "gwai-poh"
- To refer specifically to European boys: gweijai (鬼仔; jyutping: gwai2 zai2, literally: "ghost boy")
- To refer specifically to European girls: gweimui (鬼妹; jyutping: gwai2 mui1, literally: "ghost younger-sister")

Due to its widespread use, the term gwei, which means devil, demon, or ghost, has taken on the general meaning of "foreigner" or "westerner" and usually refers to the European races since Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians, African and other races have their own separate racial terms that are used for them instead of gweilo. Few people for example would refer to their Philippine maid as a gweilo. The following variant of the term is considered racist because they are specific to a group of people based on their racial characteristic:

To refer to a white foreigner: bakgwei (白鬼; jyutping: baak6 gwai2, literally: "white ghost")
To refer to a black foreigner: hakgwei (黑鬼; jyutping: haak1 gwai2, literally: "black ghost")
In 1999, CFMT-TV in Toronto had a cooking show named Gwai Lo Cooking. It featured a Cantonese-speaking European chef as the host, who was also the show's producer and the person who named the show. In response to some complaints, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that
... While historically, "gwai lo" may have been used by Chinese people as a racist remark concerning foreigners, particularly European Westerners, the persons consulted by the Council indicate that it has since lost much of its racist overtone. The Council finds that the expression has also lost most of its religious meaning, so that "foreign devil" no longer carries the theological significance it once did. Based on its research, the Council understands that the expression has gone from being considered offensive to, at worst, merely "impolite".

According to CFMT-TV, "Gwei Lo" was used as "a self-deprecating term of endearment". Others, however, particularly foreigners living in Hong Kong, find the term demeaning and/or racist. However, it is also used by some non-Chinese (sometimes jocularly) to address themselves.

While "gwailo" is commonly used by some Cantonese speakers in informal speech, the more polite alternative sai yan (西人; jyutping: sai1 jan4, literally: "western person") is now used.
The term is often considered racist by non-Cantonese people. Many Cantonese speakers, however, frequently use the term to refer to white people and westerners in general and they consider the term non-racist, a controversial notion. The term was commonly prefaced by sei (死; jyutping: sei2, meaning: death, damned) as in sei gweilo, meaning "damned ghost man", and used pejoratively with sei as the pejorative suffix.


AussiePete said...

Hi there - thought you might be interested in some of the comments so far on this article I wrote a few days ago... Are 'Ang Mohs' Welcome To Live In Singapore?

I associated a poll with it and so far from a total of 59 votes, 50% have said 'Yes', 28% said 'No' and 20% said 'Don't Care'.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see someone speaking against Asian racism. I'm Indian, and I can say this that we Asians are more racist than whites who are always made out to be the "bad guys". I've lived in US for sometime and I never came across any form of racism. Maybe I was just lucky.

But in the past 1 year of having worked in Singapore, I've come across a lot of racist comments against Indians. Even though I never had any feelings against any race, nowadays I revel in taunting Singaporeans about their English. I know that now it makes me a racist. But I can't help mentioning it that I find these people to be the dumbest people I've ever come across. I'm just being honest that I like the fact that I'm in a firm where most people are foreigners or from Mainland China.

I didn't know that even whites feel like a minority here, because I've seen most Singaporeans always try to impress them and it's very evident how they behave like slaves.

Nick said...

I really appreciate your blog. I live in Taiwan and find it nearly impossible to have a conversation about racism with my Taiwanese friends. I had such a terrible response to a blog posting that talked about stereotypes against white foreigners here that finally took it down to end the conversation.

Pig Head said...

Keep up the good work. It's a gem.

Oh, before I forget: I am an ethnic Chinese who was born, brought up and has spent most of his life in Hong Kong.

Exuaks said...

sei gwei lo is really bad, but gwei lo no longer carries any negative connotations.
Racism has been internalized in many Asian countries. In Hong Kong, people there are prejudiced against PRC people. You can't call that racism, because they're the same race.
Where does it end?
But then every now and again, people get angry and blow themselves and others up, or massacre those who think they are being oppressed by.

And then there's gender and class and sexuality.

Only stupid people see people as a colour first.

Oh and Singaporeans hate Malaysians.
And then wealthier Asians treat poorer ones like crap...and then on top of the scrap heap, are white people. Sure they might resentyou because of the burden of the 20th century and colonization - lets face it colonization is explicitly racist. Asians who speak with a white accent get derided by ones who don't...where does it end?

And while you say "asian", people within asia differentiate.

Stop comparing elements of racism.

Education is the only way,,,

AsianRacism said...


I agree that education is the way, and hence the reason why this blog exists. One definition of racisms is that it is simply discrimination on the basis of race. So when a PRC Chinese are discriminated against by another Chinese person BECAUSE they are a Chinese, then even if the other person doing the discriminating is also Chinese it is still racism as the REASON for the discrimination is the perceived race / ethnicity of the person or group in question.

It doesn't matter if the person being racist is from another socially defined 'race' or ethnic group. If the discrimination is BECAUSE of the others race, it is racism (i.e discrimination on the basis of race).

Labels and words aside, any discrimination based on race / ethnicity / religion / nationality is bad.

Pig Head said...

with respect, I think 'racisim' should be restricted to mean an 'ism' that is ethnicity-related, and not otherwise. For example Nazism to me is a kind of extreme racism because it was thought that the Aryans are the master race, and others like Jews are inferior. An 'ism' that is not related to ethnicity is to me a DISCRIMINATION.

Being born and brought up in Hong Kong I think I know why the PRC Chinese are discriminated against (and actually looked down upon). Nothing about their 'race' at all. It is all because of their BEHAVIOUR. They are considered noisy, dishonest, corrupt, selfish and dirty (e.g. they urinate on underground trains; spit wherever they like; litter and defecate wherever they fancy, very much to the horror of people in Hong Kong. It is also thought that many of them come to Hong Kong to steal or to cheat. People in Hong Kong would want to be considered Hongkongers rather than Chinese because they just don't want to be identified with that lot. They even go so far as to call the PRC Chinese "Ah Chan" (阿燦)in order to tell them apart. It has nothing to do with racism, at all.

ALX said...

I am a chinese Singaporean who is now studying in Australia, I was shocked when I overheard some China Chinese(from their accents) referring to white people as "yang gui zi", right in Australia!

On the other hand, I was even more outraged when one of my classmates(a thai) got pelted with an egg in Ann St. right in the heart of Brisbane city just 2 weeks ago, and another korean classmate having a similar experience near the South Bank(trust me I lay in bed fuming after hearing about it just before bedtime). I'd long heard about these "egg" attacks in brisbane, even years ago back in Singapore, but I didnt expect it to happen to people I knew. I have hence concluded that racism is a longstanding tradition of many(i didnt say all) Australians.

At the same time, I feel really ashamed at the way many Singaporean chinese (especially those who speak chinese as their default language) are so horrible at English, yet love to make fun of the English of China Chinese; or the fact that they are almost invariably racist against all southern asians (indians, bangladeshis etc.). I personally feel for these migrant workers, they do the worst jobs, yet have to endure loads of racism from the Chinese speaking Singaporeans(who are in fact saved from those jobs by the migrants, because mandarin speaking Chinese people in singapore are statistically the inferior, lower educated ones). They are also the ones who tend to think that caucasians are superior due to a lack of cultural exposure to them. These people are the ones who are concerned only about clubbing, gambling, chinese music, and know nothing about the latest news. If english wasn't the official language in singapore, they probably wouldnt even speak any of it at all. My irritation with this group of people stems from past experiences...

The Zombie Hunter said...

thank you for this article. very best wishes in all of your endeavors. racism in asia is a very ugly thing and is found in every culture. it makes me very glad to see it discussed over here. thats the only way to beat it in the long run. stay safe comrades!