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Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese Yale: gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] (listen)) is a common Cantonese slang term for Westerners. In its unmodified form, it refers to light skinned people of European descent and has a history of racially deprecatory use. Cantonese speakers frequently use gwailou to refer to Westerners in general use, in a non-derogatory context, although whether this type of usage is offensive is disputed by both Cantonese and Westerners alike.
Gwái (鬼) means "ghost", and lóu (佬) means "man". The term gwáilóu therefore literally means "ghostly man", and is sometimes translated into English as "foreign devil". In Chinese, "ghost" can be a derogatory term used as a curse or an insult. The term ghost has also been used to describe other ethnic groups, for example, a 17th-century writer from Canton Qu Dajun wrote that Africans "look like ghosts", and gwáinòu (Chinese: 鬼奴; literally: "ghost slave") was once used to describe African slaves.
The term gwái (鬼) is an adjective that can be used to express hate and deprecation, an example being the local's expression of their hatred towards the Japanese during their occupation of Hong Kong in World War II with the same gwái. It conveys a general bad and negative feeling but is a somewhat obsolete and archaic/old-fashioned term nowadays and other more modern terms have largely replaced gwái for similarly negative meanings. Cantonese people sometimes call each other sēui gwái (衰鬼), which means bad person, though more often than not it is applied affectionately, similar to "Hey bitch!" in English when used affectionately. Nowadays, Cantonese speakers often refer to non-Chinese people by their ethnicity.
The pejorative sense of gwáilóu (鬼佬) can be specified when the term is prefaced by the adjective séi (Chinese: 死; literally: "dead"), which would be equivalent to saying, of a white male, damn ghost-man (死鬼佬, Cantonese Yale: séi gwáilóu). Séi (死) is also commonly added to other terms to describe a person being bad, such as séi lóu (死佬; "bad man") or séi chāailóu (死差佬; "bad policeman").
Although originally considered racist and derogatory by non-Cantonese people, gwáilóu is now generally considered to be an acceptable generic term for Westerners. Many Cantonese speakers frequently use the term and consider the term non-derogatory. Also, some members of the Hong Kong community with European ancestry, particularly the younger generation, embrace the term. Gwailou has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined incorrectly as such, as most foreigners are not gwáilóu and not all gwáilóu are foreigners. While gwáilóu is commonly used by some Cantonese speakers in informal speech, the more polite alternative sāi yàn (西人; "Western person") is now used as well. While "gwai" can be misinterpreted as derogatory, it can also be use to describe something that is foreign. Many times, this word is misinterpreted as something with a more negative connotation by Western culture.
However, xiaogui (小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; literally: "little ghost") is a common term in Mandarin Chinese for a child. Therefore, some argue that gui (鬼) in Mandarin is just a neutral word that describes non-expectable or something hard to predict.
Laowai (老外; pinyin: lǎowài; literally: "old foreigner/outsider"), is the word most commonly used for foreigners, and is a less pejorative term than guizi. Although laowai literally means "old foreigner", but depending on context, "old" can be both a term of endearment and one of criticism.
... While historically, "gwai lo" may have been used by Chinese people as a derogatory remark concerning foreigners, particularly European Westerners, the persons consulted by the Council indicate that it has since lost much of its derogatory 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, and non-Chinese subjected to the term in Vancouver and Toronto, find it to be demeaning or racist. However, it is also used by some non-Chinese (sometimes jocularly) to address themselves in the context of experiencing discrimination by Chinese towards them.
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