Tuesday, May 13, 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.

Thankyou all - I look forward to constructive commenting and any discussion on this topic. :p


Anonymous said...

'ang mo' is common in Singapore. i was told as a child that it was the right thing to call white foreigners. Is it offensive to them?

Anonymous said...

don't let it bother me.

Aussie Pete said...

Like I said - very common to hear this in Singapore... if it's used in a non-offensive way, I have no problems. I have been the recipient of someone 'spitting' it at me once (while talking in mandarin) and giving me the 'up and down' look... she didn't know that I understand some Chinese, so I responded with a disparaging remark about her weight and also something about a female dog, if I recall correctly... :D Probably very inappropriate of me, but I was having 'one of those days'...

The term is inherent in the culture here and therefore acceptable at the moment... would not be PC in many western countries.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Never expected an 'ang mo' to know so much about the subject. You must have done quite a bit of research. Thanks. I never thought of the term 'ang mo' in any negative way. But I guess it could sound really bad when you add something in front or behind it. Right now it's just a catch-all term used to refer to white people.

Aussie Pete said...

Haha - see, and I am not offended at all by your comment. :D

I live in the 'heartlands' and it is very, very common there... I'm one of the few 'ang mo's' around...

Anonymous said...

The literal translation of "ang mo" should imply that it is not offensive by nature - typically this term on its own is neutral. My reading of your explanation is that the term is pejorative only because of the actions of some people (e.g. spitting while using the term) or unkind adjectives placed either in front of behind (e.g. si ang mor, ang mor kow). So on its own I cannot see how it can be construed as insulting, but I can understand why over time, if the term starts becoming associated with negative adjectives/emotions/connotations, that it would naturally evolve into an offensive term. This is due more to racist elements in society rather than racist connotations contained in the term itself, of which there are none in modern times.

On its on it should be seen as a neutral term because it is prevalent and ingrained into the local vocabulary. The proper term 'caucasian' just does not roll off the tongue as easily, mainly because there is no no top-of-mind recall for the correct word.

I also think that by acknowledging one's ang-mohness, the person has a better chance at forming a rapport with the locals. That's not a bad thing in a society where friendships and relationships matter more.

Aussie Pete said...

Hi Chris - mate, thankyou so much for this very well thought out and clear comment. I think what you have said is very true.

balisong5 said...

Hi Aussie Pete- You wrote that Ang Mo, Lao Wai and Gweilo are "politically incorrect" in Australia and that using this while playing sport would result in suspension and counseling. Can you please elaborate on this more and provide the background as to why this is the case in Australia? How did these chinese terms ascribed to Whites become politically incorrect and offensive in Australia? I live in the U.S and I can't even foresee the day when gweilo or ang mo would be considered racially offensive amongst White Americans much less now. Considering the historical racism which Chinese and other Asians have had to endure in Australia for so long I would think that White Australians would take epithets such as ang mo and gweilo with stride. Gweilo and ang mo can be used neutrally as opposed to other slurs such as honky, cracker, whitey or even gubby which are generally used to offend Whites. Now what I would like to know is whether a Black or any other racial minority in Australia would be suspended in a sporting competition for using the more offensive terms against Whites such as honky, cracker, whitey, gubby, etc? Btw you've got a really cool blog going on here:)

Bill A said...

I spent a lot of time in Singapore when I worked for Motorola. Our plant was in Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park 3. Given the chance I would be happy to return and work again as an Ang Mo in Ang Mo Kio. God bless everyone in Singapore. Hope things are going well.

Anonymous said...

An old thread, but would like to comment.

I'm Caucasian (Australian) and have been living in Singapore for the past 3 years.
At first I accepted Ang Mo as a cute, catch-all phrase that co-workers would use for me, and to their credit, was never used as a derogatory term.

But now I'm becoming less tolerant of it. Whilst I do have a red beard, the hair on my head is brown :)
Technicalities aside, if I were to pick a race-specific generalisation and apply it to every person of that race, perhaps the reception would not be like my happy-smiling-angmo-accepting response.

If I were to refer to my Asian friends in Australia as "slope-eyes" or "slopes" I'm sure I would be seen as a fogie, left-over from the 50's when the White Australia Policy was in effect and people were checking under their beds for "Yellow Peril".

And that's the problem I have with it.

Referring to me as Ang Mo is offensive to me, it's an archaic term used when there was a societal acceptance of simple identification of who-belongs and who doesn't.

Singapore, like Australia, was built with the sweat and blood of immigrants. Terms used to divide or class whole groups of those immigrants just isn't right in where we have come in today's society.

With Singapore housing and space limited and a population growing, discord towards foreign workers is increasing. More Chinese/Singaporean and Malay/Singapore locals are using the figurehead of the fat Ang Mo as an icon to their distaste of "Foreign Talent". Although Cauacasians receive less vitriol than some other imported foreign workers who may work in construction and similar jobs - I guess the white man brings money..

So the term Ang Mo is old. It makes Singapore seem like it's stuck about 50 years back..

My 2 cents.

mastodor said...

So, you don't mind being called white but you mind being called red haired?


Or is it just that you don't like being called whatever it is in another language?

Aussie Pete said...

Hi @mastador - u can just call me Pete. That's my name regardless of my race or color (which just don't matter)! Cheers bro. :)