Etymology and history
Gweilo ; ''sei gweilo'' , literally means "dead ghost man", using the translation "dead" for "sei" because it is only correct to be used as an adjective. However, the word "sei gweilo", when used to describe a living person, means "bad person". "Sei" is commonly added to other terms in order to describe the person or people being referred to as "bad", such as "sei lo" , meaning literally "dead man" or "bad guy" and "sei chai lo" , literally "dead policeman" or "bad policeman". Chinese people also can call each other "Sei gwei" in some situations, literally meaning "dead ghost", but refers to a bad man also. Even without the word ''sei'' the character itself can express intense loathing as when it was attached to the Japanese military in the term "Guizi Bing" during their massacre of what some have estimated to be upwards to 30 million Chinese during World War II.
While "gwailo" is commonly used by some Cantonese speakers in informal speech, the more polite alternative ''sai yan'' is now used. Many Cantonese speakers, however, frequently use the term to refer to white people and westerners in general and they consider the term non-derogatory, a controversial notion.. The term was commonly prefaced by ''sei'' as in ''sei gweilo'', meaning "damned ghost man", and used pejoratively with ''sei'' as the pejorative suffix.
Use of the term "gwei" to refer to Westerners is frequently referenced in Maxine Hong Kingston's ''The Woman Warrior''.
''Gweilo'' is the most generic term, but variations include:
*To refer specifically to non-Chinese women: ''gweipor'' which is also often spelt "gwai-poh" (it should be noted that "poh" implies the person is old"
*To refer specifically to non-Chinese boys: ''gweizai''
*To refer specifically to non-Chinese girls: ''gweimui''
Due to its widespread use, the term ''gwei'', which means ghost, has taken on the general meaning of "foreigner" and can refer 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. 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 foreigner: ''bakgwei''
* To refer to a foreigner: ''hakgwei''
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 to address themselves.
In , guizi is a similar term to ''gweilo''. ''Guizi'', however, can be used to refer to either the or Europeans . ''Laowai'' is a word usually used for Europeans, and is a less pejorative term in Mandarin than ''guizi''. Also, cf. Ang Mo meaning 'red hair' .