Hong Kong prides itself on its stature as a global city that boasts of a diverse population and ethnicities. Many second, third, and fourth-generation Hong Kong-born non-Chinese citizens regard the city as their home, notably expatriates from different countries who have been residing in the city for many years. Despite the near impeccable racial harmony in the city, the use of various colloquial terms occasionally causes unease and hurt feelings, especially those regarded as politically incorrect. The following terms are best avoided when in Hong Kong.
Though not a word that is often used in Hong Kong, it is a term that characterizes East Asians, particularly Chinese in America. From Mandarin Oriental Hotel to the Oriental Daily news publication, the word does not necessarily have the same offensive meaning as it does in the US where it is has become a descriptor of stereotyped behaviors, habits, and looks of Chinese people from the American perspective. Still, you can avoid unwittingly raising some eyebrows in local gatherings by avoiding this term.
Asian countries located east of major Western countries, notably the United States and Britain, have been referred to in the past as belonging to the Far East. Though the term appears innocuous today, it still carries some unpleasant edge as it somewhat implies the West as a dominant center of the world which is way beyond current realities with the colonial days now in the distant past.
The long-standing use of the term “ethnic minorities” is supposed to be straightforward and simply meant to categorize non-Hong Kong residents in the city. The term was not envisaged to be divisive. Unfortunately and unwittingly, its use somehow led to the classification and to some extent, isolation of non-Chinese people born and raised in the city but of a non-Chinese ethnicity.
Taken or translated literally, “gweilo” refers to a ghost man or white devil. Although many Caucasians are hardly offended by this term, it crops up from time to time in exchanges about racial discrimination. It became a major issue in a lawsuit in 2018 involving a British national who squared off with his former employer. Occasionally, though, this term offers an upside, notably scores who profited from the use of gweilo in a local beer brand.
Ah cha / Bun Mui
Unlike the term “gweilo”, “ah cha” and “bun mui” are much less amusing characterisations of non-Chinese people, particularly South Asians such as Indians and Pakistanis, as well as Filipinos. Ah cha refers to Indians and Pakistanis or anyone with brown skin. It is used for someone regarded as ugly or lowly, while “bun mui” is often used to refer to Filipino domestic helpers, though, it’s also used to Filipino citizens not employed as domestics. While the younger generation get more and more educated on racial tolerance and ethnic diversity, these terms are somehow still used even if they’re offensive due to their passive-aggressive undertones that refer to the social value that one’s race holds. These terms refer to ethnicity regarded in a negative light.
An insect type, locusts fly in large numbers and are notorious for destroying crops and plants. In recent years, though, the term has emerged as a racial slur to refer to mainland Chinese tourists who flock to Hong Kong. Widely regarded as offensive, use of the term locust erodes the city’s cultural diversity as it dehumanises someone based on race and ethnicity.
Asians identified closely with Western values are often called “bananas”. Unlike the more acceptable terms “ABC” and “BBC” which stand for American-born-Chinese and British-born-Chinese, getting called banana is politically incorrect as it attacks one’s Chinese identity and implies being taken over by Western values. The metaphor suggests rotting yellow skin and reveals one’s inner white color if sat out for too long. In a generation of third-culture youths, one shouldn’t be pressured to justify his or her cultural values to prove ethnic identity.