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I picked up a book called Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood in Hong Kong. It was a beautifully written memoir of Martin Booth, who arrived in the then British far-flung colony in 1952, at the age of seven. Gweilo is a Chinese slang for a Caucasian male. It translates literally as ghost (or pale) fellow, but implies a ghost or devil. Once a derogatory or vulgar term, referring to a Caucasian’s pale skin, it’s now a generic expression devoid of denigration.

The term is believed to stem from the Chinese xenophobia. The people have been known to handle relationship with foreigns at an arm’s length, maintaining a safe distance and refraining to cultivate a deeper relationship than just an acquaintance. From my fond memory of growing up in Hong Kong, anyone who was not one of us would be a ghost. White ghost. Black ghost. American ghost. Korean ghost. Now we still call these foreigners gweilo , or the feminine equivalent gweipor; but many have adopted another term lo ngoi, which translates to old outsider.

Martin Booth’s book has been very engrossing. The Hong Kong from the 1059s that has long vanished is revitalized, in vivid details and evocative words, is resurrected through the sharp eye and sensitiveness of a kid. The book is admirably evocative of the noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago.

* * * * *

I’ve been living away from Hong Kong for 20 years, have more “gweilo friends” than Chinese friends. It’s a bit difficult for me to perceive the unease, especially the language barrier and the cultural difference, dealing with gweilo. Recently some of my childhood friends have called me “gweilo” because of my being assimilated.

11 Responses

  1. have once planned to get this but now hardly find a copy in bookstores nearby, perhaps later

  2. The book is re-published under the name ‘Golden Boy -Memoir of a childhood in Hong Kong, presumably not to offend the Gweilo and gweipor readers.

    The 1950s were a period of deprivation for most Chinese familis living in Hong Kong. Every family was given a coronation tin mug for the queen’s coronation in 1953. My mother only threw it away in the 1970s as at that time we had more than enough cups and mugs for everyone in the family.


  3. I hope that your childhood friends appreciate your growth as a person. If not, it’s time to find new friends.

    I experience the same thing in my hometown. People get upset when I move away and then come back. I have learned to get new friends everytime I come back home. I don’t need to deal with unenlightened people.

  4. thanks for this introducing this book.
    i bookmarked your site.


  5. I finished this book a couple of months ago and found it to be a great book and allowed me to learn more about HK in the 1950s. Witnessing life through the eyes of a young, curious and adventurous boy made it all the more interesting as the reader’s led through the streets and back alleys of “old” HK.

    Wordy: I’ve got a copy of the book, so I’ll lend it to you next time we catch up, ok?

    From what I can gather, the use of “gweilo” for overseas Chinese friends by many of the locals here is not meant to be taken as offensive but just as an adjective to describe someone who has spent quite some time overseas and doesn’t think/ act/ dress like people from HK.

  6. This one sounds really interesting!

  7. Thanks for sharing the book and your view of it. It sounds like a very interesting read and a great way to learn about the old Hong Kong.

  8. Wordy:
    PageOne is all stocked up on this title. You can find it at the Hong Kong section. Last name is Booth. 🙂

    Oh really, that’s interesting to know! The brand new copy that I got last week in HK is still titled Gweilo. My expat friends aren’t offended by being called gweilo but I can see how misunderstanding could root. It turns out to be a very engrossing read. Martin Booth turned out to have resided in the same neighborhood that I went to school! So all that he was describing–Waterloo Road, the Ho Mantin Hill, Soares Avenue–just hit home to me!

  9. Isabel:
    They’re not unenlightened as they are a bit shocked at the changes in me. But changes are inevitable if anyone has left the hometown for a while, let alone 20 years. I comfort them by saying that I’m Chinese at heart. 🙂

    Hope you’ll pick the book up and enjoy it.

  10. r:
    It resurrects a city that has long vanished. What’s oeft of the 1950s Hong Kong other than the old buildings with blotched exterior stonework? It’s amazing how scenes from that lost period is recreated through the sharp eye and sensitiveness of a child.

    “to describe someone who has spent quite some time overseas and doesn’t think/ act/ dress like people from HK.”

    This definition fits me perfectly! 🙂

  11. Eva:
    I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Hong Kong and its history. 🙂

    Another book that you’ll have to pick up! 🙂

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