Gwei (鬼, gui) means "ghost", and lo (佬) means a man, regular guy, a chap or a bloke. The term gweilo therefore literally means "ghost man", and is sometimes translated into English as "foreign devil". Historically, Chinese people had the image of its borders continuously breached by "uncivilized tribes" given to mayhem and destruction, and they considered these people the Four Barbarians. In the 16th century, when European sailors appeared in southern China, they were also similarly regarded as barbarians and given derogatory names. In Chinese, "ghost" can be a derogatory term used as a curse or an insult, and the word "ghost" had been used to describe foreigners. For example, a 17th-century writer from Canton Qu Dajun wrote that Africans "look like ghosts", and gui nu (ghost slave) was once used to describe African slaves.
The term gweilo or gwailo to describe white foreigners was popularised during the First and Second Opium Wars in response to the Unequal Treaties. In Southern parts of China, the term gwai lo was used. In Northern parts of China, the term "west ocean ghost" (西洋鬼子 xiyang guizi) was used, Europe being West of China. Although originally derogatory, gwai is now considered by some to be an acceptable generic term for Westerners in Hong Kong. For example, gwai poh means a Caucasian woman, gwai mui a Caucasian girl, and gwai jai a Caucasian child. Gweilo has now been recognised as simply referring to foreigners, especially westerners, in South East Asia and now appears in the Oxford Dictionary defined as such.
Nowadays, some Hong Kong residents and other Cantonese speakers often refer to non-Chinese people by their ethnicity. This is in sharp contrast to other parts of China, excluding the Cantonese-speaking south, where foreigners are most commonly referred to as laowai (老外). This literally means "old foreigner", but depending on context, "old" can be both a term of endearment and one of criticism.
The term gwei (鬼) in gweilo (鬼佬) 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 gwei (鬼). It conveys a general bad and negative feeling and is a somewhat obsolete and archaic/old-fashioned term nowadays and other more modern terms have largely replaced gwei (鬼) for similarly negative meanings.
The pejorative sense of gweilo (鬼佬) can be specified when the term is prefaced by the adjective sei (死, jyutping: sei2, meaning "dead" or "damned"); sei gweilo (死鬼佬), literally means "dead ghost man", thus means a bad gweilo, or a bad Caucasian. Sei (死) is also 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". Cantonese people also can call each other sei gwei (死鬼), literally meaning "dead ghost", but refers to a bad person also, though more often than not it is applied affectionately, similar to "Hey bitch!" in English when used affectionately. The character gwei (鬼) itself can have negative connotations, even without the word sei (死), for example when it was attached to the Japanese military in the term guizi bing (鬼子兵) during their invasion of China which lasted from 1931 to 1945. However, the same term can also be applied derogatorily to any foreign military which was an enemy to China.
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.
Historically, the term was considered racist by non-Cantonese people. Many Cantonese speakers, however, frequently use the term gweilo to refer to Westerners in general and they consider the term non-derogatory. On the other hand, some members of the Hong Kong community with European ancestry, particularly the younger generation, embrace the term. The term lo (佬), when used in other situations, is generally quaint, as it is a term that has mostly fallen out of use and the intentional use of it carries a certain comical sense.
Gweilo is the most generic term, but variations include:To refer to black people: hakgwei (黑鬼; jyutping: haak1 gwai2, literally: "black ghost").
To refer specifically to white boys: gweizai (鬼仔; jyutping: gwai2 zai2, literally: "ghost boy").
To refer specifically to white girls: gweimui (鬼妹; jyutping: gwai2 mui1, literally: "ghost girl").
To refer specifically to white women: gweipor (鬼婆; jyutping: gwai2 po4, literally: "ghost woman") which is also often spelled "gwai-poh" (por / poh refers to an old woman).
To refer to white people in general: bak gwei (literally: "white ghost"), used historically as a derogatory reference to Caucasians.
Due to its widespread use, the term gwei, which means ghost, although historically derogatory, has taken on the general meaning of Westerner. Other racial terms can be used for those people perceived to be non-white, for example Indians and Middle Eastern people are called ar-cha (阿差) or mor-law-chai (摩羅差). For further information, see Chinese Wikipedia link zh:摩羅差.
In Mandarin, guizi (Chinese: 鬼子; pinyin: guǐzi) is a similar term to gweilo. Guizi, however, can be used to refer to either the Japanese (specifically, 日本鬼子 rìběn guǐzi, "Japanese devil" or 東洋鬼子 dōngyáng guǐzi, "east ocean devil") or Europeans (洋鬼子 yáng guǐzi, "ocean devil").
Laowai (老外 lǎowài, "old foreigner" or "old outsider"), in Mandarin, is a word usually used for Europeans, and is a less pejorative term than guizi. Also, cf. ang mo (Chinese: 紅毛; pinyin: hóng máo; POJ: âng-mo) meaning "red hair" (Hokkien).
Also, in Mandarin, xiaogui (Chinese: 小鬼; pinyin: xiǎoguǐ; literally: "little ghost") is a common term for child. Based on that usage, some argue that (Chinese: 鬼; pinyin: guǐ) in Mandarin is just a neutral word that describes non-expectable or something hard to predict.Larry Feign's Lily Wong comic stories, about the buildup to the handover of Hong Kong to China, make frequent references to the term, often in a derogatory sense used by Lily's father.
In Big Trouble in Little China (1986), James Hong refers to Kurt Russell as a gwai lo.
In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), Bruce Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee) is told to not teach martial arts to the Gweilo anymore; however, Lee wants to teach to whomever wishes to learn.
In Out for a Kill (2003), Steven Seagal's character is frequently referred to as the "gweilo professor".
In Balls of Fury (2007), Randy Daytona is often referred to as a gweilo as he is the only Caucasian player in the ping-pong school (George Lopez's character, though, attributes the term the wrong meaning of "round eyes" instead of a more generic term for foreigners with supernatural undertones of "ghost" or "devil").
In the video game Alpha Protocol (2010), the main character Mike Thornton is referred to as "gweilo" by the Chinese triad leader Hong Shi.
In the computer game Deus Ex (2000), when the player embarks on the Hong Kong mission he is often disparagingly referred to as "gweilo" by locals when attempting to talk to them. The phrase is also used by the harvester leader and a weapons merchant in the 2011 prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution (other characters in the China chapters use laowai).
In the video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb (2003), Kai's Chinese men often say 'Kill the Gwai lo!' when they see Indy.
In the video game Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010), some Shanghai gang members refer to Kane and/or Lynch as gweilo.
In the video game Mafia II (2010), the protagonist Vito is derogatively referred to as "gweilo" by Chinese characters.
In the video game BioShock Infinite (2013), Booker DeWitt is called a "gweilo" by a Chinese prisoner in Finkton.
In Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi the main character is referred to as a "yang guizi" by a Chinese employee as he manages a factory in futuristic Bangkok.
Martin Booth's autiobiography, Gweilo: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood (2004) discusses the author's childhood in Hong Kong and applies the term gweilo as a racial epithet for Caucasians (as in white ghosts).
Use of the term gwei to refer to Westerners is frequently referenced in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975).
Gwei is used as a collective term for the Old Ones in Anthony Horowitz's The Power of Five (2005–2012). Gwei is the Chinese name for the Old Ones, and means "evil spirit" in the series.
In Geoffry Morgan Pike's novel Henry Golightly (1974) by Geoffry Morgan Pike the main character is referred to as a "gwai lo" as he works on his boat in Macau and other parts of Asia.
CFMT-TV in Toronto had a cooking show named Gwai Lo Cooking (1999) hosted by a Cantonese-speaking European chef, 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 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 and/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.In the HBO drama Deadwood (2004–2006), Chinese settler Mr. Wu frequently applies the term gwai lo to various white men. It is translated as "cocksucker" by Wu himself.
"Gweilo : The rite of passage of a golden boy in colonial Hong Kong" was the title of the one-man show performed by Micah Sandt in Hong Kong (2016) adapted from the memoir by Martin Booth.