A woman was asked to leave a Shaw store in Richmond Centre after an employee claimed she used a Cantonese term that some consider a slur, describing a white person as “ghost man” or “foreign devil.”
In late November, Eugene Ho accompanied his girlfriend's mother to the store to get a new mobile number. An employee, whom Ho described as white, asked them if they remembered who helped them the last time.
Ho's girlfriend's mother replied in Cantonese: "I think it's a ‘g----o.’”
The staff person went to talk to the store manager, who was Asian, and then came back to tell them his girlfriend’s mother had to leave the store for using this word, said Ho, with staff claiming it was "equivalent to the N-word based on his understanding."
"I was just in shock, so I kept apologizing for offending him… I also explained, during the several apologies, that I grew up with this term not being a racist one… it just means ‘white guy’ to me," said Ho, noting many of his white friends sometimes use this term about themselves in both English and Cantonese.
Several people familiar with Cantonese told the Richmond News the word has evolved and isn’t as egregious as it might have been in the past.
Jan Walls, a founding director of the Asia-Canada program in the Faculty of Arts at Simon Fraser University, said "’g----o’ is in no way comparable to the N-Word."
"In fact, the word is close to the common Mandarin term ‘lao wai’ for a westerner. The Mandarin prefix ‘lao’ is often used in a very nice way, such as ‘old friend’ or ‘old buddy.’ The Cantonese ‘lo’ is often used to denigrate the noun it's attached to," said Walls. "But it still isn't nearly as denigrating as the ‘N-word.’”
Ho, who used to live in Richmond, also told the News some of his Chinese Canadian friends were bothered when they heard about his experience since the word seems to have been misinterpreted.
"Language evolves over time… Almost 150 years ago, the strictest translation for 'g----o’ was 'foreign devil.' While it may have begun as a derogatory term, it is now commonplace, no longer a slur, and has been widely used and accepted for decades as a generic racial term for Westerners," Ho wrote in an email to the News.
"Even the Oxford English Dictionary's latest definition from 2016 states, ‘a person who comes from a different country, especially from the western part of the world,’” Ho continued in his email.
Hong Kong brewery name uses old Cantonese term
Some Chinese speakers, however, urge caution and sensitivity given the diverse backgrounds of people living in Richmond and Canada.
Richmond city councillor Chak Au, whose native language is Cantonese, said the word "g----o” has evolved dramatically over the past few decades – from having a negative connotation to a more positive one. Many ex-pats from North America living in Hong Kong now jokingly calling themselves "g----o," he added.
"One of Hong Kong's leading craft brewers was called 'g----o,' which was opened by a group of Westerners," explained Au.
However, considering Richmond is a diverse community with people coming from different cultural backgrounds, there is no harm in always thinking what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes when communicating, added Au.
“We all need to learn from each other’s culture and perspectives,” said Au. “After all, it’s all about creating better understanding among each other in our community.”
Richmondite Tung Chan, the former CEO of the non-profit SUCCESS, said although banning the word sounds a bit heavy-handed, everyone still has the right to feel offended since people interpret things in different ways.
Chan said he totally understood the frustration and anger of being misunderstood. The best solution in this case is to say, "Please, let me explain what I really meant," he added.
However, he also noted, "We can't change other people's minds—everyone has the right to feel offended."
The term "g----o” has also sparked a series of discussions in Hong Kong after a British man, Francis William Haden, claimed he faced discrimination after he was called it by his colleagues.
But one Chinese Canadian doesn’t feel the term is appropriate to use and could make some people feel uncomfortable.
Jimmy Yan, project and information officer of Access Pro Bono — a non-profit dedicated to providing free legal services to people in need — said it’s better to avoid using certain words if some people don’t feel comfortable hearing them.
“Based on my own knowledge, this Cantonese term ‘g-----o’ doesn’t sound appropriate,’ said Yan, who hosts seminars among the Chinese-speaking community.
“Just because you come from an ethnic minority community does not immunize you from using offensive racial slurs,” Yan continued, adding white people could also be potential victims of racism under certain circumstances.
“I know some people will argue with me on this point. What I want to express is that everyone has the freedom to feel offended regardless of race, cultural background or age. What we need to do is learn from each other’s perspectives and experiences.”
He would like people to be more cautious and understanding when communicating.
“It’s a learning process for all of us,” he added.
Shaw says Cantonese term ‘not appreciated in our stores’
A Shaw spokesperson told the News on Monday that all its employees have the right to respectfully refuse service to a customer who is physically or verbally aggressive and/or abusive.
“While we ultimately stand by the actions taken by our employee to ensure an inclusive and welcoming retail environment, we recognize that this interaction may have offended Mr. Ho. We sincerely apologize and regret for how the situation unfolded,” read the statement.
“While the term was not directed at our representative, its use is not appreciated in our stores and as such, our representative asked Mr. Ho and his mother-in-law to leave.
“We recognize that in this particular situation, Mr. Ho and his mother-in-law believe our in-store representative’s response may not have been appropriate, and there may have been an opportunity for our team to request that this language not be used in the store,” the statement continued.
Shaw spokesperson added that their customer service team has been in touch with Ho following the incident to reinforce that neither he, nor his mother-in-law were banned from the store and were only asked to leave that day.
“We welcome the chance to serve them,” said the spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Ho also shared his personal experience on Facebook to ask the public's thoughts and input on the word.
"I think we need to take a step back and redefine what words mean sometimes, because there may be some terms where not everyone is going to see them the same way, as in this example," said Ho on Facebook.
"What are your thoughts about ‘g----o’ in this day and age?” Ho asked in his Facebook post.