On the Use of Derogatory Terms in Hong Kong

On the Use of Derogatory Terms in Hong Kong

(Image Credit: Hong Kong Govenment)

Recently, renowned Hong Kong English-language daily newspaper South China Morning Post banned the discriminatory use of the word ‘locust’ with reference to Mainland Chinese. This act raised concerns as to whether it was self-censorship that led to this decision.

Regardless of the actual reason behind this decision, it is a fact that several terms have been coined and used in a derogatory fashion by Hong Kong people to describe their Mainland compatriots over the past decades.

A Caan (阿灿)

One of the best-known terms in history is A Caan, which was the name of a character in TV drama The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in the late 1970s.

In the drama, A Caan was an immigrant from the Mainland. Faced with a culture shock, he could not adapt to the strange environment, culture and people in Hong Kong, behaving fatuously, lazily, rustically and impatiently.

This character represents the new immigrants arrived in Hong Kong in the  1960s to 1970s, many of whom sneaked across the border in a huge migration flow. Since then, A Caan has been a generic derogatory term for new immigrants from the Mainland.

There are also some other terms referring to specific groups of people from the Mainland.

Tai Huen Chai (大圈仔)

Tai Huen initially described the way how immigrants arrived in Hong Kong. Instead of climbing over the mountains in border between the Mainland and Hong Kong, they floated on tires and swam across the Shenzhen River, which also separates the two regions. The circular shape of tire they used is the origin of the expression Tai Huen, which in Chinese means ‘big circle’. Chai means young male.

Due to their low level of education, these Tai Huen Chai mainly took up heavy physical work, accepting low salaries. Later on, a number of them, who used to be Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution or were veterans from the Vietnam War, became involved in violent crimes, like looting or killing. The gang they established was called the Gang of Tai Huen.

Bak Gu (北姑)

This term refers to women who, due to their lack of labor skills or simply due to a desire to make huge money, entered the sex industry. Compared with local sex workers, they could not speak fluent Cantonese, which became their defining characteristic and source of attraction in the eyes of local clients.

Besides this original meaning, some other women from the Mainland who engaged in other industries were also labeled as Bak Gu. Award-winning actress Carina Lau from Jiangsu Province and diva singer Faye Wong from Beijing were once called Bak Gu.

On the one hand, Hong Kong people got their inspiration for terms from television programs, like A Caan. But, at the same time, mirroring of Hong Kong society, some local television programs and films began to describe these new immigrants and Mainland workers as a band of thugs. Films describing Mainland immigrants in this way include heist film Long Arm of The Law in 1984 or 2000’s Durian. It was a two-way process.

In recent years, with the rapid economic development of Mainland China, the image of Mainland Chinese people is changing quickly. The outdated, derogatory image is being replaced by a hybrid image encompassing not only modern, open and wealthy, but also money-worshipping, impolite and upstart characteristics. Correspondingly, several new terms have gained new popularity.

Keung Kwok Jan (强国人)

It literally means ‘powerful country’s people’. China is an emerging powerful country in regional and international affairs, both economically and militarily. But when it comes to Mainland Chinese’s politeness and etiquette, it is a different story.

Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily frequently uses this term in its news coverage to satirise Mainland Chinese for their negative behaviour. Searching Apple Daily’s website for the term Keung Kwok Jan, you can get about 176,000 results.

Locusts (蝗虫)

The most common term nowadays must be ‘locust’. This especially decries those Mainland Chinese who swarm the city, snatching limited resources, like infant milk formula and public transport, and threatening locals’ demands. The so-called ‘locusts’ include mainland tourists, anchor babies, etc.

In 2012, a local newspaper published a full-page advertisement with an image of a huge locust. The ad criticised those locust-like pregnant women from the Mainland who drained Hong Kong’s healthcare resources, and showed its resentment by shouting out “Hong Kong people cannot tolerate it any more!” These provocative picture and words were the debut of the term ‘locusts’. Since then, the term became mainstream in public discourse, and some public figures and politicians in Hong Kong were even dedicated to disseminating the so-called ‘locust view (蝗虫论)’, instigating social tension. As tension flareds, some disgruntled Hong Kong residents launched an ‘anti-locust’ protest in February 2014 and harassed Mainland visitors on Canton Road. The xenophobic protest resulted in a barrage of intense criticisms from top Hong Kong government officials and Chinese state media.

There are many other similar terms to denote mainland Chinese, such as ‘People from Zhina (支那人)’, historically used by Japanese invaders during World War Two, and “大6佬”, meaning vulgar people from the Mainland. Some netizens use them to disparage Mainland people.

I do not believe the antagonism or hostility reflected in the use of these terms is ingrained in Hong Kong residents. Instead, they were created as a response to the increasing discontentment with Mainlanders’ impolite and uncivilized behaviours, which affected Hong Kong people’s daily life.

Immune to the plague of fierce political events that unfolded in the Mainland, Hong Kong benefited considerably from its colonial legacy and advantageous geopolitical position, which cultivated a generation of residents who cherish freedom, liberty and politeness. However, after experiencing years of political unrest, Mainland people were lacking basic civic ethics education. And their individual qualities and politeness did not improve at the same pace as their wealth after the 1978 reform and opening up. This has led to their self-righteous conduct becoming international jokes in many occasions. Given this obvious disparity in values, lifestyle and customs, the fissure between Hong Kong and Mainland people is not difficult to understand.

This only means the use of derogatory terms is understandable, not that it is reasonable. Such behaviour can never be justified, as it is closely associated with the commonly-held value of respect. This problem is not an illusion, and it does need to be tackled by both sides of the dispute.

A melting-pot metropolis, Hong Kong is a plural and tolerant society where locals are capable of living in harmony with people of all races, faiths, and nationalities, Let alone Mainland Chinese people, who share the same origins, culture and nationality with Hong Kong locals.

facebooktwittermailby feather