Tuesday 19 October 2010

鬼佬 Gwei Lo

I was on the subway in Hong Kong the other day. Across from me, a woman was clutching a cloth shopping bag with "The Outsider" written on it. On her left, a Chinese man was gabbling ferociously into his cellphone. He made me think how different Hong Kong is from Japan. She made me think of Camus. The Outsider. L'etranger. The stranger. The foreigner.

Asia can make you feel alien unlike anywhere else on earth. In Japan we are Gai Jin, which literally means foreigner or outsider. In Hong Kong though, we become Gwei Lo, or, literally, ghost men, and there is something wonderfully poetic about that moniker. You can imagine, as the first ships pulled up in Hong Kong harbour and these cadaverous alien sailors emerged from their hulls, how the Cantonese must have mistaken them for something even more sinister than that which they actually were.

Now it's gone from being a racial slur to a casual slang term used by ex-pats to describe themselves, with not a hint of irony. But in those moments travelling in strange countries when you are most acutely aware of how alien you are, when the differences between people seem to overpower the similarities, the feeling of being a ghost, floating unseen in their midst, comes closer to describing the sensation than anything else.

I had forgotten about all this until that evening, sipping a gin and tonic when I caught sight of the ashtray on the bar, and the word CAMUS stamped upon it. And I smiled inside at how marvellous it is that little clues and prompts for our thoughts are scattered all about the furniture of our lives so cleverly, and that every now and then we are actually lucky enough to notice them.

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