As a gwailo (foreigner in Cantonese), it is easy to feel as though you are a ghost or a fly on the wall in Hong Kong. Unlike many other Asian cities, we gwailos have been hanging around Hong Kong neighbourhoods for a very long time and are thus of no interest to the locals. After many days wondering the streets of old Honkers feeling like Casper the ghost, it was particularly interesting for me to learn that the etimology of the word gwailo actually means “ghost man”, although it then referred to the white colour of the caucasian skin most foreigners had. Today it is the opposite with locals spending vast sums of money on whitening creams and hiding under umbrellas and parasols at the first sight of the sun, while we westerners run to the beach or pool to work on our golden tan.
It is an urban myth that everyone in Hong Kong speaks English, most in fact do not and will go to great extremes not to meet our gaze in case we should get the idea of asking a question or attempting to strike up a conversation. Most locals assume foreigners do not speak Cantonese and in the majority of the cases, we prove them right.
This is actually quite all right with me as I enjoy being left alone to wonder around shops and I have now mastered the art of waving the menu in the air when I need to order my meal in the local restaurants. Of course I am not referring to areas such as Central where it seems most shops and restaurants are purpose built to keep us gwailos happy. If you want to test your ghost skills just leave Central, Stanley, or the Mid Levels and head out to the New Territories, Sheung Wan, Kennedy Town etc. It is remarkably easy to pass an entire day without being noticed or spoken to.
I hear other gwailos complaining about the lack of chirpiness whenever they enter a shop or local eatery, confusing this with rudeness. In reality most people are genuinely worried they will not be able to help you due to language restrictions. Personally I am quite happy to live my life without knowing the name of every waiter or waitress that will serve me my meal.
There are ways to brake this ice however and the rules are pretty much the same whether in Honkers or anywhere else in the world. Opening a sentence with a smile and the question “do you speak English?”, rather then just assuming it, helps people relax. Using simple words when speaking English accompanied with sign language (mostly pointing) generally gets me what I need.
Mostly though I enjoy my ghostlike capacity, but there are days when I miss the friendly British “what can I get you today luv?”