Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.43.5: FOREIGN DEVILS , by May Holdsworth [BR]

©2007 UrbisMedia

©2007 UrbisMedia

Even though I recently published a book about how I enjoy being a stranger when I travel abroad (detect a shameless plug for my book here? [1] ), the sentiment is often not requited in foreign lands except for those who profit from tourism.  Fletcher Christian aside, for much of the history of encounters between strangers the outlander might end up anything from being shunned to being killed and eaten. [2]   This is because much of what can result from such encounters can be negative for the host. Strangers bring strange bacilli and viruses, strange beliefs, and they were often drunken sailors who knocked-up your women.


So the terms for such alien types were and are rarely complimentary. Lo Wai, or foreign devils, is part of a linguistic category that ranges across all countries and cultures.   Foreigners might be referred to as palangi in Samoa, haole in Hawaii, gai jin in Japan, gringos in Mexico, farangi in Malaysia or Indonesia, or gweilo in Southern China.   None of these terms, and other like them, translate or connote anything nice about the stranger. Some, like gweilo, have softened a bit over time, but in China there remain other endearments, like da bi zi (big nose), that seem rather too personal to me.


The tourist’s brief encounter may insulate them from such references, but the expatriate, who takes longer residence and more intensive contact with his or her host society, is more acutely aware of what it is to be among but apart from a foreign culture.


Foreign Devils is actually a chronicle of a rather exceptional intercultural circumstance. Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony from 1841 to 1997. So the Brits at least had their own government and public administration, unlike, say, someone who emigrate to a country where they are different in both culture and nationality.  The Brits wrenched their island from the Chinese with gunboat diplomacy and then expanded the territory with the acquisition of Kowloon and the New Territories. Geographically they were expats, but not politically. Still, that was countered by the fact that the vast majority of Hong Kong people were Chinese, as was the culture of the place.  The Brits were in charge, but they were a sub-culture.


One wonders about the degree of assimilation that is voluntary. The Brits are notorious for being clubbish and exclusive throughout their erstwhile “empire.”   They insist on wearing the woolens in the tropics, having their tiffin and tea at the same times of day, and otherwise doing their damnedest to leave their England and have it, too. Their arch-rivals, the French, were at least a bit more willing to learn local languages and engage in more social relationships with their colonials, even to intermarrying, but for the British that level of fraternization was a career breaker and could place one outside of the circles of comfort zone for the “expat.” [3]


There were legitimate reasons for the Chinese to regard the British as foreign devils. Aside from having their land appropriated it must have rankled them to be consigned to the lower deck of the Star Ferries when crossing the harbor until as late as after WWII [4], to be excluded from building homes on the cooler slopes of The Peak, and suffering other exclusions. [5] Their pretty women could be taken as mistresses and used as “pillow dictionaries” so that Western men might acquire a little bit of Cantonese along with other delights.


The Brits not only ran the government, they controlled the economy. That started with the tai pans, the supreme bosses who made their initial fortunes selling opium to the Chinese for silver and using the silver to buy tea to ship back to the British Isles. This was, without exaggeration, the equivalent of giving a Columbian cocaine cartel a hall pass to your local high school. In another book reviewed in these pages it was reported that, in the 1880s the British put plague-ridden Chinese on derelict ships in the harbor to die rather than risk contamination. The wonder is that they weren’t called worse than foreign devils. [6]


Sure, there was a lot of outright racism at work here, and in both directions, since the Chinese often thought they had a far superior culture to the smelly Westerners who forced them to conceded their lands.   And, as with almost all peoples, they could be just as unjust and brutal with one another as the foreign devils were with them. Moreover, it must be conceded that that British, as did other colonials, did bring some things with them that might be considered blessings—better medicine, technology, industrial processes, etc. that were not without benefit and have since been adopted and sometimes improved by the host society.


This book is most interesting in showing how to societies try to maintain some integrity when circumstances and geography throw them together, but it is from the perspective primarily of the British that we see how one of them imports their customs, mores, quirks and prejudices to make themselves feel more at home away from home.   Although the term “expats” is used throughout the British really are not until after the handover, when Hong Kong’s political hegemony is no longer theirs. The British population has reportedly declined by 30%, and maybe more will leave, not caring for genuine expat life.  One of the major founding hongs, Jardines moved its headquarters out of Hong Kong before the handover, the other, Swire, stayed.


Hong Kong is back in the hands of the Chinese. But there will always be a more than a little whiff of British brimstone about the place.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.22.2007)

[1] Yes, they are still available—best price from—and they make great gifts for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and the holiday season . . .God, stop me, I’m making myself sick !

[2] These days, with the reputation the Bush administration has built for Americans we are likely to be shunned to summarily beheaded, unless we are worth kidnapping for some ransom.

[3] It also was not well-regarded by the Chinese who had a pejorative—zazhong—that meant crossbreed, or carried the same connotation as “bastard” or “son of a bitch.”

[4] Of course, lest we forget, it took even longer for Rosa Parks to get a seat on the bus in the American South.

[5] It has always been interesting that in Shanghai, another Chinese city that was forced open to Western trading interests, there is an area—to this day—called “Chinatown.”   That is because much of the city had been given over to “concessions” to the British, French, Americans and other western powers.   Signs at the concession areas reputedly announced that “Dogs and Chinese were Not Allowed.”

[6] They probably were, but when you don’t bother to learn their language you wouldn’t know that.