‘Fan Gwei Lo’ by Garry Engkent13 min read

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Illustration by Tiffany Rayrock

Nobody Chinese—well, hardly anyone Cantonese—says “bak yren” to identify a Caucasian. “White person” is too descriptive, obvious, and bland.

In Cantonese, the idiomatic expression “fan gwei lo” is given to Caucasians in the United States and Canada. Literally, it means return (fan), ghost (gwei), person/male (lo), and there is a pun on “lo” meaning old. Gwei could also imply demon or devil, something negative returning from the great beyond. Depending on which Chinatown in gum san the Cantonese immigrant resides, the usage of this term may be altered or shortened, and can still be understood. To wit, the bak yren may be called “fan gwei”, “gwei lo” or “lo fan”. The term defines and separates, and is always used pejoratively.

This distinction between us and them was infused into me from childhood, reinforced daily as I grew up. We were and are different—hon yren—sugar people.  We are alive, human, and sweet. The fan gwei lo…well…


My father sneaked into gum san after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 by claiming to be a student (a legal loophole). In truth, he had been sponsored by a relative to find work so that he could send money back to a widowed mother and siblings in hon san, the sweet mountain, China. My father apprenticed with a clan relative in the hand laundry trade, Wong’s Wash.

Lo Baan Wong, the boss, was a hard taskmaster. His instructions on how dirty laundry should be sorted and washed were always filled with harsh criticism and personal invectives. “Mo lun yong, useless prick. Gwai daan, turtle/expensive egg.” (Insulting the help at every turn was almost traditional in hon yren culture.) His way of teaching my father the trade was mainly having my father observe. He hardly explained the task unless it was absolutely necessary. He did, however, permit my father to go to elementary school to learn English (just up to Grade Four), because it was advantageous for the business. Lo Baan Wong’s English was limited both in speaking and in writing, but a young man, like my father, picked up the gwei lo language more readily.

The first few years at Wong’s Wash, according to Ah-Bah, was hell.

“There were other apprentices,” my father would reminisce. “But they left to find work in the restaurants. I stayed. I think the old bastard appreciated that. I could stoke the fires in the drying room in the hot days of summer without complaining a lot. I collapsed in the heat—often.  I was rewarded with his trust in me to take over the business the two times he returned to hon san to beget children.”

My father touched me on the shoulders and smiled. “Old Wong even gave me extra money to do the same. Now there is you.”

After many decades of toiling, Old Wong sold his business to my father, and returned to hon san for good, ten years after the Second World War. The ancient laundryman wanted to live out his days with his wife, middle-aged children, and grandchildren from whom he had been away for over thirty some years. He didn’t care that China had changed from a Republic to a Communist state. He just wanted to go home.

For the first few years, Old Wong wrote back to his friends—mainly to us—in gum san.  He said that he knew Ah-Bah, Ah-Mah and me best. We lived in his shop and we had all worked for him in some capacity. Before he returned home, he gave me some lucky money and toys. To me, Lo Baan Wong didn’t seem that cruel a laundryman.

According to my mother, his writing was hard to understand—the old laundryman missed or added certain strokes to Chinese words. He said he was happy to be with people who spoke the same language and who were real family. He wrote of happiness, of a China he had, so long ago, left and now found again.

As later letters trickled in, though, my mother intuitively felt the sadness in the laundryman’s wording. It seemed that Old Wong could not share his life or experiences. His elderly wife, children and grandchildren could not understand him or his ways. Many of his words and phrases were just slurred English, making them sound Cantonese, and his daily routines and manners were foreign, very odd, even outrageous to his relatives. Out of respect, they didn’t say anything at first, but later he heard their whisperings. The laundryman wouldn’t,  couldn’t, and didn’t change. Lo Baan Wong felt sad, lonely and angry. He was the stranger in a strangely familiar land. He wanted to return to gum san, the gold mountain of the fan gwei lo. Ironically, he had become lo fan, the returned ghost.

“Let this be a lesson to you, my son, so you can go home to hon san again” Ah-mah instructed in Chinese after every reading of Old Wong’s letters. “Remember who you are. Hon yren! Study English, keep Chinese.”

I nodded vigorously, just to please her.

It wasn’t easy.

My original, given name is Wu Wah Leng, roughly transliterated into English as Brilliant/bright (Leng) Traveller/sojourner (Wah) Wu (surname). There is a pun on Leng, meaning “handsome.” At home, my parents called me “Ah-Wah”. (In Cantonese, “ah” is a standard prefix to names.) But when I went to school, after the first class, I didn’t want to be called that. In Grade One when my teacher first called out my full name she made it sound like “wailing.” The smarty-pants kids started taunting me with, “Wa-wa, wa-wa. Crybaby!” I was embarrassed, humiliated and depressed. Yes, I cried. All the way home.

The solution was to give me a Canadian name. Ah-Mah was against it; Ah-Bah was for it. According to him, a lo fan name makes life easier. Except for the two times when he returned to hon san to get married and to have children—me—he had been in gum san for over twenty-five years. He told my mother about that time when Old Wong introduced him to a customer, and the lo fan couldn’t pronounce the Cantonese name and said, “I’ll call you Sam.” Ah-Bah answered to “Sam” ever since.

Ah-Mah insisted on my Chinese name no matter what. Not only did the grandparents in hon san have a hand in giving me my name, but also the village fortune teller forecasted a good life for me. At the temple, the Buddhist priest gave his blessing. Although Ah-Mah and I escaped communist China and made it to Canada, she held onto the hope of returning to the sweet land.

Ah-Bah countered that we Chinese change names readily anyway, but we were in a different country now and we must follow its ways. More than that, he added, “Don’t you want our son to be happy? To get along? He is hurting!”

“Too much change.”

Ah-Mah held me, and then let go. There was meaning in that but at the time I did not understand. Her eyes and face were adamant but she relented to the wishes of Ah-Bah.

“What will you call him?”

“William,” he said. “The name sounds close enough to Wah Leng.”

She nodded. She knew Ah-Bah had been thinking long and hard about this fan gwei name for me.

The name sounded strange when Ah-Mah said it: “Way-yum. Wah-yum.” I don’t think she ever pronounced it correctly for the next forty-some years.

The Grade One teacher and the principal of King George Public School approved of the name change, and William Wu became official, at first, in my report card. My teacher announced to the rest of the class my new “Christian” name.

At recess, though, the kids still repeated “Wa-wa, the crybaby.” I got back at them by calling them “kai dai” an expression, according to my father, that Old Wong used to say to him almost daily, and not in an endearing way. At the time I didn’t know the full meaning of the expression but I knew it was bad, worse than “idiot.”  My classmates didn’t though so I felt one up on them.

But it wasn’t quite as satisfying when they mouthed the word, badly, back to me. So I reverted to English cuss words, like “son of a bitch,” “bastards,” “up yours” and “screw you” without knowing what these phrases really meant. (I hadn’t learned “fuck you” yet although I knew the Cantonese equivalent even at that young age. Ah-Bah and Old Wong used it a lot.) Then I got the distinction of being a potty-mouthed Chink.

“You wanna play?” Reggie, one of the classmates, asked me. He was holding a bag of alleys. He taught me the game. He also gave me a few alleys. I had made a friend, finally.

When I went home, I told my father I wanted to buy some cat’s eye marbles so I could play with the gwei jai, during recess. Later, it was money for yo-yos and hula hoops, for a baseball and glove, for admission to the Saturday matinee.

Ah-Mah thought I was a spendthrift, and that I should be spending more time learning Chinese words and expressions just in case we return to China after the fall of Mao Tse-Tung. “You don’t want to be like Lo Baan Wong and forget your heritage.” She waved the old laundryman’s letters at me. Moreover, she tried to get me to practice writing Chinese characters at least once a week. Later, it became once a month. And then…

Hai, hai, yes, yes,” I replied.

But English was my language now, and I didn’t see the need for written Chinese. I still talked to her in Cantonese with smatterings of slurred English that she got accustomed to and understood.


Ah-Mah took to sewing up slight tears in shirts and pants. The bachelor customers and some married ones noticed and brought in their clothes for mending as well as cleaning. Then her little business extended to skirts and blouses as some housewives dared to let the laundry woman work on their dainties. (“Your stitching is almost as good as my Nana’s,” a customer complimented.)  Even with her limited vocabulary, she understood what the ladies wanted done and with some difficulty at times, explained what she did for them in the mending.

Ah-Bah welcomed the extra income. We needed it. The hand laundry business was shrinking. Over the last two years, we noticed Laundromats opening up and some of our regulars were using these newfangled, do-it-yourself facilities. They were also cheaper than our rates.

“Hey, William,” Reggie announced, “my parents just bought an automatic washer and dryer. We won’t be taking the laundry to your place as often.”

In social studies, our Grade Five teacher told us how Canadians were changing with the new technology. Almost half the homes and all businesses now had rotary phones, no more going through an operator and switchboards. A lot more households were putting up TV antennae instead of using rabbit ears, and the television programs were plentiful. There was a Polaroid camera that could develop a picture in front of your eyes, in a minute!

These changes affected Wong’s Wash as well. Ah-Mah’s seamstress job took in more money than ironed shirts and pants. So Ah-Bah took a gamble: he would invest in changing the hand laundry business into a dry-cleaning shop.  Wong’s Wash would be modernized to meet the needs of the Sixties.

The conversion not only took a lot of our savings but also depleted our spirit. My father had to learn almost a new trade in dry-cleaning clothes. The instructions were complicated and convoluted, the application was trial and error, and the machinery was, in the beginning, totally foreign and confusing. Ah-Bah had to take the manufacturer’s course in running the new technology. Finally, we opened with a new name: Sam Wu’s Dry Cleaning.

Some of the steadfast customers from Old Wong’s days still dropped by with pants and shirts for hand laundering. They were comfortable with their cleaned clothes bundled in brown paper wrapping, bound with white string, and identified in black ink.

“Have you decided on the universities you want to enroll at?” my secondary school teacher asked all of us who were graduating from Grade 13. The class of ‘69’ were waiting for the results of the provincial exams.

Ah-Bah and Ah-Mah wanted me to become a medical doctor or lawyer. They didn’t want me to be a laundryman (okay, dry-cleaner). They urged me to apply to the big-name universities like McMaster’s, University of Toronto and such, but I didn’t have the marks. Working at Sam Wu’s Dry Cleaning after school, seven days a week, especially in my final year, had taken its toll on studying. Moreover, I was a teenager, and in the Age of Aquarius I was rebellious and desired all sorts of freedoms. I identified with the hopes and dreams of the Hippy generation.

By the skin of my teeth, I squeaked into a university in Southern Ontario. I promised my parents that I would make them proud—magna cum laude. During those years, however, I came into being in a different way.

Under the haze of pot and booze, I shared philosophical views with an attractive, fan gwei chick. She was braless and in love beads. She wanted to prove something. She spoke of fem lib and how women needed to be freed from male domination. And a major freedom was sexual liberation: to be able to do it with anyone without condemnation, restraint, or guilt. C’mon, it’s the 1970s!

“Am I right, Willie?” She asked for affirmation.

I nodded.  “In vino, veritas.”

She laughed, “I like your French. Here’s mine: vidi, vinci—veni. Get it, Willie?”

Afterwards, she studied me half-seriously, half not so. “You look Asian, but you don’t act like one.”

“I’m Chinese.”

She said: “You’re a b-a-n-a-n-a! Yellow outside, white inside.”

I stared at her. I was about to object fiercely. Suddenly, an epiphany.  Lo Baan Wong immediately came to mind—what he and I had in common.  What all hon yren are in gum san.

Being fan gwei lo.

Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to gum san in 1953.  He has a Ph.D. and  taught at various universities and colleges.  He has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On; Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric; and Essay: Do’s and Don’ts.  His stories have appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review etc. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, circa 1950-70s: “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English,” “Chickens for Christmas,” “Visiting,” “Ten Questions and a Slice of Boston Cream Pie,”  and “Mother Came to Visit and Stayed.” His stories “The Bear and I”, “Eggroll”, “The CNE Canary Cage” and “Acceptance” were published in Ricepaper recently. 

Lay Hoon aka Arty Guava is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer based in Vancouver. She grew up in Malaysia and spent most of her adult life in Singapore before moving to Canada. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering but chose to make a career switch after about 1 year of working in the field. Art and Design have always been her calling. She is passionate about culture, people and nature and how these themes interact with each other.

1 comment

Leonard E 21 February, 2021 - 6:16 pm

I was chuckling throughout this whole story which could have starred my Ah-Bah and Ah-Mah, if it were a short feature film. It’s been at least four decades since I recalled ever hearing or seeing “kai dai” in print. Anyhow, I’m a proud banana who’s father was famous for his restaurant homemade Banana Cream Pie.


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