15 January 2010

Black & White and Red All Over

The official language of Singapore is English. Other languages spoken are Malay, Tamil and a host of Chinese dialects. After that, there’s Singlish, a Pidgin of sorts formed from Singapore’s shanty past of immigrants and uneducated peasants. One word rising up through all tongues is ang mo, slang for Caucasians/Westerners.

Ang mo = red hair. It is Hokkein, an ancient and local Chinese language. Sometimes it is spelled "ang moh," but no matter the spelling the derogatory meaning is the same. The word refers to the fair-haired Western settlers of Singapore. Not that the settlers were all redheads, rather, they were all evil. At a recent party a few expats were debating whether "ang mo" is racist. No one could agree because it is commonly used by whites, locals - everyone. Ang mo is not censored in the media or from social conversation, unlike the Japanese term, gaijin.

Gaijin = ghost person or foreigner. It is broadly used in the country for anyone not Japanese. I lived in Tokyo for a few years and do not remember seeing the word in print, but I do remember hearing it spat out at me in the subway once when I exited before the locals. The origin of gaijin has a little color in it. The Portuguese were the 1st to visit Japan. They were referred to as nanbanjin, “southern barbarians.” Oddly enough, when the British and Dutch arrived they were referred to as komojin, “red-haired people.” All these red words for white people make me think of a common pejorative I grew up hearing in the 1970s, honky.

Honky = white person. It was used by blacks to disparage whites. I laugh now because it sounds as dated as the Richard Pryor - Gene Wilder bathroom scene from Silver Streak. However, it was never meant to be funny, especially when delivered by Shaft. John Shaft. I can find no resource which delineates the true origin of honky (also spelled with an “ey” or an “ie”), but from the Urban Dictionary to Wikipedia two theories are constant: "honky" is a term for a person who frequented honky-tonks, or a white man honking his car horns for prostitutes in the African America red-light districts. In one reference, I read that honky stems from a West African word, honk nopp, “red-eared person.”

Red = evil. That would be the Philosophy 101 conclusion, but it isn’t that simple. The devil is often depicted as wearing red, but so is Santa Claus. Red M+Ms are toxic, yet red tomatoes are healthy. The Red Army signifies blood shed, yet the Red Cross is a sign of aid. Red is actually black-and-white.

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