A Shared Fondness for Giving People Nicknames

James Louie

I’m in Córdoba, southern Spain, spending a weekend with two of my high-school friends from Hong Kong. We were on the way to the Roman Bridge, but somehow we have ended up amid the flashing lights of an upmarket club. With its plush sofas and astroturfed rooftop terrace, it’s the pretentious sort of place that peddles overpriced, glow-in-the-dark cocktails. In one Spanish word, it is undeniably pijo.

Not that my friends mind however. It seems that they are becoming quite the hit in the all-Spanish crowd. We cross the dance floor and a grinning thirty-year-old gives me a warm pat on the shoulder.

“¡¡Tus hermanas son muuuuuuy bonitas!!”

He has just told me how attractive my “sisters” are. I flash him my best Hollywood smile and play along.

“Yes, aren’t they beautiful? They’re single too.”

Being Chinese in Spain attracts a lot of curiosity if you enter the right places – especially when it comes to bars and clubs. Let’s face it; we aren’t exactly known the world over for being exuberant partygoers or award-winning binge-drinkers. Even in Spain the expression for working 24-7 is trabajar como un chino, literally “to work like a Chinese”. Before I hear any cries of indignation, let me tell you that that’s exactly what the Chinese community does in Spain: they hunker down, work extremely hard and stay out of mainstream Spanish society. It’s a pattern repeated all across Europe.



I met Jordi on a language exchange website that I joined two years ago, and we hit it off exchanging a flurry of emails in a confused mix of Spanish and Catalan. Eventually I decided I’d pay him a visit in Donostia-San Sebastián, the proverbial Pearl of the Basque Coast.

Originally from a small town near Barcelona, Jordi moved to Donostia for work, learning the impossible Basque language in the space of barely three years. But when he showed up in Beijing last winter, his direction in life experienced a radical change. I had known about his wish to live in China, but I could never have anticipated his enthusiasm until we met each other face-to-face.

It all begins when we are halfway up Monte Urgull, huffing and puffing at the steep flight of steps. A dark-haired woman comes down the opposite direction and gives us a quick hola. I reply to her greeting, thinking nothing of the incident.

But Jordi is visibly excited. “Didn’t you see? She said hello to you because she’s also Chinese!”

“Huh? She was Chinese?” Evidently I didn’t give her a proper look.

Later that afternoon we are ambling down towards the city hall as he points over across the road, eyes widening. “Over there! A fellow Asian!”

And now the tree-lined avenue leading up from the cathedral. “Look! Another of your compatriots!”

I sigh at the depth of his groundbreaking discovery. But given his dreams of moving to China, who could fault him for reacting at the sight of every Asian that dared to cross his field of vision? Wouldn’t a curious Chinese person have done the same with European visitors on home turf?



Elena is part of a new generation of Spaniards who now look outwards and eastwards for an alternative future. In the summer of 2009 she followed her boyfriend back to Hong Kong, where she ended up teaching me some of my first words of Spanish. A year after our last meeting we are sat in an offbeat café in Lavapiés, an inner-city neighbourhood of Madrid that has long been associated with immigrants, first from the countryside and now from all corners of the globe.

Elena already speaks and understands a fair amount of Cantonese, something most expats fail to achieve after years of living in Hong Kong. “Mou ah!!!” It’s a perfect impression, complete with hands tossed in the air. With an air of excitement she recounts her experiences of playing mahjong with her boyfriend’s grandparents, before updating me on the latest of Hong Kong’s soap operas. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she is now more Chinese than I.

At this point I cannot resist asking her the questions I deemed slightly inappropriate in the classroom. So what do her boyfriend’s family see in the relationship? Do they get along with her? “Yes,” Elena nods, “they really dote on me.” She thinks for a moment and laughs. And do they refer to her by name?

“Nah, they call me gwai mui.”

I am flabbergasted. Elena takes it as a name of affection, even if it translates to the unflattering equivalent of “ghost chick”. “But to be very honest, that’s what I am.” She pulls up her sleeve. “You see the colour of my skin?”

It appears that Hong Kong and Spain have a shared fondness for giving people nicknames, even if they sound ugly, cruel or mildly racist to outsiders. After all, my closest Spanish friends do have the habit of calling me “Chino” – which is probably less racist than gwai mui because it’s just the neutral term for “Chinese”. And they’ll say it with a warm smile, a fierce hug and a kiss on each cheek.

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  • do they really say “trabajar como un chino” in Spanish in Spain?? Meaning to work 24/7… THAT’S HILARIOUS!

    anybody confirm this??

    • James Louie

      Absolutely. The Spanish also use the expression “hacerse el sueco” (to become a Swede) for describing when someone pretends not to understand/plays dumb. I’ve been told it originates from the time Northern Europeans first flocked to Spain en masse: the locals spoke to them in lightning-fast Spanish (as they still do) and not knowing the language, the Swedes shook their head in response.

      • OH MY. I have to tell my Swedish relatives that one. That’s hilarious! This whole “diaspora” thing is pretty cool!

        • Both expressions are true. We also use: “Te han contado un cuento chino” that directly translated would be “you´ve been told a chinese tale” to say that someone have told you something that is not right.

    • Luis

      Yeah, and we don’t say “it sounds like greek to me” instead we say “it sounds chinese to me” (me suena a chino).

  • someasiandude

    >>Elena already speaks and understands a fair amount of Cantonese, something most expats fail to achieve after years of living in Hong Kong.>>

    OMG so true, especially the LKF crowd.

  • anon

    I liked the vignettes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’ve only been in Spain for a few years but are mostly from Hong Kong?

    • James Louie

      That’s about right. I was in Europe for over 5 years, although the majority of that time was spent in the UK. I’ve just moved back to Hong Kong from a year in Spain – what surprised me most were the similarities I kept seeing between the two places.

  • michael

    hey dude,

    i great up in roskilde, denmark myself as a chinese kid. i can totally relate to story. good to see there are more of us out there.

  • revoltingbrain

    I’ve met a lot of spanish speaking Chinese from Latin American countries, and I always make the mistake of assuming that they’re from the Philippines. Has anyone ever mistaken you for a Filipino (assuming that you speak with a strong Spanish accent)?

    I’ve also got a lot of Philipino Chinese friends. There are a lot of them out there.

    • James Louie

      I’ve been told I could pass for a Filipino Chinese, but not on account of my accent. I grew up outside Spain and only moved there after going to university – at least in English, my accent is both “British” and “North American”, depending on who you ask.

    • Billy

      Peru has 1.4 million citizens of Chinese descent and 15% of the population has some Chinese ancestry – the biggest% in the southern hemisphere.

  • Billy

    The Spanish and the Chinese have loads of similarities.

    They form a queue and when the bus comes they immediately form a scrum to get on first.

    They like to speak loudly and shout into their mobile phones.

    They like fish, rice and pork.

    They place massive importance on family.

    The men like to frequent prostitutes – especially after marriage.

    The women like ‘telenovela’ style soap operas that have a sad beginning and a happy ending.

    The Spanish and the Chinese love kids and they are very tolerant of them running amok in restaurants, shops, markets etc.

    Both the Spanish and the Chinese tend to find appearance important. They can be superficial.

    They are lunatics behind a wheel.

    They love scooters.

    Thats it for now – but yup – both nationalites are very similar.

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