Lessons for this gweilo and ang moh
By Michael D. Sargent October 21, 2007
I LEARNT quickly what ‘gweilo’ meant when I moved to Hong Kong back in 1999. It meant me, foreign devil, as the Cantonese expression for Caucasians goes. I heard it frequently when dealing with shopkeepers in Wanchai’s wet market or antique furniture stores. It made me wonder if being a ‘gweilo’ had any bearing on the price of things. Furniture stores never seemed to have prices on anything.
Asking for a price usually resulted in the salesman producing a calculator and conducting a long-winded discussion with a colleague in Cantonese. Likewise, seafood sold in the local restaurants always seemed to be at ‘market price’. I later realised this meant the price depended on whether a local or a ‘gweilo’ was in the market.
Seven years later, my wife and I were posted to Singapore. We boned up, mind you, on all the guidebooks before we arrived and still… My first cultural faux pax was on our first day here. I handed the taxi driver who had ferried us from the airport to our hotel the metered fare – plus a $5 tip.
He grinned and wished us a nice stay. So polite, I thought, until I recalled the guidebook’s advice that it was not customary to tip in Singapore. Well, the cabby driver sure did not object. Shortly after we moved into our flat in Newton Road, we ventured down the street to the much heralded and newly renovated Newton Circus Hawker Centre.
As this was to be our first taste of hawker fare, we wanted to take our time looking at the stalls before deciding. It seemed vendors had other ideas. ‘Right this way, I take care of you, good food, what you like to eat?’ This chant continued from vendor to vendor, each trying to seat us at a table near their stall. We finally settled on a stall whose vendor had not accosted us – but, boy, did it cost us. We settled on a couple of tiger prawns each, sharing an order of fried rice and a vegetable dish, along with two beers.
Prawns were priced at $7 per 100 grams and with the bill coming to $85, those must have been some ginormous tiger prawns I had unknowingly shelled. Was I being ripped off because I looked like a tourist?
When I related my ‘I ate at Newton Circus’ saga to my colleagues, one made as if to scold me: ‘You’re an ang moh, never go to Newton Circus without taking a local person lah.’ Enter a new word into my Asian vocabulary: ang moh. Tipping and hawking lessons over, I was soon to receive a lecture on begging. A few weeks later, I was returning to my office in Amoy Street, when I came face-to-face with a Buddhist monk. He bowed reverently and placed a beaded bracelet on my wrist. He then handed me a small card, with a picture of Buddha. After a few more bows, I felt obliged to give him some money. I handed him $4. He dropped his head in sad disappointment, opened a small notebook and showed me the number 50.
He pointed at the money, then pointed at the 50. Wait a minute, I certainly was not prepared, nor inclined, to give him $50! I tried to return the gifts but he insisted that I keep them. This time, he showed me another number, 20. Thinking I was helping a worthy cause, I forked over $20, half expecting him to return the previous $4. No such luck. He bowed and raced down the street, robes flapping behind him.
Expressions of pity greeted me in the office later when I related the Tale of the Begging Monk. ‘You poor ang moh,’ one colleague said while laughing. ‘These people are fakes. Real monks don’t beg for money.’ Chalk up another lesson for this ang moh. Discussing the subjection of ang mohs to local extortion inevitably raises the ire of Singaporeans. They claim that Caucasians get better service, a better restaurant table, extra smiles. To be honest, I have never witnessed a hint of this. But then again, while I am a patient and courteous customer, I do not expect preferential treatment.
I would find it disturbing to know I was getting it because of my colour. Truth to tell, the ones with the widest smiles are really the taxi drivers. Sunday evening. Taxi stand at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. Long queue. No taxi. But on the other side of the road was a long line of white Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans. In the queue with my wife, a smartly dressed man with a two-way radio quickly approached us. He said: ‘Ride to the city?’ I asked: ‘How much? He replied: ‘$35.’ I said: ‘Too much, how about $20?’ He smiled politely and said ‘Sorry sir, the price is fixed.’ I told my wife: ‘No kidding!’ Fifteen minutes later of fruitless wait, we caved in. Once in the Merc, the driver immediately called for reinforcements on his radio: ‘Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, send more cars!’
I am not sure what the lesson is here beyond: Beware of touting taxi drivers driving white Mercedes sedans. Speaking of which, just last Sunday night, after The Sunday Times’ expose on taxi touting, my wife and I walked out of VivoCity after catching a movie, directly into a line of, you guessed it, white Mercedes sedans with their engines running. ‘Ride sir?’ one driver asked. ‘No thanks!’ I said, as we headed towards the MRT. After 17 months of lessons learnt in Singapore, I guess that is finally one in the plus column for this ang moh. The writer, an American, is Picture Editor of The Straits Times.