Offensive Or Appropriate? Ethnic Slur For Filipino Domestic Helper

August 24th, 2012 | Categories: Ethnicity

We might all agree that ethnic slurs are inappropriate in the workplace. However, what exactly constitutes an ethnic slur is perhaps less concrete. Cultural variations in political correctness also make ethnic slurs more difficult to identify. So I was fascinated when a friend told me about a phrase used in Hong Kong. After reading The Communicated Stereotype she emailed the Stereotype Guru with the following anecdote:

It reminds me of a story that happened this morning – you might find it
amusing since it seems to fall into your realm of study. My sister came
back from Hong Kong and said, “All the maids there are Filipino.” I definitely
couldn’t correct her stereotype because I am not in Hong Kong to say, “There are maids
that are non-Filipino too.” But then, I remembered the socially acceptable
slang term for “maid” in Cantonese and that is “Filipino Girl.”

Imagine my surprise. A socially acceptable ethnic slur! So acceptable that it even took the author a minute to connect the stereotype with the slur. I was curious to find out more information about this. So with limited resources I Googled it and found an entry about it on Wikipedia, admittedly a less than ideal source.

According to Wikipedia’s entry for “Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong Cantonese, the term 女傭 (maid) and 外傭 (foreign servant) are a neutral and socially acceptable term for foreign domestic helpers.

However, the term fei yung (菲傭, Filipino servant) refers to foreign domestic helpers regardless of their origin because the term was dubbed at a time when most foreign domestic helpers came from the Philippines. While fei yung is considered politically correct, the derogatory slang term bun mui (賓妹, Filipino girl) is also used, however it has become a common term and often not used in a derogatory sense.

I was further fascinated by the idea that a phrase referring to a specific ethnicity could be used even in the workplace to refer more broadly to all domestic helpers regardless of ethnic origin.

I was curious to see whether a friend of mine who is Filipino had ever heard of such a phrase and whether, perhaps, I was using my American lens to process something that in another country might not be a big deal. Well, for my Filipino friend it certainly seemed like a big deal. It didn’t take but a moment for him to whip out – for the purpose of comparison – an offensive Chinese ethnic slur to express his disapproval of the Cantonese term. I hadn’t been aware of this term either although it was (is?) used in the United States.

According to A Dictionary of Slang:


1. A Chinese person. Offens.
2. A Chinese restaurant or takeaway. Offens.
3. Chinese food, often a takeaway meal. Offens.

Granted, I am familiar with its use for #1, but I never heard of #2 and #3. I also find it interesting that the dictionary of slang, although as a dictionary it is more concise than an encyclopedia, still managed to capture the offensiveness of the ethnic slur by saying “Offens.” after each definition.

The Cantonese phrase referencing Filipino domestic helpers is considered appropriate in Hong Kong. That is not likely the case in the United States where it might be viewed just as offensively as ‘Chinky,’ perhaps especially in the workplace.

This cross cultural comparison is interesting stuff.

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  1. Carrie
    August 27th, 2012 at 14:49

    Interestingly, in Israel the Hebrew word for Filipina (filipinit) has come to mean caregiver or domestic helper. This quotation from an article in the Jerusalem Post is germane to the discussion:

    Forming a quiet but indispensable army of care-giving, helpful sojourners from a land of tropical islands halfway across the world, [Filipinas] have become so much a part of Israeli life that their very name has become a Hebrew word, “filipinit,” meaning caregiver or domestic helper. (The term is probably not meant to be derogatory, but imagine the outcry here in Israel if we were to learn that the word for “lawyer” in some other exotic language was “jew” with a small “j.”)

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