CFMT-TV re Gwai Lo Cooking

(CBSC Decision 99/00-0220)
R. Stanbury (Chair), P. Fockler (Vice-Chair), M. Hogarth (ad hoc), M. Oldfield and S. Whiting


This case is, in the experience of the CBSC, unique; it marks the first occasion on which a Regional Council has been asked to review the title, as opposed to the content, of a television program.  The broadcast in question is a cooking show entitled Gwai Lo Cooking which is aired by CFMT-TV (Toronto).  The source of the complaint is the historic Cantonese expression “gwai lo” which is used as a material component of the show's title.  In its etymological background, “gwai lo” translates as “foreign devil” or “ghostly fellow” and it continues to be used by some Chinese to refer to “pale-skinned” Westerners.  In the context of the title in question, “gwai lo” refers to the show's host, who, although of Caucasian, rather than Oriental, much less Chinese, descent, speaks Cantonese and is able to offer North Amercian and European cooking recipes to the Cantonese-speaking Chinese Canadian community.

A viewer sent his complaint via e-mail on December 12, 1999.  In that e-mail (which is reproduced in full in the Appendix hereto), the complainant said, in part:

I am concerned about the blatant bigoted, discriminatory title of the show “Gwai Lo”.  Even at the web site (, the definition of “foreign devil” is offered as an English translation of the show's title.

“Gwai lo” is (Cantonese) Chinese for “white devil/ghost” or “foreign devil”.  In Chinese, this expression isn't too far removed from other racist English expressions like “honkey” for (western) Caucasians or “chink” for Chinese people.  This expression (“gwai lo”), however, is used most often against people of European/Western descent, in a derogatory fashion (I only use “chink” to show another racist expression in English–anexpression, which should also be frowned upon).

The station's Executive Vice-President Television responded with a letter (reproduced in full in the Appendix),in which he stated, in part, that:

This title is meant in fun and was self-titled by the producer/host who is not of Chinese descent.

It is the opinion of many Chinese viewers that this title is used as a self-deprecating term of endearment.  Although the show was not titled by Chinese people but by the host, the title underwent extensive research through our advisory board and focus groups.

If television were concerned with 100% political correctness you may have a point that this particular title would not be 100% politically correct.  Having said that, it is a creative, provocative title that actually has been embraced by many viewers as outreaching and certainly unusual.  We all have spent years witnessing the use of such self-deprecating or “tongue in cheek” titles on record albums, movies and literature.  It is our opinion that it is part of the creative process.  Although there are many I shall forward one example: “White Men Can't Jump”, a very popular motion picture that shows the genuine relationship between interracial friends.

On January 7, 2000, the complainant filed his Ruling Request via e-mail, accompanied by additional correspondence in which he stated, in part (the full text of this e-mail is also reproduced in the Appendix):

I have no doubt that this title is meant in fun, and I am aware that the host of this show is not of Chinese descent.  I, too, have many friends who joke about their ethnic origins, and even refer to themselves as “Chinks”, and “gooks”, in jest and in private–even though they are proud of their ethnic backgrounds and take pride in them; in private these same people joke about their cultural backgrounds on occasion.  However, they would not stand on a stage in public and promote this type of racist diction, even in jest–because they are aware of the history of bigotry and discrimination associated with these words.



The CBSC s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under the human rights provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics.  Clause 2 of that Code reads as follows:

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their programming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program and reviewed all of the correspondence.  The Council also consulted several outside sources on the meanings and connotations associated with the expression “gwai lo”. The Council is of the view that the title of the program is not in breach of the CAB Code of Ethics.

A Preliminary Issue: Program Titles

While the CBSC has, on numerous occasions, dealt with complaints alleging that a television or radio program was abusively discriminatory, it has never before considered whether a program title itself could be in breach of the human rights provision of the CAB Code of Ethics.  The Council has no doubt that this could be the case and notes that titles, in a way, are susceptible of greater impact in that more persons, including viewers or readers of TV listings, may become aware of a program's title than actually see the program in question.  A title would not likely be judged out of context but, in the Council's view, a title, or word or expression used in a title, would likely have to be inherently abusive in order to fall afoul on its own, without regard to the context provided by its associated program.  That context may actually be either helpful or harmful to the determination of its “abusively discriminatory” nature, an issue that will be looked at below in the context of this program.

The Meaning of “Gwai Lo”

The strict definition of the expression “gwai lo” is not at issue.  In the first place, the broadcaster does not itself dispute the literal translation put forward by the complainant, namely “white devil/ghost” or “foreign devil”.  Moreover, the Council's own research, conducted through various translation services and discussion with members of the general public knowledgeable in the Cantonese language, confirms this historic definition.  What the Council must determine, though, is whether, on the spectrum of discriminatory terminology, the expression's quality is inherently abusive or whether it is only subject to being rendered abusive by specific usage and context.

There is no doubt that the expression discriminates.  It does, after all, refer to a specific group characterized by race and skin colour.  The Council does not find, though, that the expression is comparable to some of the epithets referred to by the complainant which would be considered inherently abusive by the Council.  While no such terminology has ever been the subject of a CBSC decision (presumably because such language has not been used on Canada's private broadcasters' programming), there is a group of ugly, gross epithets which the Council does not see fit to use, even as examples, on this occasion.  Such terms are known to the public but hopefully used less and less frequently, even in private discourse, to describe members of ethnic minorities.

There is, though, a group of rather more benign terms used to refer to minority, or even majority, groups in society.  Some of these may even be endearing, fond terms of reference.  Some may contain a remote sting.  What they have in common is that they are unlikely to offend when used in general parlance.  Examples might include Canuck or Yankee in the broad North American context.  Words such as Westerner, WASP, Whitey, Frenchie and Newfie (at least in its traditional usage) would probably also fall into that category.  There are, of course, others.  These tend to be shorthand usages, easy-going, friendly in their intention, benign nicknames.  The question, of course, is whether to classify “gwai lo” in the first or second grouping.

It seems that this expression, like many others in other languages, has evolved through the years.  While historically, “gwai lo” may have been used by Chinese people as a derogatory remark concerning foreigners, particularly Caucasian Westerners, the persons consulted by the Council indicate that it has since lost much of its derogatory overtone.  The Council finds that the expression has also lost most of its religious meaning, so that “foreign devil” no longer carries the theological significance it once did.   Based on its research, the Council understands that the expression has gone from being considered offensive to, at worst, merely “impolite”.  In the circumstances, the Council does not conclude that the expression is inherently abusively discriminatory.  Of the two groups of nicknames (or epithets), the Council has no hesitation in classifying the expression as a part of the second grouping.  It remains to determine whether the context of the program renders this inherently more benign term abusively discriminatory.

Discriminatory and Self-deprecating Humour

The CBSC has dealt with the issue of discriminatory humour on numerous occasions.  In CHFI-FM re The Don Daynard Show (CBSC Decision 94/95-0145, March 26, 1996), this Council laid down the principle that not all cases of discriminatory humour would be found in breach of the Code.  In that case, the Council found that a joke about “Jewish mothers”, told as part of a series of “light bulb” jokes, did not constitute abusively discriminatory comment.  The Council noted that the joke “poked fun but did not bludgeon.  It tickled but was not nasty.”  The Council further stated that it is not reasonable to expect “that the airwaves will be pure, antiseptic and flawless when society is not.”  Furthermore, the “Council's duty is to put a potentially offensive ethnic joke on its societal scale and determine whether it could reasonably be viewed as having gone too far.”

In this case, the Council notes that the “humour” in the use of the expression relates to the fact that it is used by a Caucasian chef to describe himself.  Indeed, the host of the show begins each episode with a welcoming statement in which he introduces himself as the show's “gwai lo”.  In the Council's view, this has the effect of diminishing the discriminatory aspect of the expression.  By using the expression as he does, the host  transforms it from one of we/them polemic to one of self-identification and inclusion.  In that sense, the Council finds the comments in the decision CHOG-AM re The Shelley Klinck Show (CBSC Decision 95/96-0063, April 30, 1996) most apt here, despite the fact that that decision did not deal with humour but rather with a serious talk-show.  In that case, a female talk-show host sought to elicit calls from women listeners on the topic “Women who falsely accuse men of rape” by using words such as “psycho-chicks” and “broad”.  The Council did not find the host's comments to be abusively discriminatory.

There is no doubt that the host of the program did use words such as “psycho chick”, “broad” and “vindictive” to describe women, as was contended by the complainant. …  The Council agrees that, in another context, these comments might be considered in poor taste or, in their worst possible interpretation, derogatory toward women; however, in this context, it appeared that the host used the words in question rhetorically, not descriptively, and apparently to be provocative in order to draw attention to the program and to attract women callers.  Moreover, the Council notes that the host was not describing women as a group; she was either noting that “A lot of men say today that there are a lot of psycho chicks, that women are vindictive” or asking questions, as in, “Women, is it true?  I mean, are we actually that vindictive?”  Moreover, she generally used these words inclusively, that is to say, she included herself in the group described, as in “And, women, are we really that bad?”

… [T]he Council is of the view that the tone and the context of the commentary are very different and does not find that the comments of the host were in any way discriminatory or abusive.

Based on all the above, the Council does not find that the title “Gwai Lo Cooking” is in any way abusively discriminatory toward people of non-Oriental descent.  Accordingly, CFMT-TV has not breached the human rights provision of the CAB Code of Ethics by broadcasting and promoting Gwai Lo Cooking.

The Broadcaster s Response

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint.  In this case, the Council considers the broadcaster's letter of January 5 to be fully responsive to the complainant's concerns.  Nothing more could reasonably be required or expected.  Accordingly, the broadcaster has not breached the CBSC's standard of responsiveness.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.