Branford Marsalis has a song called “Dance of the Hei Gui” on his record entitled, I Heard You Twice the First Time. Scrolling the Internet, no one asked the question, what exactly is a Hei Gui?
Let me explain with a basic Chinese lesson.
Hei or 黑 means: black. Gui or 鬼means: ghost. If you put them together, they translate into the n-word.
Why is this important? Well in this case, Marsalis is surely being ironic and using foreign racial epithets to make an artistic statement. The music was solid, but the title flew over most people’s heads.
In the 1920’s the company Hawley & Hazel Chemical Co. from Hong Kong developed a toothpaste called “Darkie,” with a logo of a man in blackface with gleaming white teeth. Upon the company’s acquisition by Colgate-Palmolive in the 1980s its logo changed to a race-neutral top-hatted man, and was renamed “Darlie.”
The problem, as people noted at the time, was that changing the English name simply absolved westerners of having to see a racial slur on a piece of consumer packaging. In Chinese though, the name stayed the same: “black man’s toothpaste.”
Why the name wasn’t changed in the Chinese version is a good question, considering maintaining such a name only serves to reinforce racial stereotypes. Today, I can go into a shop here in Beijing and buy “Black Man” and “Black Sister” toothpastes.
Recently, I was doing some research into the n-word here in China, and found some startling stuff.
On the Chinese version of eBay, taobao.com, I found a medicine called, “n-word-oil” or 黑鬼油。The packaging from various manufacturers either had a black man with a rag on his head, with the word “darkie” written underneath his image, an Arab with a black beard, or no human logo at all.
What is “n-word-oil”? Well, it turns out that this medicinal remedy is for muscle pain and a host of other ailments the Chinese have been using for a very long time. It’s ubiquitous in Chinese medicine shops worldwide, including in the U.S.
Another product — a tanning oil — also is known as “n-word oil” in Chinese. I asked a Chinese friend, who’s 53, about this oil and he hadn’t heard of it. In fact, he didn’t believe it was called that until I showed him the picture, and he said he found the name offensive, and that if blacks knew about it they would find it very offensive.
Why is this a problem?
It reflects an attitude by some in China that has gone unchecked, because people ignore it since it’s in another language.
But racism in any language is worthy of our attention.
Africans and African-Americans are coming in increasing numbers to China to do business or to study, and it seems that China can no longer hide behind the fact that this is a medicinal remedy that has existed for over 100 years — that somehow being traditional gets them out of answering a charge on full-on racism.
Also, Chinese people more than ever are involved in America in ways that are getting more and more complex given the financial closeness of the two nations.
When people criticized “Darkie” toothpaste it forced a name change for the English-speaking world because consumers make businesses accountable. But “Darkie” toothpaste was for a Chinese consumer population, and by not changing the Chinese name these efforts didn’t go far enough.
The manufacturers of “n-word oil” need to hear that people are onto them, and that as Americans we can choose to ban those retailers who offer offensive products — whether knowingly or not — in America. Amazon.com is one retailer that sells this very product under the direct translation, “black ghost oil.”
China and their products are not immune to criticism just because we remain in financial debt to them. We shouldn’t be afraid to criticize such practices as depicting U.S. President Barack Obama on an Obama Fried Chicken franchise sign in China, which is capitulating to an age-old, ugly stereotype of blacks in America.
As the Chinese grow in influence, and as that translates into increased moral sway in the world, now is the time to make it known that as a leader you need to shine a light on your own societal ills before you can assume and criticize others. I harbor no illusion that this is a perfect process. America is no stunning example either, but China needs to start caring beyond its financial relationship with the world.