August 18th, 2010

Mosque Street’s Other Name

In contrast to the bland apartment buildings on its south side, the northern side of Mosque Street is lined by a crumbling stone wall and vegetation spilling over from the lush grounds of the Jamia Mosque. If you peek over the wall, there’s a nice view of the mosque, which is the oldest in Hong Kong. It’s a surprisingly rustic scene in the Central Mid-Levels, a neighbourhood that has obliterated most traces of its 170-year history.

Another throwback is Mosque Street’s name. Though perfectly straightforward in English, it’s a lot more complicated in Chinese. While the proper standard Chinese name for mosque is 清真寺 (ching tsam tsi), or回教廟 (wui gaau miu) in Cantonese, Mosque Street’s Chinese name uses the expression 摩羅廟 (mo lo miu), which derives from mo lo cha, an old and derogatory term for South Asians.

Last year, a Pakistani Hong Konger named Ali Ghazanfar complained to the South China Morning Post that the name was offensive. Others consider mo lo cha (usually shortened to ah cha) to be no more offensive than gweilo, meaning “ghost person”, a term for white people that has lost its originally negative connotations.

Further complicating the matter are the murky origins of the term mo lo, which also appears in several other street names that make reference to South Asians. One theory is that it is derived from the Portuguese word mouro, which refers to the Moors, the Muslim people that ruled the Iberian peninsula for several hundred years. That’s not too much of a stretch, considering the long history of contact between the Portuguese and Chinese, which led to a number of Chinese words being absorbed into the Portuguese language, not the least of which is cha, for tea.

Ghazanfar aside, nobody else seemed to have much of a problem with Mosque Street’s Chinese name. Its anachronistic name seems somehow fitting for a street defined by a stone wall that looks as though it was plucked from some kind of ancient country field.


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