Hong Kong television station TVB has been condemned for using a derogatory Cantonese slang term to describe an Indian character in a historical drama set in 1930s Hong Kong.

In an episode of TV drama Momentary Lapse of Reason aired on Monday, an Indian bank guard was depicted to be killed by a thief. In the scene, a police officer was heard to refer to the character as a mo lo cha—a derogatory Cantonese slang term—while the Chinese subtitles read “Indian.” The term was used four times in the same episode.

The term was commonly used in Hong Kong during the colonial period to refer to police officers of Indian and Pakistani ethnicity in Hong Kong.

A TVB drama used the term mo lo cha to describe an Indian character while the Chinese subtitles read “Indian.” Photo: TVB.

Deep Batra, an IT manager, lodged a complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commission and Office of the Communications Authority against TVB.

“Today, along with my friends of South Asian origin condemn TVB for airing this episode without any censorship and wish to formally lodge a complaint against this channel,” Batra wrote in an email to the EOC.

He told HKFP: “The term—an old term—not only disrespects a person of South Asian origin, [it] may motivate the young generation to call a person with the same name and further segregate the society which the government spends millions to build… This is a big dent to the efforts and negates all these activities enormously.”

In Cantonese slang, cha is used to refer to a police officer. According to the Lands Department, mo lo can find its origins in the ancient word morramen, referring to Muslim businessmen who travel from the Middle East to China; or the Portuguese word mouro, which alludes to North Africans who conquered the Iberian Peninsula and which later became a general term for North Africans, Arabs, Persians and Indians.

The Lands Department made the statement in 2010 response to district councillors who demanded that the government change the Chinese name of Lascar Row, “Mo Lo Street,” in Sheung Wan—as it contains the derogatory term.

Momentary Lapse of Reason first aired on TVB on August 31.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.