uoft hell money

U of T under fire after giving 'hell money' to Asian students on Lunar New Year

Students at the University of Toronto are calling upon administrators to be more proactive when it comes to displays of diversity and equity after Asian students were given pieces of paper that effectively conveyed the message "I wish you were dead."

"On February 1st, 2022, Spring Festival, the University of Toronto Graduate House distributed red envelopes to students and residents who were celebrating the Spring Festival," reads a petition launched this weekend by a change.org user called U of T Asian Communities.

"Shockingly, these red envelopes contained 'Hell Bank Notes,' traditionally offered to the dead during funerals or festivals. Giving hell money to living individuals is repugnant since it can be a malicious curse. It is especially surprising that this event transpired since 'Hell Bank Note' is explicitly printed on the paper money."

Red envelopes containing cash are typically given out as gifts on special occasions including Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Feb. 1, as well as in some other East Asian cultures. They're meant to bring prosperity and good luck to whoever receives them.

Hell money, on the other hand, is a fake form of currency that people burn as an offering to their deceased loved ones for use in the afterlife. Also called Joss paper, ghost paper, spirit money or hell bank notes, these thin pieces of bamboo or rice paper are strongly associated with death in Chinese culture.

"Conventionally, giving hell money to a living person is an extremely offensive gesture as it conveys: 'I wish you were dead'," reads the change.org petition.

"What Graduate House has done is derogatory and has traumatized students, especially during the Spring Festival—the time when people celebrate luck and prosperity for the coming year."

The group is offended not only by the gaffe, but by the fact that none of the school's more than 15,000 Chinese students were consulted by Graduate House staff when devising their plan.

"It is disrespectful and ignorant to hold a cultural event without consulting people within the cultural community," reads the petition, which as of Monday afternoon had just under 6,500 signatures.

"Such discriminations, in addition to their factual essences of hate speech and violence, concurrently reveal an ignorant perspective and a perfunctory motive within the chain of decision, which proved to be ineffective in this incident."

The University of Toronto apologized for the incident on Friday, writing in a statement that staff had mistakenly put the wrong type of bank notes into the red envelopes, all of which were taken by students before organizers learned of the error.

"The University of Toronto deeply regrets this error. The Lunar New Year festival should be joyous and peaceful. The University is deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion," reads a statement issued by the school.

"We will continue our important educational efforts to better understand our diverse communities, and to foster inclusion across our three campuses."

The apology has not been accepted, according to the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC-SJ), which stated in a press release on Friday that it is "appalled by the ignorant and insensitive actions of the University of Toronto's Graduate House."

"As a traditional Chinese custom, the lucky red envelopes are exchanged as an expression of well wishes of prosperity, good fortune, and longevity. Receiving 'Hell Money' that is given to the dead is a major curse and sends wishes of ill will and death to the receiver," reads the statement.

"The brief apology on social media issued by the University of Toronto's Graduate House is not sufficient. This incident must be understood in light of the significance of the Lunar New Year and its traditions, as well as the ever-present anti-Asian racism in Canadian society."

Council Vice President Susan Eng condemned the academic institution for trying to "capitalize on their so-called diversity" without even being "bothered to make the minimal effort to check their facts."

Both the CCNC-SJ and the organizers of the change.org petition are demanding further action from U of T, including providing mental health resources to impacted students, creating a student-centred monitoring system to forestall culturally offensive practices, and committing resources toward engaging Asian Canadian communities "to combat anti-Asian racism within and beyond the University of Toronto."

"The Lunar New Year is treated as the most important celebration of the year by many Chinese Canadians. Especially for our elders and community members who practise ancestral prayer and traditions, an act like this is a great insult," wrote the CCNC-SJ.

"This lack of care reflects the all-too-common attitude that anti-Asian racism is to be treated lightly or is less deserving of attention."

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