The University of Toronto has apologized after Asian students were given 'hell money' in Lunar New Year red packets
- Staff at the University of Toronto erroneously handed out "hell notes" in red packets to students.
- Giving someone hell money, or fake notes for the dead, is considered a death threat in Chinese culture.
The University of Toronto has come under fire from student groups for distributing Lunar New Year red packets to students and residents containing "hell money," or incense paper notes meant for the dead.
In Chinese culture, red packets — or hongbao — are envelopes that are typically money-filled that are given out during the Lunar New Year and on special occasions such as birthdays or weddings.
Hell notes are fake currency meant to be burned as an offering of respect to one's dead relatives or ancestors, and are often used by practicing Buddhists or Taoists.
Giving them out to living persons is considered deeply offensive in Chinese culture, as it implies that it is a curse or death threat. For example, Hong Kong police arrested four triad members in November on suspicion of sending hell notes to a prison officer, The South China Morning Post reported.
On February 4, the university apologized, saying it "deeply regrets this error," per The Toronto Star, citing a spokesperson.
"Members of the University of Toronto Graduate House Team prepared a display to celebrate the Lunar New Year," read the spokesperson's statement. "Unfortunately, incorrect banknotes were unintentionally placed into the red envelopes."
The university said its staff hadn't realized their mistake until after the red envelopes were all taken, per The Star.
Students are now demanding that the university take action, calling the blunder "heavily unacceptable" in an open letter signed by 32 student groups, The Star reported.
—Zeyi Yang 杨泽毅 (@ZeyiYang) February 4, 2022
"The act of giving (hell money) to living people draws disdainful sentiments and sends them the message of 'you are dead to me' or even worse, 'I wish you were dead.' It is not only insulting, but heavily unacceptable," read the letter, per The Star.
In contrast, handing someone a red packet containing actual banknotes is seen as a sign of respect, congratulations, or a gesture of kindness.
The University of Toronto's website states that the school has 15,104 students from China and around 1,400 students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. No mention is made of how many East Asian or Southeast Asian students are enrolled at the school in total.
An online petition demanding an investigation into the hell money incident and calling for an end to "on-campus Anti-Asian racism" was started on February 5. As of Friday morning, it had accrued around 7,750 signatures.
Kelly Hannah-Moffat, the university's vice president for people, strategy, equity, and culture, and Cheryl Regehr, the school's vice president and provost, released a statement on Wednesday reiterating the school's apology while also acknowledging that the incident had "caused deep distress to many."
Regehr and Hannah-Moffat wrote that the university would introduce education efforts for its staff to "build capacity and deepen learning about the cultural context of the impact of this incident."
"We treat incidents of racism with great seriousness, and we have investigated this matter fully. We have concluded that the error was not intentional or malicious," they wrote. "We deeply regret that this mistake occurred during a time that was meant to be joyful and celebratory."
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