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Students at Graduate House given ‘hell bank notes’ for Lunar New Year

Students condemn act as culturally offensive, petition U of T for apology
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Notes have sparked outrage on social media. COURTESY OF GRADUATE HOUSE RESIDENT
Notes have sparked outrage on social media. COURTESY OF GRADUATE HOUSE RESIDENT

On the first night of the Lunar New Year, students at Graduate House, a U of T graduate student residence, found red envelopes in the common area that contained fake bills printed with the words “HELL BANK NOTE.”

The red envelopes, which are commonly given to wish recipients an auspicious and peaceful year during the Lunar New Year festivities, were distributed by Graduate House’s service desk team. But their contents have sparked outrage across social media as Chinese students and U of T community members have criticized the use of the ‘hell bank notes’ during the Lunar New Year. 

These notes are a form of joss paper, which is traditionally burned as a sacrificial offering for deities and dead ancestors, and it is considered culturally offensive to give joss paper to people who are alive. “[By giving out these notes] you are conveying to the person that ‘you are dead to me’ or, worse, ‘I wish you are dead,’ ” wrote Patricia Quan, a master’s student at the Faculty of Social Work, in an email to Graduate House and other university representatives. She wrote in to represent the concerns of some Asian students living at Graduate House who wish to remain anonymous. 

Graduate House has since apologized for the “error” in an email to its residents, writing that there was “no malicious attempt behind this action.” On February 3, the university’s Governing Council also posted an apology in Mandarin on its verified WeChat account. It confirmed that all the red envelopes had been removed from Graduate House. 

However, in a petition signed by over 5,000 people as of February 6, community members are calling on the university for a more comprehensive apology, among other demands. The petition, started by a group called U of T Asian Communities, questions why the apologies released have not explained why the Graduate House team used joss paper “without consulting with students or staff of Asian heritage.” 

It also calls for the university to provide mental health support for those affected and educate students and staff about these cultural practices. Other demands include employing cultural consultants and creating a student-centred monitoring system to prevent culturally inappropriate actions.

In an interview with The Varsity, Quan said that the incident was indicative of broader issues. She believes that diversity and inclusivity measures need to be rooted in research and consultation with the targeted populations. Otherwise, she said, “that is just tokenism.”

Questions loom about the incident

The university has not released information about the circumstances behind the distribution of the ‘hell bank note’ bills. Although both Graduate House and the Governing Council have cited the incident as an “error,” some students want to know how this incident transpired.

“It is written in English, ‘HELL BANK NOTE,’ ” said Shutong Chen, a fourth-year specialist in applied mathematics and statistics, about the paper money. “Anybody who knows how to read English should be able to understand what this stands for.” 

The Varsity reached out to U of T Media Relations to ask why the Graduate House team purchased these bills instead of other forms of paper money available in Chinese cultural stores. In response, a U of T representative wrote that “[the] incorrect bank notes were unintentionally placed into the red envelopes,” and that U of T remains “deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Quan emphasized that the incident was highly inappropriate. Lunar New Year is a celebration of life, and it is taboo to mention anything related to death, to which joss paper is linked. Quan explained that presenting these ‘hell bank note’ bills to Chinese students during the Lunar New Year is analogous to giving a gift on Christmas related to the devil. 

Students are also calling on the university for more transparency. In the University of Toronto Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s (UTCSSA) statement to The Strand, Zewei (Kurt) Tang, the UTCSSA director of campus affairs, called on the university for “another formal email to explain and apologize.” 

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union penned a letter to U of T that demanded “a formal apology and explanation for this inappropriate practice.” The letter has been co-signed by multiple student groups, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union, University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and Scarborough Campus Students Union.

“The only thing we want to know right now is the truth,” said Chen. 

Going forward

Although Chen appreciated the apologies released by U of T, he believes the university needs to do better. Pointing to the subject line of the Graduate House email, which read “Lunar New Year Decor Follow-up,” he noted that it is still culturally inaccurate to label joss paper as decor because it is a spiritual offering. 

Quan hopes that the conversation around meaningful diversity and inclusion does not stop after this incident is resolved. To her, it is not only an issue on the Graduate House level. For an institution openly dedicated to equity, the lack of cultural research or consultation behind this incident gestures to a problem that extends to the university and beyond. 

“That is not the U of T I know,” Quan said, addressing the university. “You can do better.”