Updated: Oct 22
A breakdown of why this is so messed up, especially during a global pandemic
Because let's be honest, this was a deliberate act of racism. It's not some accidental mistake of misinformed persons. It's a message of hate and should be treated like it.
During Lunar New Year 2022, the University of Toronto's Graduate House decided they would put Hung Baos, or Red Envelopes, out for students to pick up as part of the festivities. Hung Baos are given during Lunar New Year for Chinese people and it symbolizes well wishes, prosperity and luck. What was shocking was when students opened them, they found Hell Money in there. Needless to say, the students were shocked. I don't even attend the University of Toronto, but I was shocked as well. This incident was broadcasted on the Toronto Cantonese Media as my family ate new years dinner together. The tension and anger during our meal were palpable. I know if I was the one who received the Hell Money, I would be disturbed, upset, angry and probably a little scared.
What is the issue?
Hung Baos is a Chinese custom where the elders hand out these lucky pockets to wish luck, health and happiness for the upcoming year. Typically, the pockets have money in them. Sometimes, I've received ones with chocolates that are shaped like loonies and toonies. As a child, I was pretty happy with chocolate too! Regardless, the meaning behind them was to celebrate community and family, to come together. It's a sign of love and care.
The issue is the money inside the Hung Baos given to the students was hell money or death money. The money was the type of money we use to burn for the dead. It's not something to ever give to the living. If given to the living, it basically means "wish you would die this year" or "I hope you die". It's a message that's basically a death threat. What was supposed to be a celebratory time was instead filled with confusion, anger and fear.
I see some people trying to defend the staff who did this, and maybe they were misinformed and careless. Their intentions were to be inclusive. But they did it in such a shitty and harmful way. Anything would have been better than hell money. Literally, an empty red envelope would have been better.
And some people say, oh, they didn't know. I find that hard to believe. The person who bought the death money had to go specifically looking for them. It's hard to come across hell money in Toronto. There are very specific stores you can get them from. and there aren't many in the GTA. It's not like you can pick it up at a random Asian grocery store. I, as a Chinese woman who grew up here, have only seen the money once. Once! Because it's not like some random monopoly bill you find laying around; it's not a common thing. This person went out of their way to locate a shop, go and buy it, put them in the hung bao and give them to students who would know exactly what it means. If this doesn't scream hate, racism and discrimination, then I don't know what is.
In the context of the global pandemic and anti-Asian hate in Canada
Anti-Asian hate has become more and more prevalent in Canada and the West. Ever since the COVID19 pandemic hit, the hate crimes against East Asians, racial slurs and violence have increased. Realistically, it started way before that, but we'll keep it in the time frame of the pandemic.
This incident is awful, but in the context of increasing anti-Asian hate, it makes it so much worse. If we look at the increasing hate crimes where I see my seniors being punched and pushed to the ground, or Asian businesses being vandalized and broken into, it's scary. I'm fucking terrified when there are mass shootings targeting Asians like last year in Atlanta. We're currently living in an atmosphere that tells me I need to be careful when I'm outside. I've been subject to more racial slurs in the past 2 years than the 20 years before it. I've even had a 6-year-old ask me if I would make them sick after they found out I was Chinese!
It doesn't help that we have leaders spreading fear about China and the COVID19, using racist rhetoric to gain support. We had Donald Trump and his government call COVID the "China Virus" or the "Wuhan Virus". It spreads fear that the virus is because of Chinese and people of Asian descent. There were people who made statements about Chinese people eating bats, snakes and other animals nontypical to Caucasian diets, implying we are "dirty and uncivilized". It places the blame of a global pandemic onto the Chinese and Asian communities.
It doesn't help that the recent political climate is wary of China. The news of boycotts, sanctions, trade wars and military showcases is prevalent. I'm not here to debate on the politics of it, but I am here to tell you how uncomfortable it is to hear it. When I hear anti-China statements coming from political leaders, I get uncomfortable because it sounds like they're also targeting me. They don't just say China or the Chinese government, but Chinese in general. Anti-China sentiment easily translates into Anti-Chinese and Anti-Asian hate. The rhetoric refers to people who look like me because let's be honest, most non-Asian people assume I was born in China. They don't care about where I'm from. They see my skin colour and only my skin colour. It fuels the xenophobia that's already there. It makes it pretty damn clear that I don't belong. The racist and xenophobic comments continue to spread hate, misinformation and encourage continued Anti-Asian sentiment.
If someone is constantly told that a group of people are a threat, dangerous, spreader of disease... of course people would be scared. Of course, they would turn their backs on them. Of course, there's going to be a rise in violence against Asians. Doesn't it sound familiar? Canada and the West have always painted Chinese people as foreign. Head tax, voting exclusion, immigration bans, racial segregation, Japanese internment camps, all are part of Canada's history of racism against East Asians. It's basically the Yellow Peril during the 19th century all over again, where Asians were accused of being dirty and carrying diseases.
What's the harm caused?
In this atmosphere, receiving lucky pockets with death money in them starts looking a lot like death threats. It starts looking like someone wants the receiver to die or be harmed. We are in the middle of a global pandemic where getting the virus and dying are very real possibilities. We are also in a pandemic of violence against Asians where it's not always safe to go out. If I opened a Hung Bao with death money, my first instinct is that someone wants me to die. It's scary as fuck and I'm not even the one who received it. Imagine what those who opened them actually felt!
This is not an isolated incident. It's a combination of centuries of discrimination and othering and centuries of stereotypes like The Yellow Peril. It's a pathway centuries in the making that led up to this point. The University of Toronto held an open forum for students who were affected by the Hung Bao incident but it caused more harm. There were people who crashed the Zoom meeting and started spouting racist and anti-Asian hate. There were few repercussions for those involved. Apparently, the university found that there was no malicious intent and so there were no consequences. The people who interrupted the Zoom meeting were not identified as far as I know. Perpetrators involved were given a slap on the wrist or none at all.
What message does that send to the Asian community?
Basically, it's okay to spout anti-Asian and racist comments. It's okay to disrespect long-held Chinese customs due to ignorance. It's okay to cause harm. It's okay to be a racist bigot. They can continue to be racist, continue to spread anti-Asian hate, continue to use violence against Asians because they know can get away with it.
They always have.