Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and you know what that means! Family dinners, the memory of fireworks and parades (ah… maybe next year!), wall decorations, lion dances and the sounds of drums, and lai see!
You’re bound to be familiar with the ornate red paper envelope filled with money by now. Known as lai see in Cantonese, hong bao in Mandarin and ang pao in Hokkien, this red packet is a gift given on important occasions: weddings, birthdays and, of course, during the start of the lunar new year.
Traditionally, envelopes are red (hong/ang means red, bao/pao means packet) with gold calligraphy, as the colours signify good fortune — ideal for a new year. And a tradition isn’t a tradition without a few guidelines, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know to make sure you avoid any bad luck in your future, or worse, bad judgement right now.
How to give and receive lai see
What is lai see?
Besides myths and supernatural origins to the red packet (“The Legend of Sui” to be exact), ancient China has had a tradition of gifting coins to ward off evil spirits dating as far back as the Han Dynasty. In later years, the custom of giving money would involve threading coins with a red string or gifting them in a red colourful pouch. Newer coins would lose the hole that one could thread string through, leading to the rise of coins gifted in wrapped paper packets. And fast-forward to today, banknotes are readily available and packets, which are still red, are easy to purchase.
Who gives and who receives?
You can follow the simple “big to small” rule — that means “older to younger” and “senior to junior”. Generally, lai see is given by those who are married and of higher authority, to those who are younger and single!
This includes children, unmarried loved ones and those younger than you. It also includes service providers. That’s right! Your domestic helpers, your building’s guards, even waitstaff — it’s a way of showing gratitude to those around you.
What do you put in a red packet?
A single, crisp note. Fresh, new notes straight from the bank are the most popular, though the government encourages using “good-as-new notes for lai-see”. Coins are generally avoided.
The amount of money you put in up to you! It’s all relative to your relationship to the recipient — the closer you are, the more money you should give.
Avoid amounts that end in 4 (for sounds-close-to-death reasons, tetraphobia for everyone who read the Wiki page). In fact, avoid any amount with the number 4 in it. You’re better safe than sorry!
You want to stick to even numbers. In Hong Kong, our banknotes mean you can just work in multiples of ten, making avoiding odd numbers very easy.
As we said, your amounts will vary but as a loose outline, you could go for:
- HK$20-$50 for someone you see frequently but don’t know too well — such as a casual acquaintance or building staff
- HK$100 for someone you know and care about, or see very often — like your friends, family, loved ones and even someone you work above
Put different amounts in different envelopes so you can differentiate between them and make sure to stock up on red packets.
When and how do you give lai see?
You can start handing out lai see from the start of Chinese New Year, on 1 February this year, and you have all 15 days up to the Spring Lantern Festival, on 15 February.
Hold the red packet with two hands and exchange greetings — you could say kung hei fat choy or sun tai kin hong!
What if I’m receiving a red envelope?
Lucky you! Make sure to receive your lai see with both hands and express gratitude. And don’t peek just yet — it’s considered impolite to open a red packet in front of the person who’s given it to you.
Kung hei fat choy!
(Hero image courtesy of RODNAE Productions via Pexels, featured image courtesy of Angela Roma via Pexels, image 1 courtesy of Angela Roma via Pexels, image 2 courtesy of Omid Armin via Unsplash, image 3 courtesy of Angela Roma via Pexels)