On New Year’s Eve, when Chinese families gather for a festive dinner, married people begin the distribution of small red envelopes filled with money (called lai see in Hong Kong and hong bao in Singapore) to children and single members of the family. It varies slightly between countries, but during the first 10 days of the New Year, people expand the distribution to include all the children and single people they know.
In Hong Kong, managers distribute these little packets to their subordinates at work, but in Singapore, they give out two lucky oranges to each employee instead. Our building management also awarded each family a small red bag with two oranges inside. Considering Erik shelled out US$2,000 from his own pocket one year between Hong Kong and Taiwan, we were happy to embrace the Singaporean custom.
The proper way to give a packet is to wish the recipient a happy and prosperous New Year – “Kung hei fat choi” (Cantonese) or “Xin nian kuai le” (Mandarin) and hand the envelope over using two hands, which is a sign of respect in much of Asia. The recipient puts his hands together and shakes them, wishes you a Happy New Year in return, and accepts the envelope with both his hands.
Some believe that all paper money should be new bills. In Hong Kong, there was a special lai see counter, where people would wait in line for hours so that they could receive the newest paper money from bank tellers. Timing is also important. My first year in Asia, in ignorance I gave a red envelope to our doorman before the holiday commenced. He could not have looked more uncomfortable as he politely rejected my good wishes (and packet) and informed me that it was too early to give out red packets.
When we first moved to Hong Kong, I became so confused about lai see etiquette that my husband’s assistant put together the below list. Of course, these are just the rules for Hong Kong, but it gives you an idea of the complexity of this tradition:
Those married give out to all singles (even if they are the same generation)
Those married give out to married peoples’ children (This applies only to children who physically come to the office during the holiday period or to the children of colleagues with whom one has a close relationship)
Managers give to all reporting staff (both single and married)
All employees give to tea ladies, receptionists, messengers, etc. (both single or married)
No matter where you are, the more red packets you give, the more luck you receive in the upcoming year!