Every year, as Chinese New Year kicks in a new phase in the calendar, thousands of red envelopes, popularly known as “lai see”, change hands in the spirit of gift-giving and bestowing best wishes to friends, colleagues and family.
While many Hong Kong people we see on the street are typically somber, that glum attitude gets a makeover, momentarily, with smiles and greetings of good fortune and prosperity for the coming year. Cleaning folks who do their job efficiently but quietly, and doormen at housing estates show their smiles and holds doors open for guests and residents. Friends and family members expect to hand out or receive the ubiquitous Danish cookies, and of course, the venerable lai see packets.
Giving lai see means wishing someone good luck and prosperity for the coming year. It is easy to find people we wish all the best. But there are also unwritten laws that govern the use of these red envelopes as channels of prosperity.
- According to custom, married people are entitled to offer red envelopes stuffed with crisp bills as an auspicious gesture of good fortune for the whole year.
- Just like Christmas or birthday gifts, giving of lai see defines relationships and aims to strengthen social ties. It can be your apartment doorman, the waiter who serves you at your favorite restaurant, your regular barber or the woman in the laundry shop.
- Red packets are normally handed out during the first 15 days of the Lunar New Year.
- Unlike Christmas or birthday gifts which can be anybody’s guess, red envelopes almost always contain money, a universally acceptable gift. Concealing it in the red packet generates excitement, as opposed to handing out the bills as if doing paying a shopkeeper for a pack of cigarettes.
- How much should you put into the lai see envelop? Although it is totally discretionary, it is preferable to locals to give bills instead of coins and a standard starting point is HK$20 bills, preferably crisp and clean.
- If you’re the boss in the company, it is customary to hand out lai see to your staff, whether you are married or not. Some workers see these gifts as reward or bonus for the whole year’s effort, so while the amount again depends on your willingness and abilities, giving out generous amount is much appreciated. For first time givers, handing out HK$20 to HK$50 for security personnel and cleaning people will be fine. Higher value red packets (HK$50 to HK$200) for senior staff and unmarried friends are reasonable.
- Chinese people adhere to equality. When you give lai see to friends kids, they’d be happy to return the favor to your children.
- Giving lai see is generally bestowed from “old to young”, and “more powerful to less powerful”. This means that if you are the boss, you ought to give lai see to your staff and not the other way around. For married couples, single friends can receive two red packets (one from each spouse) and kids can receive generous red envelope content from parents or grandparents. Bosses and older relatives tend to give higher amounts but this a trend rather than a rule.
- Remember that four (“4”) in Cantonese sounds similar to “die” so in any case, avoid placing bills whose cumulative amount adds up to $40, $400 or even $4,000. Besides, the total amount should be even number, as odd numbers are reserved for funerals. Avoid giving coins and stick to giving crisp bills.
- While handing out the red packets, greet the receiver with the all-encapsulating sun tai geen hong which means “may you have good health”. Receive red packets with both hands, just like receiving business cards before a meeting.
- If you are not comfortable handing out lai see during this festive season, why don’t you grab Ferrero Rocher, Kjeldsens or anything sweet and golden at 7-Eleven or a local supermarket wrapped in the true spirit of gift-giving.
- If you’re on travel during the holiday season, it doesn’t mean you’re excused of not giving red packets.