As Lunar New Year approaches, you or your family may receive or have the chance to give red packets, or hongbao (a.k.a., “ang pow” in Hokkien).
In traditional Chinese belief, giving money during the new year is lucky for the person receiving the money, and for the person giving it. In fact, you get double the luck back!
Not sure about hongbao-giving etiquette? Here’s all you need to know.
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Dr. Lim Lee Ching, 42, vice-dean at the School of Human Development & Social Services at SIM University, says there is “no rule” in terms of the amount to put into a hongbao.
“Giving hongbao is a gesture – it symbolizes a blessing – and not a transaction, although many Singaporeans seem to think otherwise,” he says.
It’s not necessary, perhaps even impractical to give the same amount to everyone.
Dr. Kang Ger-Wen, 43, course chair for Chinese Studies in Ngee Ann Polytechnic‘s School of Humanities & Social Science, suggests that the amount for a family member versus, say, a colleague’s child, should be different.
“Because in Chinese tradition, especially in Confucianism, love to a close family member and to a friend should be different,” he explains.
The rule of thumb: $2 each if they’re babies or youngsters, $10 to $20 to kids you know well, such as the best friends of your kids.
To people you see often for services like your manicurist or hairdresser, give one extra payment. For example, if your manicure normally costs $30, give them $38 – 8 is a lucky number in Chinese tradition. (Read about other beliefs about numerology and more here.)
In summary, give as much as you like, but don’t feel like you have to shower on the cash. It’s about giving luck more than money.
In general, older people give to the younger ones, and married people give to unmarried individuals (if you’re over 40, feel free to give red packets as well, as you’re a “responsible adult”), so this contradiction can be a source of awkwardness.
Personal experience aside, Dr. Kang says there is “no etiquette” to this. It’s really up to the receiver. After all, in his words, “We do not need to give hongbao to those who are able to earn a living for himself or herself.”
Dr. Lim says there are no set rules for this, as it is entirely up to both the giver and receiver, as well as the nature of the relationship.
“For example, between an elderly relative and a favourite grown-up niece, the giving of a hongbao may be a symbol of the closeness they share,” he says.
Both experts agree that it is rude to do so.
Adds Dr. Lim: “But children will always want to, and get chastised by their parents for doing so – all in the name of festive cheer.”
By Bryna Singh, The Straits Times, January 2017 / Additional reporting by Pinky Chng / updated January 2019
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