Hongbao on Chinese New Year

wtdwIn case you didn’t know, those red envelopes you keep seeing all over the place have money inside. Don’t snatch them off kids, you monster. Simply learn a few phrases, ask the right people and riches can be yours.

One generous and thoughtful thing to do during Chinese New Year is to give hongbaos (red envelope). The Chinese tend to offer wishes to each other in the most materialistic and practical way.

It’s useful to understand some basic rules, though most Chinese are pretty tolerant to foreigners when it involves money. Remember to buy a bundle of shiny, red envelopes to give anytime you visit a Chinese family. You will be amazed how hospitable they’ll be towards you in return.

In general, the tradition of giving hongbao is quite different between Cantonese speaking regions (Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong, Macau and part of Guangxi) and the rest of China. In Cantonese, hongbao is called lai see, and it’s an exclusive privilege for single people, including children, without any age limitation. In other parts of China, people stop receiving the envelopes and begin only giving when they start to work. Being single in Dongguan may not always be very delightful, but it certainly is during CNY.

Adults in other parts of China also need to supply cash to their parents, grandparents and younger relatives. Cantonese speakers, on the other hand, will basically give out lai see to any luckless, unmarried individuals they know: neighbors, colleagues, friends, relatives and even strangers—as long as they approach and offer words of blessing.

In the north, CNY hongbao is also called ya sui qian. Legend has it that a monster named Sui liked to touch children’s heads while they were sleeping on New Year’s Eve to make them cry.

Determining how much money to put in each hongbao continues on in tense debate. In some parts of the country, the amount can go from hundreds to thousands of RMB, depending on your financial situation. Because they usually only go to close relatives, it’s normal to give at least one hundred to children and more to the seniors. In the south, 5, 10 or 20 are the most common numbers to give for non-relatives. The most important rule of thumb is to never make any combination of four appear in a hongbao.

Always using brand new bills is another unwritten rule, which symbolizes a new start. Everyone expects to open the envelope and find wrinkle-free bills—especially the red ones with Chairman Mao’s face. That explains why banks are so busy during this time, dealing with people who have come to exchange new bills. Smart parents avoid waiting in lines at the bank by exchanging cash with their children after CNY in order to give to others. Isn’t it more convenient and environmental friendly?

In the north, CNY hongbao is also called ya sui qian. Legend has it that a monster named Sui liked to touch children’s heads while they were sleeping on New Year’s Eve to make them cry. Therefore, parents let children stay up all night during an event called shou sui (guard Sui). One year, a couple wrapped a string of eight copper coins inside red paper and placed it under their child’s pillow. At midnight, Sui came, but was driven away by the eye-blinding copper. The story spread and people began to do the same for their little ones, calling the act ya sui qian (meaning suppress Sui money).

In the Cantonese-speaking region, handing out a first-day-at-work lai see, especially at large enterprises, state-owned companies and government departments has become rather trendy in recent decades. Singles from the same department or same floors will often speedily form a group of lai see snatchers, sweeping from office to office, floor to floor, while holding out their greedy palms with a sly smile.

At Tencent’s (creator of QQ and WeChat) headquarters in Shenzhen, CEO Ma Huateng and other executives have developed a nice tradition where they’ve distributed pocket money to every employee since 1998. During the New Year of 2016, the line to collect the hongbao stretched more than 30 floors in length and twisted all the way to the outer gate. The earliest employee reportedly arrived at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Whether you give or receive a hongbao, enjoy the tradition and don’t forget to say “gong xi fa cai” in Mandarin or “gong hei fat choy” in Cantonese. Otherwise, you’ll get nothing.