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Hidden Hong Kong: History of Chinese New Year red packets (lai see)

By Celia Lee 19 January 2023

Header image courtesy of Jason Leung (via Unsplash)

Lunar New Year is upon us, and soon, you might witness a festive custom here in Hong Kong that you may not have seen elsewhere in the world. Come Chinese New Year, not only do family and friends gather together over spreads of traditional foods and plenty of vibrant decorations around the house, but married and elderly members of the family also give out little red packets to younger and unmarried members of the family.

A custom that can be found amongst most communities in China, Hong Kong, and its diasporas is giving out red packets, also called lai see (利是; lei6 si6; “lucky things”). It’s a practice that is sure to happen every Lunar New Year, but the usage of red packets goes far beyond this festive season into other monumental events in one’s life. Read on to learn the history and usage of the red packets from their origin to our time.

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Photo: Chuttersnap (via Unsplash)

Usages and symbolism during Lunar New Year

Red packets are monetary gifts, most commonly used during the Lunar New Year as a symbol of good luck and prosperity, and to ward off evil spirits. Lai see are given by the elder and married members of the family to those younger, unmarried, or still in school. Family members or relatives who are unmarried, typically children, will have to ask for red packets in an act called dou lai see (逗利是; dau6 lei6 si6).

Red packets are given after wishing their elders good fortune and health for the new year in a few traditional greetings. Apart from receiving red packets from members of your family, in Hong Kong, it is also common practice for employers to give out lai see to their employees. It is also customary to give red packets to other people you might see every day, such as the security guard and cleaning person at your apartment complex.

Photo: Yuwei Shaw (via Unsplash)

What is placed in the red packet is also important to its overall symbolism. Old notes are never used in red packets, and in Hong Kong, banks in the city even have a habit of offering citizens a chance to exchange their old banknotes for crisp new ones in time for Chinese New Year, all for the sake of giving out auspicious red packets.

Also, the amount of money you put in the packet usually translates to your relationship with the person receiving the packet. For example, grandparents are known to be generous with their packets to their grandchildren and will usually give between $500 to $1,000 (or more if circumstances allow). No matter how much you put in the red packet, it’s always good to avoid gifting an amount that ends in odd numbers or the number four, all of which are associated with death and funerals in local traditions.

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Photo: ZQ Lee (via Unsplash)

Where did it come from?

Although the exact origin of the red packet is unclear, many historians believe that the practice dates as far back as the Han dynasty, albeit in a form a little different to what we know as red packets today. To ward off evil spirits, people in the Han dynasty created a coin named 壓勝錢 (yāshèng qián; “money used to suppress the victory of evil”), used as a common blessing item to protect people from sickness and death.

In the Tang dynasty, this practice evolved from gifting a symbolic coin to gifting real money, and during Chinese New Year, elders would give money to children to help them ward off evil in the new year. The same practice continued on through the Song and Yuan dynasties, and gradually this money was considered to grant luck to those who received it.

Photo: Eyestetix Studio (via Unsplash)

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, two kinds of lucky money were given: one made of coins strung together with red string and placed at the foot of beds in the shape of a dragon, and the other a colourful pouch filled with coins. From the 1910s to 1940s, people opted to wrap coins in red paper instead of threading them with a string, as modern coins did not have a hole in the middle like old coins, so threads were no longer needed. And soon, even coins were omitted in the preparation of red packets, and banknotes came into use.

Photo: Eugene L (via Pexels)

Other usages and symbolism

Apart from being given at Chinese New Year, red packets are also gifted at various social and family events, particularly at weddings. Red packets given at weddings are usually from the guests to the newly married as a sign of good fortune and blessing for the couple’s future. Both odd and even amounts of money are suitable for wedding red packets, as even numbers signify harmony and completeness, whilst odd numbers are usually harder to divide, therefore symbolising the long-lasting relationship between the couple. 

Gifting amounts starting or ending in nine are also favoured for weddings, as the pronunciation of the number nine, 九 (gau2), is the same as the pronunciation of the word, 久 (gau2; “long”), and the red packet becomes a wish for the couple to stay together as long as possible.

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Photo: Angela Roma (via Pexels)

Another common usage for red packets is as 壓歲錢 (ngaat3 seoi3 cin2; “money used to suppress age”). Originating from the Song dynasty, this type of red packet is given by elders to young children in the family as a blessing and a charm to ward off evil during the new year and is usually placed under the child’s pillow on Lunar New Year’s eve. The act of sleeping on the money is related to the “suppression” part (壓) of the red packet’s name. A $100 note is usually used in these red packets, signifying the child will live long and happy until they are 100 years old.

Other cultures and their uses of red packets

Similar to how many parts of Asia outside of China and Hong Kong celebrates the Lunar New Year, others also have similar customs regarding the gifting, symbolism, and usage of red packets.

Photo: SeaDragon VietNam (via Pexels)

Vietnam 

Red packets in Vietnam are part of the traditional culture and serve a similar purpose to those in Hong Kong. During Lunar New Year, elders and adults will gift red packets to younger people after a greeting that wishes for wealth, prosperity, or health is exchanged.

Photo: Lady01v (via Wikimedia Commons)

Philippines 

Although the practice of exchanging red packets at Lunar New Year was a custom brought over to the Philippines by Chinese Filipinos, many non-Chinese Filipinos today have adopted it for other occasions, such as monetary gifts at birthdays and aguinaldo at Christmas.

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Photo: Dương Nhân (via Pexels)

Cambodia 

Red packets, or ang pav, are given during Saen Chen when relatives gather together in celebration. Traditionally considered a symbol of good luck for elders and happiness for children, the red packet is kept as a token of worship or under a pillowcase while the child sleeps during Lunar New Year. Contrary to Hong Kong customs, those employed in the family, no matter their age, are expected to gift red packets to their parents and younger siblings. Ang pav are also given at weddings by the guests to the married couple.

Photo: John Nakamura Remy (via Wikimedia Commons)

Japan 

In Japan, instead of the red packet, a white packet or a variety of decorated envelopes (otoshidama; お年玉 and otoshidama-bukuri; お年玉袋) are used. The name of the receiver is usually written on the packet, making these more like gifts than the red packets familiar to the people of Hong Kong. At weddings, a similar packet is given in a practice called shūgi-bukuro (祝儀袋; “celebratory gift bag”), but the packet is folded rather than sealed and decorated with a special knot called a mizuhiki (水引; “water-pull”).

South Korea

A monetary gift similar to the red packet is given to children by members of the family during the Lunar New Year. A lucky pouch (복주머니; bokjumeoni) is usually used.

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Photo: Ahmed Aqtai (via Pexels)

Malay Muslim populations

Malay Muslim populations in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Singapore have adopted the custom of giving red packets as part of their Eid al-Fitr or Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations based on the Muslim custom of sadaqah (voluntary charity). A green packet is used for the colour’s traditional association with Islam instead of red.

Photo: Udayaditya Barua (via Unsplash)

Indian Hindu populations

Indian Hindu populations in Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted the practice of giving purple packets for Diwali, but yellow packets have also been used—these are known as Diwali ang pow in Malaysia and purple ang pow or ang pow in Singapore.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

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