Chinese New Year will soon be upon us – that wonderful time of the year where families and friends gather, feast, ask awkward questions and, yes, exchange crimson sleeves filled with cash.
The time-honoured custom of married adults giving away hongbao (red packets containing money) to children and younger, unwed relatives is an unequivocal Chinese New Year tradition favourite.
Who doesn't enjoy receiving auspiciously-coloured envelopes filled with money, which also doubles up as a symbol of good luck and blessings of longevity, prosperity and health? It sure makes coping with the inevitable “Why you still not married ah?” question from nosy relatives so much easier to bear.
Now, exactly how much one should receive in said envelope, is of course, entirely up to the giver. But is there such thing as a socially acceptable amount?
An informal online poll CNA Lifestyle conducted on Twitter revealed that out of 1,425 people, 33 per cent were inclined to give S$10 and above in a hongbao for children, 21 per cent were going with S$8, and 31 per cent were at the other end of the spectrum with S$2. And even though odd numbers are usually not favoured, 15 per cent voted for gifting S$5.
So, what exactly is the magic number? And is there an official hongbao etiquette to follow?
Seeing how the tradition of giving out red packets is believed to have originated from the practice of giving "ya sui qian" or money to ward off evil spirits and protect the recipient from sickness and death, the modern day Chinese New Year hongbao should really be seen as a gesture and not transaction.
But well wishes and good intentions notwithstanding, inappropriate amount hongbao faux pas may end up hurting or offending all parties involved. So, here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you finesse the art of hongbao-giving in this Year Of The Pig.
But do remember, at the end of the day, it’s the thought that counts and giving whatever you feel comfortable within your means.
FOR THE PARENTS: AS MUCH AS YOU CAN AFFORD
They raised you, housed you and fed you. Oh, and there is that "giving you life" bit as well. There’s no cap in the parents category – a substantial amount serves as sign of respect and a token of appreciation to thank them for everything that they've done for you.
FOR THE SIBLINGS: S$20 AND ABOVE
Depending on their age and whether they’re working, what serves as a decent amount in a sibling hongbao is entirely up to your discretion. To avoid any possible awkwardness, a smaller token given “just for luck” will be appreciated if you're the younger, married sibling with an older sister or brother who is still single.
FOR COUSINS, NEPHEWS AND NIECES: S$8 TO S$20
The amount here pretty much boils down to their age and how close you are to them. While societal norms might dictate the expectation of larger hongbao be given to unmarried relatives just because they are family, it's perfectly acceptable to base your decision on whether you’re actually close to them. If that’s a yes, a S$20 hongbao would be a nice gesture. For other relatives whom you see only once a year, giving a smaller hongbao will suffice.
YOUR OWN CHILDREN: S$20 TO S$100
The amount you would give your children varies depending on how old they are and the attitude you would like them to cultivate towards money. If your kids are preschooler young, a token amount will suffice – it'll be a fun way for them to add the hongbao money to their piggy bank.
It'll serve as extra pocket money for the older kids and the opportunity to advise them to use it wisely – spend a little, give some to a worthy cause, and save the rest. And if you have more than one child, each one should receive the same amount.
THE DOMESTIC HELPER, SECURITY GUARD AND OFFICE-CLEANING AUNTIE: S$10 TO S$50
You don't have to go over-the-top and pass a red packet to every service staff you meet, but do remember the significant few who feature in your everyday life.
Of course, the amount you give should be dependent on your relationship with each of them, as well as how long they’ve been in your household or office life. But a substantial hongbao to the helper who makes your daily tasks just that little bit easier would certainly be much appreciated.
STANDBY CASH FOR ACQUAINTANCES: S$2 TO S$10
These could be children of acquaintances you meet while visiting, the domestic helpers in your relatives' homes, your child’s classmates, or even your neighbours' kids.
READ: Why you should consider travel vaccinations even to places like Bali or Tokyo for your CNY getaway
Giving a hongbao is a sign of goodwill and blessings for the new year, so there is no strict rate to follow. Whatever amount you decide on depends on your financial situation, so don’t feel obligated to give a large amount just because someone else is doing so.
- Use new banknotes
Crisp, new, straight-out-the-bank money symbolises a fresh beginning for the new year. And who doesn't love the feeling of smooth, crinkle-free notes to the touch? Research also claims that people have a tendency to rid themselves of old, crinkled money by spending it more quickly, while holding on to nice, crisp bills longer.
- Avoid odd numbers
Odd numbers like five or seven are generally considered inauspicious, while even numbers signify good luck for the new year. Even fairly large amounts that contain an odd digit, like S$30, are considered unpropitious, and are usually reserved for wakes and funerals. You’re better off with amounts like S$28.
- Avoid packing sums in denominations of four
For the uninitiated, "four" in Mandarin or Cantonese sounds like the word for death. Not quite the word one likes bandied around during new year festivities, whether you're superstitious or not.