Monday, February 7, 2011

Lunar New Year Ang Pow 101

Traditional Lunar New Year dish - Yusheng (raw fish salad) [Pic]

The Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated over a period of 15 days.

From 3 Feb to 17 Feb this year, I join billions of Chinese around the world celebrate our most important traditional festival. As in all traditions, what we do today is largely a reflection of what how our forefathers think in the past. One of the most common practices during the Lunar New Year is the giving of red packets.

What are Red Packets?

Red packets are red envelopes enclosed with money. Generally, they symbolize 'good luck'.

It is hongbao (红包) in Mandarin but we like to call it ang pow here in Singapore. Else where, it is also known as li xi (利是 or 利事) or lai see as pronounced in Cantonese. Li xi can roughly be translated into 'good for business'. Ang pows are also given out during other happy occasions such as wedding and birthday celebrations.

Red envelopes are usually decorated
with motifs related to abundance, luck,
health and happiness.

How to give ang pows during Lunar New Year?

This is a centuries old tradition and many variations have evolved over time. Today, it would be difficult to get all the Chinese to agree on a common set of practice.

There are possibly many variations around the world but here are 12 seen in Singapore:

12. Who should give?

Tradition: Married couples or the elderly give ang pows to unmarried juniors.

Variation: Young unmarried adults give ang pows to their parents once they begin to receive their own income.

11. Who to give to?

Tradition: Ang pows are given to juniors or unmarried young adults.

Variation: Some elderly continues to give ang pows to younger relatives even after they are married. As a gesture of goodwill, bosses give ang pows to workers. Appreciative customers may also give ang pows to service personnel such as waiters.

10. Must ang pows contain money?

Tradition: Ang pows contain money. This tradition originated as giving Ya Sui Qian (压岁钱) to children to ward off bad luck. Ya Sui Qian roughly means 'money used to suppress the evil spirits'.

Variation: Sometimes, chocolate coins are found in ang pows. It would be rude to do this to friends and relatives. However, shops may give them out to please their customers in a more affordable way. Some businesses give ang pows containing lottery tickets and hope that their customers will have some luck with them.

This Lunar New Year is the Year of the Rabbit. [Pic]

9. What is an appropriate amount of money to give?

Tradition: The amount varies with circumstances (See 8). In Singapore, it is not uncommon to give from a couple of dollars up to several hundred. Even numbers are preferred because odd numbers are usually associated with cash given during funerals. A point to note, even numbers here are not in the mathematical sense. For example, 30 is odd but 20 is even. "8", sounding similar to 'fortune' is welcome while "4" sounding similar to 'death' is to be avoided.

Variation: It is acceptable to give a single bank note of S$10 or S$50. It is also common to find ang pows containing S$4 made up of two S$2 notes.

8. How to vary the amount?

Tradition: Amounts vary based on the closeness of relationship. For example, a higher amount is given to nephews and lesser to children of acquaintances.

Variation: A higher amount is expected from a wealthier person. A higher amount is also given to friends and relatives with lesser means. Working singles usually get less compared to their non-working counterparts.

7. When to give?

Tradition: Give ang pows during the 15 days of celebration.

Variation: Give ang pows a few days before or after the 15-day period as well. This is especially so if there have been no opportunities to meet up during the new year period.

Pineapple tarts are hot favorites
for Lunar New Year.

6. Can you request for one?

Tradition: A married person would not turn down such a request as it is unlucky to do so. However, parents regard the act of request as rude and would guide their children not to do it.

Variation: Youngsters cite greetings such as gong xi fa cai , hong bao yi ge lai (恭喜发财 红包一个来) and request for ang pows in jest. The phrase means 'Wishing you happiness and prosperity. May I have an ang pow from you please?

5. When do you open the ang pows?

Tradition: Avoid opening the envelopes in front of relatives as it is considered not courteous.

Variation: Parents may open their children's ang pows (discreetly) so that they can reciprocate in terms of amount of money.

4. Must ang pows contain new notes?

Tradition: Brand new notes are enclosed in red envelopes.

Variation: Newer-looking notes are issued by banks to cut down printing and to be more environmentally friendly.

Mandarin oranges are traditional symbols of
abundance and good fortune.

3. Must ang pows be red?

Tradition: Ang pow literally means 'red package' or 'red envelope'.

Variation: Golden, yellow or orange packages are used in place of red ones.

2. Can you give coins in ang pows?

Tradition: Cash is given discreetly in red packets and the amounts are not immediately known. In the past, it was common to have coins in sealed envelopes.

Variation: Usually one or two notes instead of heavy coins are used so as to make it difficult to guess the amount inside. The envelopes are usually not sealed.

1. Must you give ang pows in person?

Tradition: Juniors receive ang pows when they visit the elderly.

Variation: Ang pows are given to absent relatives through those who visit in person.

Red is considered a 'lucky' color. [Pic]

When I was a kid, I paid little attention to how ang pows were supposed to be given. My main preoccupation then was the amount of my annual harvest. Today, I continue the tradition my ancestors have passed down. This time, I exercise some discretion. While I do observe parts of the tradition, I also adapt the practice with a modern twist. I believe our future generations will do likewise, continue to adopt and adapt.

No matter how traditions evolve over time, they remain an important glue to our social fabric. Let's not lose them.

See another article on Lunar New Year:
"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer." 
~William Somerset Maugham~

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Anonymous said...

Really interesting - thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is really interesting post. I would like to Wish you advance Happy New Year 2016. Happy New year wishes with name