Hongbao giving



A hongbao (or ang pow in Hokkien) is a gift of money inserted into a red packet. Red is considered a symbol of luck, life and happiness. Hongbaos are given as a token of good wishes during auspicious occasions such as Chinese New Year and weddings.1

History

There are two legends about gift money in ancient China. In one of them, the Eight Immortals transformed themselves into coins to help an elderly couple save their son from a demon named Sui. On the eve of the Chinese New Year, these eight coins were wrapped in red paper and placed under the child’s pillow to ward off the demon. This success story encouraged parents to give their children money wrapped in red paper, hence the term ya sui qian (money that can suppress the demon).2 This term, however, is now understood as “money given to children by their elders”.3


The second legend recounts the joyous occasion when the son of Emperor Xuanzong, of the Tang Dynasty, was born. The Emperor gave gold and silver coins to his concubine to be used as charms to protect the baby. The commoners subsequently adopted this practice and began giving their children money as gifts.4

During the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, giving money, or li shi in Cantonese, became a norm – parents gave money to their children, and to well-wishers who came beating drums and gongs to greet everyone a happy new year; and masters gave their slaves money as tokens of appreciation. The li shi packets were probably made of silk or cloth.5 Over time, parents gave their children 100 coins representing 100 years of life. The coins were presented on the eve of Chinese New Year for the children to buy clothes or to save up. A poem about the long string of a hundred coins was even composed by Wun Man Yun during the Qing Dynasty.6 By the late 19th century, people had started using red packets and calling them hongbao. Only the married who were deemed “adults” would give the hongbao.7

Receiving
It is considered rude to stare at relatives or to show too much eagerness at receiving hongbao. Reticence reflects good upbringing. The giver is wished Gongxi facai (“Wishing you a prosperous new year”). It is also considered ill-mannered to open red packets in the presence of the giver and other people.8

Amount
The amounts in hongbao should be in even numbers, which are considered lucky and auspicious. If a pair of hongbao is given, the amount should also total up to an even number. The Cantonese and Hokkiens give hongbao in pairs to the children of close relatives, as tradition has it that good things come in pairs.9

Hongbao giving today
Hongbao giving has been extended to include those wishing to express gratitude, love, care and appreciation to the recipients. Parents, the elderly, the needy, as well as employees receive hongbao during festive occasions.10 Hongbao is also often given by friends to newly-weds to defray the wedding dinner costs, and for birthday celebrations.11


Banks, which often print their own red packets,12 would also provide fresh new dollar notes for customers’ use for their hongbaos for the Chinese New Year. Since 2013, however, in a drive to go green and save energy, the volume of such newly printed notes had been reduced by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The initiative to use good-as-new notes has gained the acceptance of the general public.13

In recent years, innovative hongbao givers have included memorable gifts to their loved ones in the red packets, such as slips of meaningful poems.14



Author

Azizah Sidek




References 

1. Cheong, T. (1988, February 7). It all started as goodwill for children. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. A new beginning: Customs of the Lunar New Year. (2005). Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, pp. 66–67. (Call no.: R 394.261 NEW-[CUS])
3. Cheong, T. (1988, February 7). It all started as goodwill for children. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. A new beginning: Customs of the Lunar New Year. (2005). Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, pp. 66–67. (Call no.: R 394.261 NEW-[CUS])
5. More to that red packet than just good luck. (1990, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 24; Cheong, T. (1988, February 7). It all started as goodwill for children. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. More to that red packet than just good luck. (1990, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; A new beginning: Customs of the Lunar New Year. (2005). Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, pp. 64–65. (Call no.: R 394.261 NEW-[CUS])
7. More to that red packet than just good luck. (1990, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore. Singapore: Author, pp. 40–43. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
8. More to that red packet than just good luck. (1990, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. (1989). Chinese customs and festivals in Singapore. Singapore: Author, pp. 40–43. (Call no.: RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
9. Lin, M., et al. (2016, January 26). Expect to get $8 to $10 per hongbao. MyPaper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; More to that red packet than just good luck. (1990, January 23). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Sim, W. (2016, January 31). PM Lee hands out hongbao to needy, elderly in Ang Mo Kio. The Straits Times; Hongbao – and a helping hand – for grocery shopping. (2016, February 1). The Straits Times; Amir Hussain. (2016, February 8). Ministers visit essential service workers on first day of Chinese New Year. The Straits Times; Singh, B. (2016, February 7). Chinese New Year: A pencai made with love. The Straits Times; Love or charity – blossoming at lunch marking double delight. (2016, February 15). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
11. Tan, M. (2014, November 23). Saying “I do”…to giving that hongbao. The Straits Times, pp. 31–32; Cheong, T. (1988, February 7). It all started as goodwill money for children. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Arthur, L. (2016, January 16). Banks print millions of new red packets. The Business Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
13. Give ‘green’ $2 hongbao this CNY. (2016, January 19). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

14. Tan, C. (2015, March 1). Poems in hongbao bring good cheer. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/



The information in this article is valid as at 1997 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Rites and ceremonies--Singapore
Singapore-- Social life and customs
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Customs