A hongbao (or ang pow in Hokkien) is a gift of money packed into a red packet. Red is considered a symbol of luck, life and happiness. Hongbaos are given as tokens of good wishes during auspicious occasions such as Chinese New Year and weddings.1
There are two legends about gift money in ancient China. In one of them, the Eight Immortals transform themselves into coins to help an elderly couple save their son from a demon named Sui. On the eve of Chinese New Year, these eight coins were wrapped in red paper and placed under the child’s pillow to ward off the demon. Parents eventually adopted this practice and would give their children money wrapped in red paper, which was termed 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 of the birth of the son of Emperor Xuanzong, during the Tang Dynasty. The emperor gave gold and silver coins to his concubine to be used as charms to protect the baby. The people subsequently adopted this practice and began giving money to their children as gifts.4
During the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, giving money, or li shi in Cantonese, became the norm – parents would give money to their children, as well as to well-wishers who came beating drums and gongs to greet everyone a happy new year. Masters similarly gave their slaves money as tokens of appreciation. The li shi packets were probably made of silk or cloth.5 Over time, parents started to give their children 100 coins representing 100 years of life. On Chinese New Year eve, the coins were presented to the children to buy clothes or save. 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 started using red packets and calling them hongbao. Only the married, who were deemed “adults”, were expected to distribute hongbao.7
Some guidelines for hongbao-giving during Chinese New Year are: Married adults are expected to distribute hongbao, but are not required to give them to older, unmarried relatives; hongbao should be given to unmarried, younger siblings or cousins, and on rare occasions, to older unmarried nephews; older, single relatives are not expected to distribute hongbao to the younger generation; and money packed into the hongbao should be an even number as odd numbers are associated with condolence money given at funerals.8
It is considered rude to stare at relatives or be overeager to receive hongbao. Reticence reflects good upbringing. The giver should be wished gongxi facai (meaning “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.9
The money packed in the hongbao should be an even number, which is considered lucky and auspicious. If a pair of hongbao is given, the total amount should also be 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.10
Hongbao-giving today has been extended to include those wanting to express gratitude, love, care and appreciation to the recipients. Parents, the elderly, the needy, as well as employees are given hongbaos during festive occasions.11 Besides birthday celebrations, hongbaos are also given to newlyweds by their friends and wedding guests to defray wedding costs.12
Banks, which often produce their own red packets,13 also provide fresh dollar notes for clients to pack in their hongbaos for Chinese New Year. Since 2013, however, in a drive to go green and save energy, the volume of newly printed notes have been reduced by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The initiative to use good-as-new notes has gained the acceptance of the general public.14
In recent years, some hongbao givers have included memorable touches, such as slips of paper with meaningful poems, in the red packets to their loved ones.15
Azizah Sidek & Vicky Gao
1. Teresa Cheong, “It All Started as Goodwill for Children,” Straits Times, 7 February 1988, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. A New Beginning: Customs of the Lunar New Year (Singapore: Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, 2005), 66–67. (Call no.: R 394.261 NEW-[CUS])
3. Cheong, “It All Started as Goodwill for Children.”
4. Customs of the Lunar New Year, 66–67.
5. “More to That Red Packet Than Just Good Luck,” Straits Times, 23 January 1990, 24; Cheong, “It All Started as Goodwill for Children.”
6. “More to That Red Packet Than Just Good Luck”; Customs of the Lunar New Year, 64–65.
7. “More to That Red Packet Than Just Good Luck”; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, 1989), 40–43. (Call no. RSING 390.08995105957 CHI-[CUS])
8. Annabelle Liang, “Keeping with Tradition,” New Paper, 21 January 2012, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “More to That Red Packet Than Just Good Luck”; Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore, 40–43.
10. Melissa Lin, “Expect to Get $8 to $10 per Hongbao,” MyPaper, 26 January 2016 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “More to That Red Packet Than Just Good Luck.”
11. Walter Sim, “PM Lee Hands Out Hongbao to Needy, Elderly in Ang Mo Kio,” Straits Times, 31 January 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “Hongbao – and a Helping Hand – for Grocery Shopping,” Straits Times, 1 February 2016, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Amir Hussain, “ Ministers Visit Essential Service Workers on First Day of Chinese New Year,” Straits Times, 8 February 2016 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Byrna Singh, “A Pencai Made with Love,” Straits Times, 7 February 2016, 4; “Love or Charity – Blossoming at Lunch Marking Double Delight,” Straits Times, 15 February 2016, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Melissa Tan, “Saying “I Do”…to Giving That Hongbao,” Straits Times, 23 November 2014, 31–32; Cheong, “It All Started as Goodwill for Children.”
13. Arthur Lee, “Banks Print Millions of New Red Packets,” Business Times, 16 January 2016, 14. (From NewspaperSG)|14. “Give ‘Green’ $2 Hongbao this CNY,” Straits Times, 19 January 2016, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Corrie Tan, “Poems in Hongbao Bring Good Cheer,” Straits Times, 1 March 2015, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.