This is a red packet, or a lai see (利是). It’s a decorated1 envelope full of money. Specifically, paper money- and for the karma concerned- freshly minted paper money. Lai see are gifted to others at occasions like weddings, the start of employment and the start of the Chinese New Year. Which is probably why you’ve visited. Maybe it’s your first Chinese New Year. Maybe you care what others think, and you want to check how charitable the Jones’ are this season. Or, maybe you remember that brow furrowing, sweaty palmed incident from last year and you really don’t want to repeat it again.
Whatever it is, you need the low down on red packets. Happily for you, we can refine the art of gifting red packets into three simple potentially cringe inducing areas:
- Who should I give red packets to?
- How much should I give in each red packet?
- What is the best way of giving red packets?
Once you get a handle on each topic, gifting over the new year should be smooth sailing. Let’s tackle who deserves a red packet or lai see from you first:
Who Should I Give Red Packets to? (An Illustrated Guide)
Given the vast amount of people you are probably related to, and likely to meet on a daily basis, we can’t cover every permutation of who to give red packets to. However, we can construct a basic framework to guide you through the majority of circumstances you might face. No, it may not resolve with absolute clarity if your unmarried step-brother’s cousin deserves a little something something this year, but it’s not like you see each other much anyways do you?2
For most other relations, there’s a handy flowchart below to help you work out who deserves your hard earned cash.
It’s kind of extensive, so we recommend clicking on the image below to expand it.
Each successive step should give you a better idea of your relation to the person, and your financial obligations. Generally speaking, if you’re further along the road of life than the potential recipient, whether in age, marital status, or seniority, then you should be the one to cough up. If that’s not clear enough, and you’ve still come out the other end flummoxed and doubtful, you can always ask a local Hong Konger to clear things up for you.
On the other hand, if you’re satisfied as to who in theory deserves a lai see, the next logical question is therefore:
How Much Should I Give in Each Red Packet?
Again, this is subject to a wide range of opinions and practices. However, there is a generally accepted range described in the section below. These figures are really just general consensus gathered from anecdotal experiences and the web. If you feel particularly deep pocketed and grateful, or if you feel particularly skint and borderline sociopathic then feel free to adjust accordingly.
- Close Relatives: 300 HKD and up
- Distant Relatives: 50 HKD and up
- Employees: 20 HKD and up for the intern, and way, way more3 for most others if you don’t fancy being ostracised at the water cooler next year
- Service Staff: 20 HKD and up
- Exceptional Service Staff – like that doorman who once foiled an attempt on your life by ninja warriors: Priceless
As of 2018, 20 HKD, 50 HKD, 100 HKD, 300 HKD, 800 HKD and 1,000 HKD tend to be generally accepted common and lucky amounts for red packets. If you’re a real pro, you can use different envelopes for different amounts. The extra step could mean that you don’t inadvertently give your intern’s lai see to the nephew, and crush his dreams of finally buying that shiny new mountain bike this year.
Now you know who gets what, don’t destroy that goodwill by forgetting your manners when giving out your loot. Like every old school ritual, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. We’ll cover the right way below:
What is the Best Way of Giving Red Packets?
There are plenty of ground rules here, so we’ll break it down into bite sized pieces for you. Let’s start with the handover first:
If you’ve given out business cards in Hong Kong before, you’re ahead of the game, because it’s the same drill. Look the recipient in the eye, and use two hands to pass the red packet over. They should accept it graciously with two hands, wish you well and pocket it hastily. Too easy? Then hit the recipient with a new year greeting in Cantonese for extra brownie points.
The New Year Greeting
These are some classics that should get you by just fine:
Sun nin fai lok! (新年快樂!) = Happy New Year!
Gong hei fat choy! (恭喜發財!) = Wishing you happiness and prosperity! / Sending good fortune your way!
Say them with gusto, just like the prosperous rainmaker you know you are.
Accounting for Death
Last thing. When preparing the money for your red packets, stay away from the number 4. It sounds like death in Cantonese. No 40s, no 400s, no 240s, no 4,000s or whatever weird denomination with a 4 you can think of. Sending an envelope of death is bad news- unless you’re the kind of person that loves leaving passive aggressive notes on the office fridge. If you are, well then rock on.
And that’s it for this year. Pat yourself on the back conscientious reader. As the Year of the Dog cocks it’s hind leg in anticipation for the year to come, you should feel proud that come what may, at least you have taken the time to do your research.
1. ‘What on Earth is a Doge?!’ Some of you might wonder why ‘dog’ is spelt ‘doge’ in the text of the red packet at the top. If you do, then you have a healthier relationship with the internet than most of your peers. Cheers to that. It’s not a spelling mistake. It’s an intentional reference to an internet meme about a shiba inu so pervasive that has even inspired it’s own cryptocurrency. Visit knowyourmeme.com and dogecoin.com for more information.
2. To see just how complicated things can get, you should check out this awesome Cantonese family tree over on YouTube.
3. Those of you in lofty enough positions to have a P.A. or secretary working with you should be adding at least another 1 or 2 zeros to the end of that minimum benchmark figure (20 HKD). Otherwise you might end up flying to Kamchatka- and not Chicago- on that next business trip. Capiche?
Gift people who serve you, and/or who are junior to you with at least 20 HKD in a red packet this year. Use new notes, and stay away from the number 4 for extra good juju.