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Last week found us picking our way through the etiquette minefield that is Lai See – or “red packets” which are traditionally given out over CNY.  Whilst on the one hand we have enjoyed finding out about, and adopting local customs over the festival, on the other hand we were really nervous about offending anyone – particularly the guys we see everyday here at Pacific View!

Red envelopes

Red envelopes

It seems that whilst the quantities people give out in these little red envelopes differ quite widely – there are a number of hard and fast rules associated with the tradition, and some frequently committed faux pas!  So – for future reference – here is my step by step guide to Lai See, based on asking almost everyone I know out here!

General Principles:  Who gets them?

You give out Lai See “Senior to Junior”, “Old to Young” and “Big to Small” – so basically to anyone who works for you, directly or (perhaps most importantly!) indirectly.  For us this worked out as D’s secretary, trainees, our helper and the doormen, car park attendants, cleaners and anyone else we came across around the block.  It would not be at all cool to come across someone you should give to and not have an envelope to hand over so it’s wise to keep a bunch of “spares” on you over the holiday.  Married couples have an additional obligation to give to their single friends and younger relatives – you don’t need to worry about this if you are not married though.

General Principles:  When do you give them out?

We got this a bit wrong this year – I thought it was at any point from New Year’s Day (Sunday) for the duration of the holiday (i.e. up to and including Wednesday).  But today I saw the block handyman and he very pointedly wished me a Happy New Year.  Turns out (I think) that red packet giving carries on for the whole week – ooops.

General Principles:  What goes in them?

Cold hard cash – but NEVER coins!  Tradition dictates crisp new notes (meaning huge queues at the banks in the run-up to CNY as people inspect their withdrawals rather than trust the ATM!), but the Government has been running a campaign to encourage greater acceptance of “good as new” notes.  HSBC had staff patrolling the queues trying to explain this to those in the lines – not sure how well it went down!

Getting our Lai See ready for action!

Getting our Lai See ready for action!

The specifics:  Just how much?!  It’s complicated…

Firstly – never ever HKD40!! (Because “4” sounds like “Die” in Cantonese, which is not a message of goodwill to be handing out to anyone!)

Amounts which contain an “8” are good as 8 is considered a lucky number (obviously not HKD88 though as that would require the use of coins!).  We were told that this makes HKD80 preferable to HKD90 – not sure our doorman would agree!

Odd amounts are also considered bad form – as odd numbered cash gifts are commonly associated with funerals.  So HKD100 is definitely better than HKD105!

Married couples should split their offerings between two envelopes – so one from each of us.

And how much exactly – well how long is a piece of string?!  For a doorman, say, we were told anything between HKD20 and HKD200 and just about every amount in between, although the modal amount among expats seemed to be about HKD100 for those you saw everyday, and HKD20 or 60 for everyone else at the apartment block.  D received HKD100 from his firm today, and Arlo a picture of a sheep from his playgroup!  Everyone still seems to be speaking to us (apart from aforementioned handyman!) so I think we came through unscathed!