Lai See Etiquette in Hong Kong: How to Give and Receive Red Packets

Reading Time: 5 minutesIt’s that time of the year – brightly-lit Christmas trees are being exchanged for blooming peach blossoms, and pots of poinsettia are making way for mandarin oranges. Chinese New Year is almost here, and with that means lots of good fortune and blessings of happiness and wealth. Of course, there’s the age-old tradition of giving and receiving lai see (also called red envelope, red packet and hong bao) during this particular holiday, and it comes with a notable history and particular customs, too. Here, we give you a rundown of what lai see is, its etiquette and and the ‘rules’ on how to give and receive these red envelopes and why this tradition exists.

little girl holding a red packet

What is Lai See?

Lai see is the Cantonese name for red envelopes, and during the Lunar New Year, plenty of these red packets – money enclosed – are given away to young children and unmarried singles. The red of the lai see symbolises happiness, good fortune and prosperity, so giving lai see means blessing the receiver for the coming year with good luck. Around Chinese New Year is when most people are seen giving out red packets, but it is also often given at weddings and birthday celebrations, usually in lieu of a physical gift.

The actual red packet usually takes the form of a long red envelope adorned with gold characters or patterns, sometimes with a written blessing printed on top. Nowadays, though, a multitude of designs exist – look out for square lai sees, cartoon character lai sees (which are sure to delight the kids) and even gold lai sees instead of the traditional red.

History of Lai See

How did the tradition of giving lai see begin? Well, according to one legend, once upon a time, there was an elderly couple who wanted to protect their son from a demon called Sui (祟). Sui was known to scare and give children headaches by quietly touching their heads during New Year’s Eve, so the couple tried to keep their son awake that evening by letting him play with eight pieces of copper coins. Unfortunately, the son couldn’t stay awake, so eventually his parents let him fall asleep with a red paper bag containing the copper coins tucked underneath his pillow.

children thanking grandparents for lai see

In the middle of night, there was a strange wind, and Sui came to scare the little child! But just as it was going to touch the son’s head, his pillow shined with a golden light and scared away Sui. Thus, the red paper-wrapped copper money was believed to have an exorcism effect, and the tradition of giving young children money in red paper continued. Today, the money in lai see is also known as “ya sui qian” in Mandarin (壓歲錢), which translates to “the money to suppress Sui.” If you want to make sure your little ones aren’t haunted by this demon, be sure to give them lai see!

Lai See Rules & Etiquette

How to Give

Before Chinese New Year, it’s good to have your lai see prepped and ready to go in your bag. It’s common practice to hand out the red envelopes from the first day of the Lunar New Year to the 15th day, and if there’s a chance you’ll be seeing the same recipients again, you should give them their lai see upon greeting them for the first time during that time period. It’s best practice to use new, clean notes from the bank in your lai see, and take care to not include any coins as well.

When giving out lai see, it’s a sign of courtesy to use both hands and to say a blessing to the recipient. Classic phrases used during Chinese New Year include “gong hei fat choy” (恭喜發財), meaning “wishing you a prosperous New Year,” and “sun nin fai lok” (新年快樂), which simply means “happy New Year.” And if you’re giving out lai see to your kids, or even your kids’ friends, another appropriate blessing is “hok yip jun bou” (學業進步), to wish them good progress in their studies.

Over the last several years, virtual red packets have also grown immensely in popularity. With platforms like WeChat Pay or Alipay, you can give lai see to recipients around the world directly from your handheld device. While it can’t exactly replicate the experience of giving or receiving a physical lai see, virtual red packets are a good way to keep up traditions from afar, especially in light of traveling restrictions brought on by COVID-19.

family holding up lai see

How Much to Give

It’s widely known that lai see money should be given in multiples of 10, and it’s a huge no-no to give amounts with the number 4 in them, since the number sounds very similar to the word “death” in Cantonese and Mandarin. Normally, families will prepare red packets of different amounts, such as $20, $50, $100 and $500, and you can decide how much to give each person based on your relationship with them and on a completely discretionary basis (more on that later). Hot tip: use different red envelope designs for different monetary amounts, and that way you’ll easily be able to remember how much is in each lai see.

If you’re married and giving lai see to people you’re close to, like those in your extended family, it’s good practice to give two packets to represent one from you and the other from your spouse. But regardless of marriage status, you can also give two packets at a time for ease – such as two $100 red envelopes if you want to give $200 – so that you’re not caught secretly stuffing extra notes into lai see in the corner.

Who Gets Lai See?

The common rule of thumb is that once you get married, you’ll start giving lai see to those who are younger than you or unmarried singles. (And yes, that even includes your siblings, if they’re not married yet!) But lai see giving isn’t just limited to those who are married – the custom can be considered in terms of the older/younger or senior/junior relationship, which means that if you’re an unmarried boss, for example, you can still give lai see to an employee who may be older than you to express your thanks.

While lai see giving is most prominent within families, especially to the younger generation, red envelopes are also given to those who have provided you with a service, such as helpers, receptionists, security guards, waiters, cleaners and other staff at places you frequent. The amount of money you might give to different people is up to you and your financial situation, but the general consensus is that you’ll give more to family members and those you work most closely with (perhaps $100 or more to helpers and direct employees), and less to people like waiters who you don’t see as frequently (perhaps $20). It’s also a kind gesture to give lai see to close neighbours or friends of your kids, and if your child has received a lai see from another family, you should return the favor with a comparable amount.

women holding a red packet

How to Receive

Just like how it’s a sign of courtesy to give lai see with both hands, it’s also important to teach your kids to receive lai see with both hands. Usually, a blessing should be said alongside a thank you, such as the aforementioned “gong hei fat choy” (恭喜發財) and “sun nin fai lok” (新年快樂). If your little one is receiving their red envelope from someone who is middle-aged and above – maybe the grandparents (or even you!) – another dependable blessing is “sun tai kin hong” (身體健康), which means “wishing good health.” Also, remember to tell the kids not to open their red packets right away, since it’s impolite to do so. It’s best to have them tuck it away in their bags, and they can relish in their prized money later.

As with gift-giving, remember that lai see is more about the gesture and thoughtfulness as opposed to the actual monetary amount. Chinese New Year is a time for celebration, and for families to look towards the new year with hopes of good fortune and health. Here’s to shooing away Sui and to a prosperous Year of the Tiger!

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