Sunday, February 10, 2013 Chinese New Year of the Snake - "The Red Envelop" Etiquette

The "how to" for passing out and receiving "Red Envelopes" for Chinese New Year

Several months ago, I had the pleasure to interview, Tsai Chin, who played Auntie Lindo in the movie Joy Luck Club. We were reminiscing about some classic clips in the movie that continue to hold true to the present day, especially in this eve of Chinese New Year 2013. For example, when Auntie Lindo was presenting her favorite dish, the American boyfriend began to criticize her choice of food while everyone else was content with it. 

Every foreign culture is a minefield to any outsider. Being Cantonese and growing up with grandmom in Hong Kong, I got into trouble a lot during this kind of holiday. So I have to say that my own culture is filled with not only mines, but also pot holes & quick sand just waiting for any outsider to fall into. 

On Chinese New Year, the Chinese believed that the mood of the first day set the rhythm for the rest of the year. The first day of the Lunar calendar could be troublesome for children and foreigners. It is also not good if you commit a cardinal sin such as mentioning death on the first day of the new year. If you did, you would have ruined someone’s whole year and every single one of their misfortunes that year will be attributed to you. 

Here are some of the Do's & Don'ts on Chinese New Year :

During Chinese New Year, one of the most important rituals is the giving and receiving of hongbao "Red Envelope" - lai see in Cantonese. Here are a few tips to help you navigate with ease into this Chinese New Year.

Knowing What to Say:

Earn your "Red Envelope" (lai see) by greeting someone with an auspicious phrase. While kung hei fat choi - which means “may you prosper” will do for most generic situations, there is a second phrase to follow depending on who your company is. 

Hock yip jeung bo: meaning “may your studies improve”, this is applicable to all children and young adults.

Qing chuen seung jue: meaning “may your youth be everlasting”, this is what you say to any woman.

Sang yee hing lung: meaning “may your business prosper”, this works for businessmen or companies you work with.

- If you’re speaking to someone who you’re not sure, then the all-encapsulating sun tai geen hong meaning “may you have good health” will be a safe one.

- At last if you clasp your hands together in front of your chest and shake them up and down gently while you say your Chinese New Year greetings will give you bonus point.


Giving Red Envelope:

During Chinese New Year, the younger generation pays respect to the order in accordance to the custom bainian where wealth is extended to the elder in the celebrated salute Kung hei fat choi in Cantonese. In return, juniors receive hongboa "Red Envelope" stuffed with money, Lai See in Cantonese. The amount varies depends on the relationship between the two.

Married people are the ones who give, while the children and the unmarried receive. But there are a few exceptions. Here are the general rules.

- $5-$20 is probably the most common and should be given to those you interact with on a regular basis, especially in the service industry. The manager at your favourite restaurant or your preferred hairdresser or trainner.

- $20 & up are usually for the children of your close friends, or for people who have really supported you at some point last year.

- If they don’t fit into one of these categories, the most common is to give someone two red envelope with $1 each or a single one with $2. It's good to have the different denominations put in differently designed red envelope, range from $1 - $20 so that you can quickly hand out what you want to give,.

- While most people are happy either way, it is a nice gesture to get crisp new money to put in your red envelope.

- Some single people do offer red envelopes to people that regularly serve them throughout the year, like the security guards at their building, the pedicurist, the trainer, etc. This is also true if you are the boss, single or married. You should give out Red Envelopes to your employees when they return to work after the holidays..

When Receiving Red Envelopes:

Show your gratitude when receiving a Red Envelope.

- First and foremost, always receive your Red Envelope with both hands.

- Never, ever open your Red Envelope in front of the giver, this is disrespectful. If you have children, make sure this rule is followed at all times. 

- Sometimes when you visit someone’s home during Chinese New Year, you may notice red envelopes lying around, or tucked into a box of sugar treats or hanging on fruit trees. These are not for you, they are decorative.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Denise Wadsworth February 09, 2013 at 10:01 PM
Vivian, Great article on Chinese New Year manners, both verbal and nonverbal. I especially appreciate knowing about how to receive the envelope and how to properly thank!


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