Lai See like a local! Chinese New Year is upon us and that means red packets need to be given (and received!).
It is Chinese custom to hand out lai see (also called Hongbao or Red Packet) during Chinese New Year. These little envelopes are usually red (for luck) and contain money. It’s a time when kids can save up for something they truly want, and a time for adults to bless those younger, or someone who offers a service, with luck, happiness and good fortune. Whether you’re a Hong Kong newbie or have been here a while, it’s sometimes difficult for expats to know what is the best local practice. Read through our handy guide and get clued up on your lai see etiquette.
The Red Packet Tradition In Hong Kong
The tradition of lai see giving is carried out by married individuals and elders as a symbol of well-wishing and to bring good luck to juniors and unmarried singles. However, because giving lai see depends on hierarchy, it can also be handed out from “big to small”, “old to young”, and “senior to junior”. So, for instance, you can have an unmarried boss hand out lai see to his or her older, married helpers. The amount of lai see given is largely dependent on the closeness of the relationship between the giver and receiver.
Lai See For Service Providers
Helpers and secretaries receive a larger amount as they are your immediate employees. It’s not uncommon to provide a token lai see to helpers of friends who often spend time with your children on playdates. For services you frequently use or go to, such as building staff (security guards, doormen, club staff, etc.), a token amount will do. You may choose to give a higher amount to someone who is dedicated to your building and less to those who are shared across the whole complex. It’s always good to carry spare red envelopes containing $20 in your bag, so you can hand them out to miscellaneous service staff like waiters, those who help you find cabs at hotels, etc.
You can also give lai see to your child’s tutors (especially Mandarin tutors, as they are likely to give your child a red packet too). It isn’t required for school teachers, but you can always send in two Mandarins, Pineapple Tarts, or Cookie Tins.
More Hong Kong Lai See Etiquette
- Never give money in odd numbers (it’s associated with funerals). Start with $10 and work upwards in multiples of 10. Some people even choose to give two red packets at a time, so if you want to give $40, you could give two packets of $20 each.
- Never give coins. Most people prefer to give new banknotes, which is why you see long lines outside banks, starting two weeks before CNY. Since 2005, the Hong Kong government has been encouraging the exchange of used, good-as-new notes instead, as it is more environmentally friendly.
- As you may have noticed in lifts and even with the numbering of buildings, numbers ending in four are considered unlucky. So you would never give $14, $24, etc. However, if you have followed the no-coins rule, there is no risk of going wrong here.
- When giving, express your blessings and well wishes to the receiver. Don’t forget to give with both hands as this is regarded as a sign of courtesy. The right moment is normally when you arrive at a host’s place or greet someone, not while leaving. Never let children give out lai see to older folk or service staff, as this is considered insulting.
- Just as while giving, receive your red packet (and teach your children to, as well) with both hands as a sign of courtesy. It is also impolite to open the envelope immediately to check the amount in front of the giver. If your little one has got lai see from one of your friends and you plan to give her child one as well, wait for a moment, so it doesn’t look like an exchange.
What To Say When Giving Lai See
If you are a teacher, you can say Hok Yip Jun Bo (wishing academic improvement), or another generic blessing for anyone is Sun Tai Kin Hong (wishing good health).
Of course, the most common blessing and greeting that you will hear throughout February is Kung Hei Fat Choy (good wishes, good fortune).
How Much Lai See To Give?
As mentioned earlier, this is dependent on individual relationships as well as each family’s financial situation. Immediate family members are typically given the most generous red packet amounts, followed by close relatives and friends, then distant friends and children of acquaintances and so on. Also, when giving to children, it makes sense to give older children (who are responsible for their own savings, pocket money and spending) a higher amount than a child who wouldn’t know the difference between two numbers anyway! Give what you’re comfortable with. If you do want a range of what is appropriate and expected, take a look at this handy chart. Click on the image to view the full graphic.
Now that you know exactly how to lai see like a local, from all of us at Sassy Mama, Kung Hei Fat Choy!
Read more: How To Raise Multicultural Kids In Hong Kong
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2020 by Anita Balagopalan and most recently updated by Jess Mizz in January 2022.