Get those red packets ready so you can Lai See like a local! Chinese New Year is upon us and that means red envelopes need to be given (and received!). Our kids might be eagerly anticipating their red packets, but as parents making sure to follow proper lai see etiquette can be fraught. Sassy Mama’s got you covered with all your red packet do’s and don’ts.
Whether you call them lai see, red packets, or red envelopes (or go for the traditional term, Hongbao), you’ll need to know the rules around this Chinese New Year tradition. These little envelopes are usually red (for luck), as the name red packet suggests, and contain money. It’s a time when kids can use their lai see money to 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.
Lai See Red Packet Traditions 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, red packets 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 red envelopes to his or her older, married helpers. The amount of lai see given in red packets is largely dependent on the closeness of the relationship between the giver and receiver.
Read More: Things To Do With Your Kids This Month
Red Packets And Lai See For Service Providers
Helpers and secretaries receive a larger amount in their red packets 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 in a red packet will do. You may choose to give a higher lai see amount to someone who is dedicated to your building and less in your red envelopes to those who are shared across the whole complex.
It’s always good to carry spare red packets containing $20 in your bag, so you can hand the lai see 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).
Giving Red Packets — More Hong Kong Lai See Etiquette
- Never give money in odd numbers (it’s associated with funerals). Start with red packets containing $10 and work upwards in multiples of 10. Some people even choose to give two red envelopes at a time, so if you want to give $40, you could give two lai see with $20 each.
- Never give coins. Most people prefer to give red packets containing 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 in lai see red envelopes 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 or $24 in red envelopes. However, if you have followed the no-coins rule, there is no risk of going wrong here, just avoid lai see with $40 or $400.
- When giving, express your blessings and well wishes to the receiver. Don’t forget to give your lai see with both hands as this is regarded as a sign of courtesy. The right moment to give your red packets 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 red envelope immediately to check the lai see 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 a red packet as well, wait for a moment, so it doesn’t look like an exchange.
Chinese Red Packets — What To Say When Giving Lai See
If you are a teacher, you can say Hok Yip Jun Bo (wishing for academic improvement), or another generic blessing for anyone is Sun Tai Kin Hong (wishing for good health).
Of course, the most common blessing when giving red packets, and a greeting that you will hear throughout the holiday is Kung Hei Fat Choy (good wishes, good fortune).
Lai See — How Much To Give In A Red Packet?
How much to give in a red packet is completely 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 lai see to children, it makes sense to give older children (who are responsible for their own savings, pocket money and spending) a higher amount in their red packets than a child who wouldn’t know the difference between two numbers anyway!
Give what you’re comfortable with in your red packets. If you do want a range of what is appropriate and expected in red envelopes, 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!
Editor’s note: “Lai See: The Etiquette Of Giving Red Packets And Red Envelopes In Hong Kong” was most recently updated by Jess Mizz in December 2023.