Hongbao Etiquette 101

By the time January arrives, homes and businesses are imbued with red and gold, which in Chinese culture means “auspicious.” Everyone knows that means that Chinese New Year (CNY) is on its way!

Red envelopes, “Hongbao” in Mandarin and “Lai see” in Cantonese, are inevitable. Whether receiving or giving them, you always have to be tactical and perhaps a little shrewd. Red envelopes are like a magic mirror that reflects the true color of someone in six diverse personalities.

The Taker
Example: Kids (in theory).
Pí xiū, as a legendary beast in Chinese mythology, only has a way in and no way out, a symbol of capital accumulation and growing wealth. In China, kids always receive large sums of lucky money during CNY, which in many cases they should keep under their pillows the evening before Chinese New Year and hand over to their parents the next day.
Tips: Get married and make a baby or two sooner. They do cost you, so you feel less guilty keeping their lucky money.

The Chaser
Example: Everybody has the potential.
If you bump into an acquaintance on a street corner and he/she starts to say auspicious greetings to you and your family, get your red envelope at the ready. Or if possible, you should strike first by saying “gōng xǐ fā cái” or “gung hei faat coi,” even better with an eager look and a meaningful tone.
Tips: Practice makes perfectly cheeky. Try it out first on people that you don’t know very well or you don’t like very much.

The Exclusive
Example: People who are tired of counting gains and losses.
In China, when you offer a red envelope, it is courtesy for the receiver to hypocritically refuse at first and accept it at last. And when you receive a big red envelope, you are expected to return the favor in a way later. In a word, you have to handle all sorts of relationships, interests and so on. It can be dreadfully tiring. Except for those who have proven adept at playing the great power off each other, you should really put your foot down and stay out of the game.
Tips: A saying goes “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” you get it, right?

The Aggressor
Example: Young people, usually single.
It is a tradition in Guangdong to give red envelopes to people who are not yet married. Some natural leaders, highly motivated, will raise their arms and call followers for a thorough raid, aiming at married colleagues, supervisors, etc. In bigger companies with lots of departments, they can go epidemic.
Tips: Remove your wedding ring during CNY for the sake of your money.

The Giver
Example: Sicong Wong, heir to Wanda corporation.
Two years ago, he gave an enormous red envelope to Coco, his beloved dog—like a daughter to him—so that she could have fun chewing it later. The exact amount of money in it never came about. What we know is that the thickness of the stack of 100 RMB new bills was approximately two centimeters. Do an experiment at home if you are curious (and if you have enough 100 RMB bills to do so).
Tips: Elder relatives in the family always show this type of personality during CNY. Butter up buttercup!

The Thrifty
Example: Mother to son/daughter.
Mom: What have you been doing on your phone all this time? (Translated to “Move your lazy ass and help me in the kitchen.”)
Me: Oh, I am trying to grab as many red packets as possible on my WeChat.
Mom: How much can you get?
Me: It depends. Sometimes 2 or 3 RMB, sometimes nothing if you are not fast enough.
Mom: Okay, I will give you 10 RMB. Go and do the dishes.
Tips: Play on your phone with your headset on and pretend you can’t hear your mother at all.