Red packets of joy

ONE thing about Chinese New Year that children love is the hongbao (red packets) they collect and tote up at the end of the day. It is also a time for parents to get crisp dollar notes from the banks to stuff into the hongbao.

Mrs Rosalind Koh says her hongbao-giving etiquette has been honed over many years by watching what her elders did.

The mother of three girls recalls: "My grandmother and mum used to give one hongbao to the elders before Chinese New Year for them to buy new clothes and another during Chinese New Year itself. I learnt from them. this amounts to about $400 for each elder."

She says that her mother had never received any hongbao as a child as she was born during the Japanese occupation. Her first hongbao was from her employer and she treasures this tradition very much.

Mrs Koh usually sets aside over $4,000 for six elderly relatives, her own kids and the children of friends and relatives. For her nine-month-old daughter Cherish, it will be $50 extra in her first hongbao.

"In my time," recalls Mrs Koh, "I always rejoiced when I received $10."

For her children, she debated with her husband on whether they should present one hongbao or two separate ones. As a child, he used to receive one hongbao from each parent. the Kohs eventually decided to give one hongbao to each daughter. "And we also agreed not to give more than $50 until the girls are much older," she says.

For close relatives, she would give $12 to each one of them and those who are single get a bit more.

Another parent who is careful to observe this parity is Ms Clara Heng, a mother of two.

The businesswoman says how much one puts in the hongbao is not a reflection of one's wealth but a formality. She believes in reciprocating with giving back the same amount or slightly more.

She gives more money to those who are "less well-off and who are well-behaved".

The minimum hongbao that one is expected to give is $6, says Ms Heng.

The amount for children of friends varies between $12 and $28 depending on how close they are socially.

For elderly folk, it would be "hundreds" of dollars.

For people with small families , like that of Ms Siak Siew May, a media consultant in her 30s, Chinese New Year is a time to enjoy her mum's cooking.

She says: "My in-laws don't live in Singapore.

I don't have nieces or nephews as my brothers are not married. And my mother told me upfront she prefers online transfers of her hongbao."

For her son and daughter, aged three and five, and a few relatives, Ms Siak's hongbao budget amounts to $1,000.

When it comes to receiving hongbao, the children are reminded to present two tangerines to their elders and say "thank you" when receiving their red packets.

They are also taught not to open the red packers in front of the giver.

Ms Siak says her children's collection goes straight to the household budget while Ms Heng gives her children a choice of whether to save or spend the money.

For the Kohs, their kids will be making a trip to the bank.

"All of it goes to their saving accounts," says Mrs Koh. "they love queuing up and getting a small token from the bank for saving money."

Ms Heng, with her children Iason, eight, and Alyssa, six, says how much one gives is not a reflection of one's wealth but a show of formality.

Li xi, lai see, ang pow = money

The practice of giving hongbao (red packets) is prevalent among Chinese communities all over the world. It is given to children and unmarried people to wish them luck for the Chinese New Year.

People are also expected to honour elderly relatives with hongbao during the festive period. Some also present red packets to their employees such as drivers and domestic helpers.

The Vietnamese call the red packet li xi, much like the Cantonese pronunciation lai see in Hong Kong. The Chinese in Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines prefer the Hokkien term ang pow.