Of Ang Pows and Oranges…




The article below was contributed by Sharon Tan:


One of my fondest memories as a kid was Chinese New Year.

What’s not to love? Non-stop feasting, red packets, and celebrating over various days with friends and family!

But this time, it’s different. This is my first year of festivities as a married woman, and yes, that means having to give out ang baos (red packets) instead of receiving them. Talk about a huge transition!

I’ve often heard married couples (my own parents included) lamenting how difficult it is to decide how much to pack, but l’ve never really been able to empathise with them.

Until now, that is!

For starters, there are so many guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Only new notes should be used.
  • Avoid odd number amounts as these are typically associated with bai jin (money that the Chinese give during funerals).
  • Red packets typically range from $2 to $100, depending on the recipient’s relations with you and their family rank.
  • Amounts with the digit ‘8’ are preferable.

And then just a couple of days ago, I overheard a fellow commuter on the MRT telling his friend that “The market rate for red packets has increased from $4 to $8 already. Whoever gives $4 these days is super giam siap lor.” (giam siap is “stingy” in Hokkien)

Gone were the days when it was common to receive $2!

Anyway, I went home that night and diligently conducted some research on forums and websites to see if there was a rate card lying around which provides some directions for first-timers like me.

While there isn’t anything specific, some general pointers I came across were:

  • The value of red packets in ascending order is: non-related children, nieces/nephews, cousins, younger siblings, parents (as a form of respect).
  • Set aside 15 to 20 extra red packets (with $4 and $8) in the event of surprise visitors. Use different red packet designs to denote the two different values.
  • Set aside anything from 25% to 50% of your monthly salary for red packets, depending on how generous can be.

It’s interesting to see how a tradition passed down from our ancestors – the red packet is seen as a form of blessing being passed on from one generation to the next – has evolved to a type of social obligation to impress others and/or save face.

There’s always the constant struggle between trying to avoid burning a huge hole in your pockets versus giving enough to avoid looking like a scrooge.

Who exactly is responsible for deciding what the market rate is? Is it merely the economic conditions at play? Should there be a distinction between the acceptable amounts in a red packet given out by a dual-income family versus another supported by a sole breadwinner? How about those who are in-between jobs? Or young couples who just got married and are in debt? Are there any concessions given to these groups of people or is the market rate across the board?

These may seem like unreasonable questions to ask, but more often than not I’ve heard stories of children opening up their red packets and complaining that they only received a “measly” $2!

Desperate to resolve my upcoming Chinese New Year crisis, I roped in my colleagues over lunch to gather their thoughts.

“I usually just give my nieces and nephews $4. It’s not like they will openly complain when I’m around so I’m not so bothered,” said R.

“How about issuing a template for calculating market rates,” offered QT. “So say we have a base rate of $8, and then different loading factors for each scenario. If you stay in a HDB 5-room flat but your husband is retrenched, then your red packet amount should be $8 x 1 x 0.5; and then someone else who stays in a private property with dual-income stream will pack $8 x 1.5 x 1.2.”

Not only was that mathematically challenging, it goes back to the same question of who will determine what the base rate and the appropriate weight should be for every possible scenario.

At the end of the day, I guess there is no right answer to my question of what the acceptable red packet rate should be.

I guess it’s up to us, the older generation, to educate the younger ones on the real meaning of this tradition; just like Christmas is not only about food and presents, Chinese New Year shouldn’t be all about the monetary value of red packets.

Share your thoughts!

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