Lunar New Year
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A rough guide to lai see

I-ching Ng

MOST OF US will probably notice an absurd syndrome in the run up to the Lunar New Year. Everybody in town is transformed - suddenly addressing each other in a polite and friendly way, to far more effect than any Hong Kong Tourist Association campaign to put cheesy welcoming grins on local faces.

There is no escape. The cleaners who have not uttered a word all year, always sweeping in silence, have suddenly discovered their tongues and taken to greeting all and sundry. The normally taciturn security guards in apartment blocks enthusiastically hold doors open and obligingly press lift buttons for residents.

You are probably surprised by this rapid transformation in human nature. The change is not difficult to explain: they are all after the little red packet in your pocket. What all these eager beavers are chasing is lai see, which means 'everything to your advantage'.

And no one is immune, especially Hong Kong's richest people. An employee at Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling observes a bizarre phenomenon when tycoon Li Ka-shing pays his regular visit to the club every Lunar New Year. His lai see largesse is legendary. 'Mr Li's generosity is remarkable. While other stingy tycoons only offer $20 lai sees, he will give huge amounts to anybody who greets him,' says the young man, a server at the club's cafe. Without doubt, all the golf club staff are eagerly anticipating the big boss' arrival that day. According to the young man's eyewitness account, Li is likely this year, as always, to take a walk around the grounds. He can expect to be surrounded by unctuous crowds wherever he goes.

First stop will be the security guards who will await him at the car park, then he will see the receptionists who handle his bookings. As Li makes his way to the restaurant for yum cha, the waiters and waitresses will form a human barrier and surround him, all anxious to have a share of his wealth. Security guards and receptionists usually get the largest amount, $1,000, says the cafe server, down to $500 for waiting staff and the $200 he expects.

The young server works at the cafe near the golf course - a strategically disadvantaged location. 'You see, it takes nearly 4.5 hours to play a round of the game,' he explains. 'Mr Li will probably come round to my place for a snack only during the break time in the middle. It may be too late by then - others may have already got his lai see.'

It's relatively simple for someone as rich as Li - everyone expects a handout. But for the rest of us the dilemma is how much lai see to offer during Lunar New Year.

Are we supposed to give the red packets only to relatives and close friends or should we extend our generosity to every vague acquaintance we meet in the street who should happen to chant, 'Kung Hei Fat Choi'? The problem starts even before we leave home and get to the office - should we tip the doormen with the red packets?

According to custom, a married person is entitled to offer red envelopes stuffed with money during the festive period as a gesture of good fortune for the coming year. Children and singles will therefore be at your mercy.

Many Westerners who have recently arrived in the SAR often find it confusing when it comes to giving out this money, especially when people suddenly start hovering round expectantly.

The idea of offering money during Lunar New Year is similar to bestowing Christmas gifts in Western culture. There is also a deeper meaning to the gesture, according to China scholar Professor Joseph Bosco, an anthropologist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

'In offering gifts, people can define their social relationships,' he says. 'Especially when we come to consider to whom and what we should give. Gift-offering is a universal ritual to strengthen social ties.'

Centuries ago in China, New Year's money was given in the form of 100 copper coins strung together on a red string. It symbolised longevity - the hope that one would live to be 100 years old.

Nowadays, the money is placed inside red envelopes in denominations considered auspicious and which represent wealth and luck.

Lai see is distributed during the first 15 days of Lunar New Year, which this year starts on Wednesday, January 24. The ritual is brought to an end at the Lantern festival on the 15th day afterward - February 7 according to the Western Gregorian calendar.

Bosco also offers a clue as to why money is the chosen token. The practice could date back to a cultural change in ancient China, when the currency changed from goods to money. 'Since the Sung Dynasty [960AD-1279AD], most social relations were defined in monetary terms, for example, buying labour in the slave trade with money.'

Our ancestors were indeed shrewd - because money is always an acceptable gift. Using a red envelope would be a modern and more subtle measure to conceal the exact amount.

The origins of lai see also date back to the historic tradition that debts had to be settled before a new year commenced. It was common for a debt collector to pursue his clients with the aid of a lantern right up to the midnight hour of New Year's Eve. Offering money, therefore, was a way to help others replenish their cash supplies so they would have enough to pay their debts.

So how much should you offer? The amount is discretionary, but many Hong Kongers prefer the 'soft' envelope, which contains only bills, believing it will be worth more than the 'hard' coin ones. So never stuff any coins in the packets although the jingling sound may be appealing.

The standard starting point will thus be $20, as the $10 bills, known as 'green crabs' among locals, are now scarce.

Five-hundred-dollar notes are nicknamed 'big cows' for example, $1,000 notes are 'golden bulls' and $20 notes are known as 'rainbow trout'.

The green crabs were withdrawn in 1994, to be replaced by the new $10 coins.

However, the popularity of the smallest possible denomination of folding money over coinage in lai see packets leads to an annual surge in the number of green crabs after Lunar New Year because people have hoarded them. Many smart householders started their collection of $10 notes before they even went out of circulation for the sole purpose of lai see giving.

According to a spokesperson from HSBC, there are still piles of $10 bills stored in banks, but that is where they will stay. In spite of the demand at this time of year, they are kept but not re-circulated again.

If you have not been astute enough to plan your lai see budget ahead, you can still buy the $10 note at $15 each in antiquarian markets and philatelic stores in Hollywood Road, Central and Tsuen Fung Centre, Tsuen Wan.

Lunar New Year is the jackpot time for children as parents will give lavishly to their own offspring, in the range of $300-$1,000.

It's not unknown for some sneaky mums and dads to volunteer to save up the entire fortune accumulated from the festive period for their sons and daughters, in order to fund their own lai see expenses.

It is also customary to offer lai see to your staff, whether you are married or not. For the big bosses, how much you offer is discretionary, but you are encouraged to give generously, as some Chinese workers tend to treat it as a bonus in return for a year's service.

As a rough guide, $20-$50 will be fine for the junior staff at your workplace and your security guards and cleaners. For the senior personnel and close unmarried friends (including divorcees), it is wise to offer $50-$200.

The Chinese observe the rule of equality, so they will offer the same amount of lai see to your children as you gave theirs.

The practice varies for Chinese from different places. Perhaps they may not be as generous as their Taiwanese counterparts who are reputed to give out lavish 'Hung Pao', as lai see is called there. The minimum for each envelope is NT$3,000 (HK$715) and the scale varies according to the economic performance of the previous year. But such privilege is only restricted to close relatives who are unmarried and have no income.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has just announced his large-scale red packets project. The president will spend NT$1 million on his lai see this year as he visits his home town in Tainan county where some 10,000 red packets will be offered to his fellow villagers, it was reported by Central News Agency.

Unfortunately, there is no orthodox guide on the custom of lai see. The practice of lai see giving not only varies for ethnic Chinese from different parts of China, but it is also influenced by changes in society.

Bosco has noted how the ancient custom has been adapted in the modern world. Lai see is usually offered during home visits. But he found many local teenagers have resorted to a pragmatic way of collecting the red packets. Instead of visiting every one of their relatives, the youngsters will ask their parents to make the trips and do the lengthy chatting. Meanwhile, they spend the time at games arcades and cinemas while their parents bring back their money packets.

Another unusual trend in Hong Kong is for some people to gather all their relatives and make one trip together to whomever has the most spacious apartment or is the most respected among them. This utilitarian approach must be unique to Hong Kong.

As our lives get busier, perhaps the custom will soon go hi-tech. We may be able to construct a virtual relative visit in the cyber world and ask relatives to deposit the lai see directly into our bank accounts.

But I still miss the days in my childhood when I woke up and discovered the red packets under my pillow at the dawn of New Year's day. The air was permeated with warmth and friendliness as we children kowtowed and greeted each generation of family members, renewing the amicable relationship in the household.