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Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA)

350 million banknotes worth HK$10 billion: Hong Kong's love affair with lai see cash 

The holiday creates demand for about 350 million banknotes worth almost HK$10 billion every year

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 1:13pm

Despite the popularity of credit cards and mobile payments, people in Hong Kong stick to cash for lai see packets. 

This contributes to a demand for about 350 million banknotes worth almost HK$10 billion (US$1.28 billion) just within the two weeks before Lunar New Year every year, according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. 

What is changing is that some bank customers are willing to accept notes that are not newly printed, with about half ready to accept used banknotes in good condition for their lai see packets.

“Since 2006, the HKMA has been advocating the use of good-as-new notes for lai see because of environmental concerns. Thanks to the support of the public and the note-issuing banks, the share of good-as-new notes issued in the run-up to each Chinese New Year has increased from 20 per cent in 2006 to about 45 per cent in recent years,” said an authority spokeswoman. 

HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China (Hong Kong), the city’s three note-issuing banks, said they have recorded an increase in the number of people using good-as-new notes for lai-see, a practice that is more environmentally friendly.

To meet the demand for currency notes, many banks extend opening hours about two weeks ahead of Lunar New Year for customers, who queue up to exchange old notes for new ones. Senior members of families give lai see packets to children and unmarried people as a way of giving them blessings.

Most companies and senior management also give lai see packets to their staff as a blessing on their first day back at work after the Lunar New Year break.

Making new banknotes for lai see is not environmental friendly as it requires 532 tonnes of cotton to produce 400 million banknotes, which occupy 666 cubic metres of storage space – enough to fill 26 20-foot containers, according to statistic provided by the monetary authority. 

With more people now accepting used banknotes in good condition, the need for printing new banknotes has been cut by 45 per cent, or about 160 million pieces, saving more than 200 tonnes of cotton as a result.

Since 2006, the HKMA has been advocating the use of good-as-new notes for lai see because of environmental concerns
HKMA spokeswoman

Banks have also developed electronic lai see for clients. HSBC just launched a lai see feature in its PayMe app, which allows users to send red packets with personal messages. The Bank of East Asia was the first in Hong Kong to launch electronic lai see, called i-Laisee, before Lunar New Year in 2016. But these have done little to lower demand for banknotes.

“The demand for banknotes for lai see packets is strong and similar to previous years,” said a spokeswoman for Bank of East Asia. She said HK$20 banknotes were the most popular. 

“Although the trend of using i-Laisee is increasing each year and we foresee more and more people, especially tech-savvy customers, using i-Laisee, it is still too early to say it could replace the traditional lai see packet,” she said.

“Although an increasing number of people are distributing electronic lai see, physical lai see with banknotes of HK$20 or HK$50 in red packets remains a popular Chinese traditional practice. We do not see electronic lai see replacing physical lai see any time soon,” said a Bank of China (Hong Kong) spokeswoman.