Whether you'll be spending the Chinese New Year in China, in your city's Chinatown, or at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, bringing along a gift for someone (especially if that someone is Chinese) is a nice gesture. Like Christmas in Western cultures, Chinese New Year is a time for exchanging presents, often in the form of little red envelopes called hóngbāo. If you can't find these, there are plenty of other creative gifts you can bring to the party.
What Is Traditional?
The most traditional Chinese New Year gift is the one given to children (plus employees and inferiors of all sorts) in the form of a little red envelope called hóngbāo. These gifts are identified by the gold Chinese writing on the front, and typically contain a small amount of money inside. You could even give them to the waiter at your regular Chinese restaurant for bonus points.
Otherwise, there aren't really "traditional" Chinese New Year gifts. The main idea is to spend time with family. Many Chinese people will travel long distances to eat, drink, stay up too late, and argue with their family members. Much like Thanksgiving in the U.S., the main focus is mainly on food. Chinese families will prepare their New Year meal for many days.
What to Bring Your Hosts
Again, think food and drink. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it'll look festive if you wrap it up in a gift box with some red paper and gold trimmings, the traditional way.
- Alcohol: If you know your hosts drink, then bring a bottle of something quality like a festive fermented sweet rice wine.
- Tea: Tea has a special place in Chinese culture, and even if your hosts aren’t Chinese, tea seems to be a universal language. Loose tea is better than bagged if you can get your hands on it.
- Sweets: Sweets are a widely accepted gift for any holiday, pretty much anywhere in the world. Either make something yourself or gift something that can be shared with family.
- Fruit: Fruit baskets are a ubiquitous symbol of Chinese New Year (around the streets of Shanghai, at least). Bonus points for imported exotic fruits wrapped up with a big red ribbon.
- Flowers: The flower markets in China during this time of year are bursting with special arrangements. Small orange or kumquat trees are very traditional as are flowering plum and other shrubs. Bamboo is thought to bring luck in the new year and orchids are popular as well.
- Hóngbāo: If you'll be around Chinese children during the Spring Festival (another name for Chinese New Year), then you should bring along hóngbāo, too. A small amount of money packaged up in the traditional envelope is good enough, but the Chinese appreciate it if it comes in the form of crisp new bills (no coins). This shows that you've put thought into the gift, and have maybe even gone to the bank beforehand, rather than merely discarding your old pocket change.