Chinese New Year traditions include fireworks, housecleaning, shou sui (the post-New Year feast), lanterns, and lai see, the little red envelopes that are traditionally given as gifts on this holiday.
It's an age-old custom recognized and still practiced by the people of China, but also East Asian and Southeast Asian populations. The little red envelopes (or packets, if you'd rather) can also be given during weddings, graduations, and after the birth of a baby. You can typically find them at any street stall or kiosk in China or Chinatowns in Western cities leading up to Chinese New Year in February or early March.
What are Lai See?
Lai see are little red envelopes with gold writing. They must be these colors, as they signify prosperity and good luck. Lai see always contain money.
The envelopes are sold in packs all over Hong Kong, including the Mongkok Ladies Market, and in Chinatowns around the world. The giver and the recipient are both believed to gain good luck from the exchange.
Who Receives Lai See?
As a general rule of thumb, lai see are given by a senior to a junior. For example, a boss to his employee, parents to children, and (in a Chinese twist) from married couples to single friends.
In Hong Kong, it's typical to give a small gift to the doorman of your building, or to a waiter at a restaurant that you frequent. If you were the boss of a company, the staff would be expecting lai see as Americans would a Christmas bonus.
Even outside of China, the people who run your neighborhood Chinese takeaway restaurant might appreciate a small lai see. This is pretty much guaranteed to bring you excellent service in the New Year. Similarly, giving lai see to service staff at other Chinese-run businesses (laundries, medicine shops, and the like) would be a nice gesture.
How Much Should You Give?
Lai see amounts vary wildly depending on the giver and the recipient. There is no hard and fast rule. $100 HKD ($13 USD) is standard for doormen and waiters. Bosses, parents, and couples giving to single friends are generally expected to give a little more.
The money should be given in a single note, not multiple, and should certainly never contain coins. The notes used should also be new, and Hong Kongers often queue at the bank for hours in the days leading up to Chinese New Year to obtain fresh notes. The custom is said to show that the gift was planned and thought about, rather than a few last-minute notes pulled from a wallet.
It’s also worth noting for visitors to Hong Kong, specifically, that the Cantonese word for four sounds like the Cantonese word for death, so $40 and $400 HKD are actually considered to be bad luck. The total money given should be an even number, not an odd one, as odd numbers are for funerals.