Lai See in red envelopes are the traditional gifts for Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, but also in Chinatowns around the world. The tradition, like many Chinese New Year traditions, can be a little complicated. So here's a blow-by-blow account of what Lai See are and how to give these red envelopes during Chinese New Year. You can usually pick up these small red envelopes from the stalls that spring up in Chinatowns during the run-up to Chinese New Year.
What are Lai See?
Lai See are small red and gold envelopes containing money and are given at Chinese New Year. The envelopes must be red and gold as these signify prosperity and good luck. Packets of dedicated Lai See envelopes can be bought all over Hong Kong, including the Mongkok Ladies Market, and in Chinatowns around the world. The giver and the recipient are believed to gain good luck from the exchange of Lai See.
Who Receives Lai See?
The general rule of thumb with Lai See is that it’s given from a senior to a junior. For example, a boss to his employee, parents to children, and, in a solidly Chinese twist, from married couples to single friends.
In Hong Kong, it's usual to give a small gift to the doorman of your building, or to a waiter at a restaurant that you use regularly. If you’re boss of a company, staff will be expecting Lai See and you should find someone who can advise you on the firm's past Lai See payments.
Outside Hong Kong, those who regularly eat at a Chinese-run Chinese restaurant will find their waiter thoroughly appreciative of a small Lai See package. This is a good way to bag yourself excellent service for the next year. Similarly, giving Lai See to service staff at other Chinese-run businesses, such as laundries or medicine shops, can ensure you first rate service over the coming twelve months.
How Much Should I Give in the Red Envelope?
Lai See amounts vary wildly depending on who is the giver and the recipient. There is no hard and fast rule. HK$100 ($13) for doormen and waiters is fine. 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 in multiple notes and should certainly never contain any coins. The notes used should also be new, and Hong Kongers often queue at the bank for hours in the days up 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 that the Cantonese word for four sounds like the Cantonese word for death, so HK$40 or HK$400 are considered bad luck. The total money given should also be an even number, not an odd one, as odd numbers are for funerals. So, HK$100, not HK$105.