Hongbao, or red packets, are traditionally handed out by married couples to their parents, single adults and children during the Chinese New Year celebrations as tokens of good fortune and blessing. There is said to be no rule in terms of the amount that should go into a hongbao, as the act of giving a red packet is meant to be a gesture of blessing and not a transaction.
According to Chinese tradition, good things come in pairs, so an even number is preferred. You won’t go wrong with the number eight, as the number sounds like prosperity in Mandarin. Don’t give $4, as it is the Chinese homonym for death.
Dr Kang Ger-Wen, course chair for Chinese Studies in Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Humanities and Social Science, says that in the olden days in China, people would put coins into hongbao without notes. That was because coins were valuable to people then, before paper notes came about. These days, however, he has seen that it is no longer a custom to put coins into a hongbao.
Associate Professor Lim Lee Ching, vice-dean at the School of Human Development and Social Services at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, says there are no rules against putting coins into a hongbao. He adds that when the gold-coloured $1 coins were first introduced in the 1980s, there was much excitement and people would use them in hongbao because the coin’s colour and its octagonal inset were considered auspicious. He says there are no rules against putting old notes into a hongbao either.
Customarily, people do prefer new notes, which accompany the idea of spring and renewal. However, Prof Lim says if we think back to the origins of hongbao – which were first given by parents in China to their children in the form of coins – there were no banks minting new coins just to meet such demands.
On whether a Toto lucky draw ticket can be inserted into a hongbao in place of physical money, Dr Kang says it’s perfectly acceptable.
In the event that the receiver of the hongbao wins money from the lucky draw, it will be viewed that the sum won was from the giver of the hongbao.