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Cartons of mandarin oranges spread far and wide in every grocery store, signalling that Chinese New Year is upon us once again. As we step around the mountains of packet drinks, colourful cookies, and cheery red banners, there is one important item that only comes into play closer to the day itself. Ang baos (hong baos, ang paus or ang pows – however you may prefer to spell them) are little red packets containing a sum of money. The amount varies depending on the relationship between the giver and receiver. Many Chinese families practice this custom as giving out ang baos is a symbol of good luck.
Even though this tradition has existed for a long time, few actually know how the practice came about. Another question people have these days is: How much money should you put in the ang bao you give to someone? We try to answer these questions for you.
Chinese culture has always associated the colour red with good fortune and happiness, and many items such as clothes or decorations are often made in this colour. Legend has it that in ancient China, there was a beast called Nián who used to terrorise villagers on the first day of every year. One day, the villagers realised that Nián was afraid of the colour red, and they started using it to decorate their houses to keep the monster away. The colour is also used to keep the metaphorical monsters away during weddings, business openings, and other auspicious occasions.
China’s monsters must keep busy, as the act of giving an ang bao also has similar roots. Another demon named Sui used to bother children while they slept on New Year’s Eve, and in an attempt to keep them safe, parents would try to keep their children up all night. One year, a child was given some gold coins to play with but the child eventually fell asleep. Sui appeared as expected, but the coins produced a powerful light that drove the demon away. This is one of the reasons why children are given money in their ang bao.
Another significant feature of ang baos is that they always contain clean, crisp notes in even denominations. Odd numbers are usually associated with offerings during funerals and should be avoided as much as possible. If you are wondering whether you should brave the queues just for those new bank notes, the answer is yes. Fresh banknotes are important as they symbolise a new beginning and wealth in the new year. Old notes could be taken to mean that the receiver is unimportant to the giver, and will soon be forgotten.
The quick answer: it depends. There are a two main factors you should consider before deciding – your financial situation and your relationship with the recipient. Generally, the closer you are to this family member, the more you are expected to give. Married individuals are expected to give ang baos to their parents, grandparents, and all younger unmarried members of their family (siblings, cousins, etc.). Unmarried individuals who are already working are encouraged to give ang baos to their parents and grandparents as a token of appreciation, but do not need to do so for other people. Based on a vaguely unscientific survey of online sources (and some of our colleagues), here is a rough guide of how much we think you should give to a person depending on your relationship with them.
Now that you know the significance of giving an ang bao, along with an estimate of how much you should be giving (or receiving), the next step would be to get your new notes in the least troublesome manner possible. So far, only DBS and POSB have announced when their new and “good-as-new” notes will become available. Customers will be able to withdraw cash from Jan 29 to Feb 15 at POSB pop-up ATMS in 27 community clubs nationwide. They will be operational 24/7, but if there isn’t a location near you, notes can also be reserved online and collected at their full-service branches.
Now that you are armed with this knowledge, go forth and give! However, always remember that your financial health comes first, and you should only give as much as you can afford no matter who the recipient is. To those who are mostly still receiving, count your blessings and be sure to use those funds wisely to maximise their value.