Chinese red envelopes

My husband’s business partner and his wife are having a baby this month.

They are Malaysian Chinese so I thought it would be nice to give the baby a red envelope, also known as ‘hongbao’. 

When visiting relatives in Singapore as a little girl, I knew them as ‘ang pao’ but it’s all the same thing.

You've probably worked  out that the red envelopes contain money.

In terms of etiquette:

  • An even sum is favoured
  • Avoid giving an amount with a 4 in it
  • Give notes of a single denomination, not coins. 

The tradition of giving red envelopes comes from the story of the evil spirit, Suì (祟)

Suì, a black form with colourless hands, tormented a village by sneaking into children’s bedrooms, touching them on the head as they slept leaving them ill or disabled. The parents of a boy from the village gave him coins wrapped in red paper to play with, to keep him awake for the New Year. Everyone fell asleep, including some fairies who came to protect the boy. When Suì entered the room and reached out to touch the boy’s head, the coins shone brightly, frightening Suì away. Words spread that the coins scared Sui away, and so parents put money in red paper.

My mum has a stack of them at home. If I’d planned a little better, I could have swiped one when I last visited.  Thieving ang pao is probably highly inauspicious so I looked for envelopes online. They all looked fine but I had no idea what the characters meant.

Remember when Chinese character tattoos were popular in the nineties and then it turned out that the Chinese characters which were meant to say ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Courage in the face of adversity’ actually said things like ‘Rice fried in pork fat’ and ‘Window Okay Beaver Tears’? 

I wanted to avoid a faux pas so I sent a picture to my Aunty Yian who checked that the envelope was appropriate.

The one I bought, at the top of the post, says happiness/good fortune. I was safe to proceed.

I thought it could be a fun craft project to make your own red envelopes, so here are my recommended supplies. I know the leather Aspinal envelope isn't part of the art and craft supply kit, but it was too cool an idea not to include. 


Dealing with ingratitude

‘There always will be homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, ravishers, sacrilegious traitors: worse than all these is the ungrateful man.’  - Seneca

It hurts when someone is ungrateful.

Story time: I gave an ex-boyfriend's mother some chocolates on meeting her for the first time. I thought long and hard about what to give her and then lost my mind. I ended up spending two hours and  £40 on chocolates from Fortnum and Masons (I know this is ridiculous, I was young and my mind wasn't fully developed)

When I handed the box to her she said: 'Oh, God. I really don't like these!' and then handed the box back to me

I could've cried. I can't remember if i did actually cry, but i do remember that hot burning feeling at the back of my throat, the kind of feeling you get before you're about to weep yourself into dehydration. 

She was (and still is presumably) exceptionally rude, there was no doubt about that. 

I couldn't change her behaviour, but I could certainly change mine. 

I came up with a tongue-in-cheek series of questions to help me deal with ingratitude. I will share them with you:

1.   How good was the gift?

The gold-standard of gift giving is donating an organ

The silver standard of giving a person is something they want

The bronze standard is giving someone something useful

Does your gift win any medals?

2.    Can I change the way I present gifts?

If you give gifts with great theatrical fanfare and make a spectacle of it, then it's likely that any response will disappoint you. If you give in a sensible, humble and quiet way, you are more likely to be satisfied by the response you get. 

3.    Should I stop giving this person a gift?

Know when to cut your losses. It’s difficult to know when to strike someone off your present list. Sit down and work out whether you have, on balance, spent more thought on them (in life, not just in the gift-giving arena) than they have on you. If that’s the case it’s not good enough! Cut them loose! 

If you feel that you have to give them a gift, asking them what they actually want could benefit you both.

And my final thought:

Don’t ruminate on ingratitude

After you’ve figure out your plan of action to either improve your gift-giving game or to cut someone loose, don’t think about the past. If you think about any negative past events too much, you’ll become depressed. Focus on the future.