All the deets for those of you who have ever been baffled by a red packet (AKA ang bao) on Chinese New Year…
If you’re new to Chinese New Year then you may not yet have encountered the ang bao: but you soon will! And once you do, you will need to navigate the minefield of how much to give (yes, ang bao contains money!), who to give it to and how to avoid major red packet faux pas situations. If you’re on the receiving end, this is definitely something you should look forward to every Chinese New Year (in addition to shopping for cute cheongsams and deciding where to eat out for your reunion dinner). So whether you’re a CNY newbie or a seasoned giver wading into the red packet exchange, here’s a quick ang bao 101 with all the red packet rules you need to know…
And psst – do book your appointment at the bank soon to reserve your fresh cash!
All the red packet (ang bao) rules you need to know
What is ang bao?
Ang bao is essentially a red envelope that contains a gift, AKA money. These red envelopes are often given at social and family gatherings, including weddings and holidays like Chinese New Year. The red colour of the envelope symbolises good luck and prosperity. It’s also believed to ward off evil spirits…
How much money should you put in an ang bao?
Ultimately, ang bao given is a sign of goodwill, so the amount you gift is totally up to you. It all depends on how close you are to the recipient, and nobody expects you to bust your bank balance trying to cram those red packets with cash you can’t afford to part with. The main thing is the gesture, not the amount. Generally, ang bao cash amounts range from $2 to $100 (but never with the number four, more on that later…) but only ever give what you feel comfortable giving.
What’s the story with fours and eights?
Any figure that includes the number four is a big no-no: it’s traditionally associated with death and misfortune (it sounds like the Chinese word “si”, which means death) and so best avoided! Eight is always a good bet as it’s seen as a lucky number (as it sounds like the Chinese word “fa”, which symbolises earning wealth), so often ang bao amounts are in denominations of eight. It’s also best to give in even numbers: the Chinese believe this to be auspicious, mostly because of the traditional saying “good things come in pairs”. So here are the big red packet rules in a nutshell: no fours, eights are awesome, and even numbers rule. Got it?
Is it a deal-breaker if you don’t use fresh notes?
In Chinese tradition, new things are always top of the requirement pile. This is why you’ll see everyone donning new threads and giving their homes a major spring clean just before the festivities. The same goes with red packet rules: when it comes to ang bao notes, most folks believe the crisper and newer, the better. Be prepared to queue though: the whole of Singapore will be lining up at the bank and ATM to get fresh notes! A good alternative would be fit-for-gifting notes, which are a lot more environmentally friendly.
Pro-tip: Bring snacks.
So is CNY just one huge ang bao swap?
If you’re single then you’ve got a ‘get out of ang bao-giving’ card. Traditionally, only married couples gift red packets, and kids and unmarried peeps are the ones who receive them. However, these days, it’s not uncommon to see elders who are single (aunts and uncles, grandaunts and granduncles) gifting red packets to younger unmarried members of the family.
What about the friendly security guard downstairs, or the cleaning auntie?
Here’s the ultimate red packet rule: ang bao giving is, first and foremost, about goodwill, so you don’t have to go OTT. They’re usually handed out to singletons and kids, but nothing is stopping you from giving ang baos to anyone who deserves a little appreciation. So if you want to give a small cash gift to your helper, bus auntie or the kindly uncle who always holds the lift door open for you, go for it. Spread the love! Alternatively, you can choose to gift them some snacks and mini hampers too.
Remember the final touches…
Give or receive red packets with both hands, and take note that it’s generally considered rude to tear into the ang bao in front of the giver (try explaining this to your excited kids when they are presented with their very first ang bao… sigh). And don’t forget to acknowledge the gift with your own well-wishes – a simple “Xin Nian Kuai Le (Happy New Year)” or “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (wishing you an abundance of fortune) will do the job.
So now you know. No more getting into a pickle with your red packets – you know the rules!
[This article was originally published in 2021 and updated in 2018 by Esther Chung.]