Chinese New Year Customs

It’s almost the Year of the Pig! To help you navigate through the festivities this Chinese New Year (CNY), I’ve put together a handy guide for you to help you get involved without stepping on any toes.

🧧 Red Packets

Called 利是 (lai see; means good luck) in Cantonese or 紅包 (hong bao; literally means red packet) in Mandarin, these little red envelopes stuffed with cash are given by elders to the younger and employers to the staff as a blessing as they wish each other with four-character blessings for good luck.

Who gives and gets them?

There are three main criteria for this red packets giving thing. You give them out if you are: married, someone’s boss, plus the combination of whether you are older than the other person.

Parents give children (theirs or not) red packets. Bosses give them out. Tenants give them to security guards and cleaners. Customers give them to hairdressers or waiters if you have a relationship with them (say if they’ve personally served you for a while and are younger than you), or if they’ve really done an amazing job. Think of it as tipping people who have been helpful to you, but you don’t have to feel like you need to give it to complete strangers unless you are really keen on showing off your wealth. For a clearer representation, I’ve prepared a flow chart for you!

*Age and your marital status really plays into this. Unless you are related, when you give a red packet to another person, it sets the tone of your patron/server or boss/worker relationship. So be mindful when you offer a red packet to someone who is older than you are. If it’s a cleaner or security guard, it’s still okay to offer a red packet like a tip. But say, if you’re at a nice salon where your hairdresser is only a little older than you are (peer-ish relationship) and gets paid quite well, it’d be a slap in their face when you offer them a red packet. Unfortunately, the whole consideration of whether you should offer a red packet to someone older who serves you is based on a social class consideration.

These days, many single but successful people or those in senior positions would still offer red packets. Perhaps the nutshell judgment guide is: would this person call you “boss”? If yes, give it.

So what if someone who doesn’t need to give it to me… gives it to me?

Just politely say thank you and accept it. It’s cash after all.

What do I do when someone gives me a red packet?

Firstly, say thank you, then pick one (or a few) of the gazillion lucky wishes to flood them in good fortune. Here are a few commonly used ones:

In Canto:
恭喜發財 – gong hei faat choi (wishing you great fortune – we all love this one and this is a must to include)
身體健康 – sun tai geen hong (wishing you good health)
心想事成 – sum seung si sing (have whatever your heart desires)
萬事如意 – man see yu yi (may millions of things go as you desire)
生意興隆 – saang yee hing lung (wishing you good business)

Wait, so how does it all go down?

In CNY, Chinese people go to their elders’ houses to 拜年 (bai neen; CNY house visit) where they bring a gift as we would when we visit someone’s house for a meal. Depending on whether the elders have the red packets ready, (these days people are quite chill can this can wait until everyone has settled down) the younger ones would go to the elders (knowing that they’re ready to pass out the red packets so it doesn’t seem like you’re rushing them to give you money) and shower them with blessings. In return, the elders would offer them a red packet (two would mean it’s from a married couple) and blessings too. After this, you’re free to run off to enjoy the festivities.

When do I get to open the red packets?

Definitely NOT right away, in front of the person who just gave it to you. Honestly, no one gives a shit when you open them when you’re out of the giver’s sight, but some people say the 7th day of the CNY as that’s 人日 (people day; i.e. everyone’s birthday), or after the 15th day of the CNY as that’s the last day the festivities.

What is 拜年, this CNY house visit thing?

Typically, families go to elder relatives’ houses, say, grandparents, to visit, wish everyone well, and to reconnect. The host would have a meal or CNY snacks ready, and the guests should always bring gifts. One gift per family or couple is acceptable. The gifts are usually edible, so this explains why supermarkets are so insane over this season. People typically bring cookies, chocolates, or even some CNY snacks like turnip cake, but these days people aren’t too fussed, and if you brought wine and fruits people are just as happy about it.

CNY house visits aren’t only restricted to families, friends and colleagues do the same and it’s usually more fun! People would just sit around, eat lots (think Thanksgiving), play games, and just talk.

Do I have to wear red?

Why not red? It’s good fun to be a part of the culture. The color red in Chinese culture represents prosperity but again, these days, people in Hong Kong aren’t too fussed. Don’t feel like you need to go out and buy something red just to survive the season – it’s just festive. On the contrary, if you’re meeting your s/o’s family or anyone who might be more traditional, I’d recommend against wearing too many dark colors or all black as Chinese people may see that as bad luck during this festive season. If you’re just out shopping minding your own business though, no one’s going to be offended.

What are these animal things?

The Chinese lunar calendar has one animal assigned to each year, rotating on a chart of twelve animals which include: mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, chicken, dog, pig (and then we’re back to mouse). A little like the zodiacs!

What else do I need to know?

Chinese traditions are steeped in superstition, so here are a few tips for you:

Don’t clean or sweep the floor on the first couple of days of CNY.

Get your sweeping, mopping, and big cleaning done before it’s the new year, as Chinese people believe luck and fortune comes to your house in the new year and you don’t want to sweep that juicy stuff away. Doing dishes etc is fine, and for practical reasons, you’ll wound up having to clean a bit. And honestly, this is superstition so you don’t have to live by it.

Why’s that character “福” displayed up-side-down?

“福” (fuk) is the character for fortune, and “倒” (dou) is the character for up-side-down and sounds the same as “arrive”. So an up-side-down “福” represents fortune arriving.

Watch what you say.

Superstition, right? Any talk about death, separation, illnesses etc. would be frown upon – the same way we would steer clear of depressing topics during whatever festive seasons we celebrate.

I’m still kind of worried I’ll mess this up.

Don’t worry too much and just be humble about the whole experience. Again, these days people in Hong Kong are quite relaxed about traditions, so it’s only if you’re meeting your s/o’s elders or business contacts that you need to be a bit more cautious. Even so, Chinese people generally love it when foreigners try to take part in our festivities, so do your best and to be safe, give us a heads up that you don’t know what you’re doing. Although, if you look ethnically different, we’d have done the math in our heads and would appreciate that you’re trying!

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