Tomorrow will be New Year’s Eve here in China, not that unimportant Western mini-festival that comes just after Christmas, but the Chinese New Year which is the biggest and most important event in China. And tomorrow I’ll be talking about the festival itself and all the history and excitement that entails, but today I want to talk about hong bao.
Hong bao, is the traditional present given by the Chinese to “children” during the Spring Festival (which is in fact what Chinese New Year is, in China). Children comes in quote marks because until you’re married, you’re still a child for this festival and that means you can collect hong bao throughout your bachelorhood even if you’re old enough to be someone else’s dad. You should also dole out hong bao to those who’ve served you well during the year, such as bar staff in your regular haunt or security in your building.
What is hong bao? It’s literally a red envelope, but as envelopes don’t make for exciting gifts anywhere in the world, the envelope should be stuffed with cash. How much cash? Not too little and not too much, is the universal guide given here which isn’t terribly helpful but is accurate nonetheless. Basically too little is a number that the recipient would consider insulting, so don’t start handing out 1 RMB notes in the city and expect people to love you for it. And too much is a number that would make the recipient indebted to you and thus resent you for your gift rather than appreciate it, base your gifts on roughly the salary you think that person would be earning and make sure it’s no more than a day’s pay(ish – see below).
As a security guard would normally earn around 1,500 RMB a month, 50 RMB is about right. But… you should give hong bao in multiples of 8 so that the money can be considered “lucky” and 40 RMB is no good, because 4 is the number of death (the Chinese word for four and death are the same with slightly different accentual pronunciation) so 80 RMB would be the right way to go, and 88 RMB would be even better.
Why security guards for my example? Well because in my building these guys aren’t very helpful for most of the year, they pretend to not see you when you are loaded down with bags and can’t open the door. They ignore me on my way in and out of the building, but this week they’ve been falling over themselves, in expectations of hong bao, to help me out. Well I’ve got some bad news for them 51 weeks of no service is not cancelled out by a week of butt kissing, so they are going to be sadly out of luck come the New Year.