Monday, February 9, 2009

Chinese New Year - The Undefined Part of Customs

Ang Pao = Red Packets
Red Packets or Ang Pao is money wrapped in red envelope and given by married people to those not married during Chinese New Year. During the 15 days of Chinese New Year (which for this year started on the 26th Jan and just ended today) children will have every right to go house to house to collect red packets (somewhat like the American version of trick-or-treat during Halloween), but in modern times children are restricted to friends houses only.

When being on the receiving end, it's definitely fun and more often than not, for those on the giving end, it's not that all fun. This year I'm still on the receiving end and next year would be my last. So this year, I had a little 'tutorial' lesson from the great giver - Mommy. It was then I realized the hassle she has to go through to get these red packets ready. First was to the banks to exchange new notes and ask for red packets from the bank clerk. Most banks in the Klang Valley are rather stingy and they have a limit for each customers because of the large customer base there. Unlike in small places where it's the banker who gave me red packets without being asked and she even asked if I needed new notes! Two weeks prior to CNY my mom was basically on a red packet collecting spree as she needed to have different patterns for different nominations and made sure there was enough for herself and my grandma. Second is the sorting part. It's a good thing my mom kept a book listing the numbers of red packets she have gave to in the past years and the amount received by us kids. So there's her reference to how much she has to pack again this year. And finally the packing part where the more relatives you have the longer you'll be packing.

In most cases red packets are given as a willing gesture to those unmarried. But what happens to people like myself where I'm married thus should no longer be receiving red packets. Still some relatives say that I'm NOT considered married because I have not serve them tea (tea serving ceremony is a custom for all newly weds to serve their elders on their wedding day). On the other hand giving red packets is a symbol of the willing heart to give, then I will receive with a willing and happy heart. So technically who's right and who's wrong? If I were to take a stand, I would say that giving red packet is a cultural thing and not bound by any laws. And since I have not fulfill my cultural duties of having a banquet and serve tea, I consider myself not married and fully qualified to receive any 'economic stimulus package'. But what about a divorcée with no children among the guest of relatives? Is she allowed to receive again as though she never married? Or is she expected to give to others as though she never divorced? It's quite funny how such tradition can be easily confused in such grey area that was never defined previously. Well, I can't blame those ancient folks as divorce rates back then was next to nothing!

Even though this is not a big deal and one can choose to ignore this problem. But this reoccurring annual problem will cause more embarrassment in the long run. Of course in my case, after my wedding banquet I'm considered married and will when be on the giving end. But what about the divorcée? Or what about my cousin who's older than I and still unmarried - do I give her also? Perhaps the best way I can think of so far is to spend my coming Chinese New Year in another country. Maybe I'll go Bali again!


  1. In my daughter's latest kids magazine edition called Bobo was a story about Angpao. A little girl disappointed of the given sum in the envelope was gently told by her mother that in ancient history Angpao was actually filled with prayers not money for your beloved ones. So it shouldn't be about money, but the person's caring intentions. Sadly but true, a lot of values have been changing materialistic these days. I guess that's what makes thoughtful proceedings like these into something more complicated... Not to mention, when people on the giving end happened to be still economically unstable. It hurts if you hear something unpleasant after sparing your time and thoughts preparing for it. Because we tend to care about what people say, especially when they are family. There are the same issues here on similar occasions...

  2. Even when there are no economic problems, it really is quite confusing to determine for the first time whose on the receiving list...

  3. We have been through this kind of dazzle for the first time 9 years ago, and on the second year heard some unpleasant comments by a far relative who preferred cookies instead of the given porcelain (which in fact were more expensive than those cookies). What she also didn't know was that it supposed to be an extra thought of my husband who wanted to give something different and long lasting in that particular year. Turned out not to be a surprise for her... but for us ;p

  4. Speaking of sums, knowing about this year's economic situation, out of curiosity my hubby's youngest brother asked my total sum for this year's 'stimulus package'. My reply was "My minimum was a single red note (MYR10 or about USD2.80) per packet". My MIL over heard the conversation and shot back that it should be the thoughts that count and not sums. What she said was in fact true, but it's hard for me to get her to understand that when you live in the Klang Valley cost of living is very high thus the unwritten rule there is that nobody gives blue notes (MYR1 or about USD0.28)anymore. Receiving red packets with blue notes inside is associated with those being financially weak or just being a Scrooge. It's Sad but true. A simple culture of wishing the receiver well could turn into an annual competition of the most amount of money collected!

  5. Another sad thing which I have noticed at special occasions like these, weddings, birthdays or other similar events is that people sometimes tend to give bigger amounts/gifts to the wealthy ones than the financially weak ones. I once ended up at a birthday party of my daughter's kindergarten friend with only 5 attendants because the birthday child's parents were labeled as "the lower" class, whereas another child in the same week received a bunch of big gifts even days after the birthday party. It's sad to remember the image of this disappointed Mom looking at all these own made food, cakes and fruits already served at the table. She must have spent hours of cooking and preparation...

  6. I agree to you Waileng, those unwritten rules can be very tough...

  7. Yes, this is why whenever we receive Angpao when we were kids, my mom would usually ask how much a certain relative gave us. It test our memories on which packet was given by which relative especially when there's so many givers in one single house we visit! In a way, my mom can check how much a certain relative gave us and my mom will try to give back the same or similar amount so the giver won't have to feel so bad. And at the same time learn to remember our uncles and aunts name; instead of saying "that red shirt uncle... no,no,no... not the batik red, the polo red!"


A little encouragement,
A small thought,
A simple sentence
To light up my day - Terima Kasih