Cash Brings Fortune for Chinese New Year

calendar iconJan 20, 2023

This Sunday, celebrations will take place around the world to welcome the Year of the Rabbit, and vast amounts of cash will be handed out in distinctive red envelopes to bring good fortune in 2023.

The origins of the red envelopes used to contain gift money—called lai see in Cantonese and hong bao in Mandarin—can be found in Chinese folklore, which tells of an evil spirit that would prowl the streets on New Year’s Eve, attacking anyone who was sleeping. It is said that people began keeping all their lights on and staying awake to ward it off, and one evening, a couple gave their child coins to play with to keep him from getting sleepy. He wrapped them in red paper, unwrapped them and wrapped them again, but eventually tired of the game and fell asleep. When the evil spirit came, the coins shone so brightly it was frightened away, and the boy remained safe.

Red envelopes are also given at other special occasions, such as weddings, but as New Year approaches, demand for cash becomes especially high and banks make special preparations to ensure there is enough to go around.

This year, three major banks in China announced the availability of new notes from 5 January with a booking system that opened at the end of December, aiming to avoid a last-minute rush. Long lines were also reported in Singapore as people queued for ‘pop-up ATMs’ put in place to help meet the huge surge in cash demand.

When giving red envelopes, key points to remember are that an even total is preferred—odd numbers are typically associated with funerals, with the exception of the number nine, which denotes long life—and the number four is to be avoided since its pronunciation is the same as the word for death. Red envelopes should be given and received with both hands, to show respect, and should not be opened in front of the giver. Finally, there should be just one banknote per envelope. Multiple envelopes can be given to reach the desired total.

Last Updated: Jan 20, 2023