Cash in on Chinese New Year

calendar iconFeb 12, 2021


Happy Lunar New Year! As over two billion people celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Ox, we take a look at why cash lies at the heart of this annual ritual, and what may be different this time around.

In China, red envelopes mean one thing: cash. Called hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese, the red of these envelopes is the colour of energy, happiness and good luck. Tradition holds that the giver is thus bestowing joy and blessings on the recipient, and the money within is the literal embodiment of good fortune.

When gifting this lucky money, it is preferred for notes to be in mint condition, meaning banks must anticipate a rush of people looking to withdraw fresh currency. 2021 is no exception.

In Singapore—where the cash envelopes are called ang bao—despite the Monetary Authority calling on people to consider an electronic transfer of money this year, demand for physical money remains high. Consequently, customers were required to pre-book their withdrawals at major banks and make appointments via an online reservation service to collect them.

Taiwan’s Central Bank allowed people to exchange old banknotes for new ones, preparing a custom Google Map displaying the locations of all bank branches and post offices offering the service.

In China, authorities are trying to incentivise people to stay at home in order to avoid the usual mass migration of people travelling to spend the new year with family. Consequently, companies and local governments are offering cash bonuses and other treats aimed at enticing people to remain local. While employees often receive red envelopes from employers, given on the last working day before the holiday, government ‘hongbao’ is likely to remain a 2021-only tradition!

So, how much cash should be placed in a red envelope? Since giving hongbao is a way of sharing one’s blessings, the amount given by individuals or married couples is often determined by income. In the modern world, of course, there are also websites available to help, such as this Singaporean source offering a guide to 2021 ang bao rates, and advice on accounting for inflation when determining the correct amount to give.

However much is given, it would be a major faux pas to hand over amounts such as 40 or 400 yuan. In Chinese, the number four is unlucky because it sounds like the word for death. Even numbers (avoiding multiples of four) are preferred to odd, and amounts starting or ending in eight are believed to be luckiest.

Overall, for around a quarter of the world’s population, cash helps get the Lunar New Year off to the right start.

Last Updated: Feb 11, 2021