The Joy of Cash for Lunar New Year
As global celebrations of the Year of the Dragon unfold this weekend, over two billion people are ushering in the Lunar New Year with the cherished tradition of red envelopes containing cash, which embodies the seasonal spirit of prosperity and joy.
In the vibrant tapestry of Lunar New Year traditions, red envelopes—known as hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese—symbolise good fortune. The auspicious red hue represents energy, happiness and the bestowing of blessings upon the recipient. Within these envelopes, cash is a tangible manifestation of well-wishes and positive energy.
Crisp, fresh banknotes add an extra layer of symbolism, signifying the desire for a pristine start to the new year. Banks anticipate a surge in demand for these immaculate notes, a trend that has persisted over the years and saw a rise in 2023, which marked the first new year without social distancing.
In Hong Kong and Singapore, the Monetary Authorities are encouraging electronic transfers, but demand for physical cash remains high. In recent years, major banks have introduced a pre-booking system, with The Bank of China (Hong Kong) offering bundles of ‘new or good-as-new notes’ worth HK$3,000 this year (~$380 or €350). Taiwan's Central Bank also allows individuals to exchange old banknotes for new ones.
Determining the amount to give in a red envelope is a delicate art. In the modern world, many websites offer guidance, such as this Singaporean source giving 2024 ang bao rates for different family members and acquaintances. Still, certain figures are traditionally favoured or avoided, with amounts involving the number four—considered unlucky due to its association with death in Chinese—typically avoided. Even numbers (excluding multiples of four) are preferred, with special emphasis on amounts starting or ending in eight, believed to be the luckiest number.
As the Lunar New Year unfolds across the globe, cash continues to play a pivotal role in ensuring the right start to this festive season for nearly a quarter of the world's population. The red envelopes, filled with currency and tradition, weave a narrative of prosperity, joy, and shared blessings that transcend borders and cultures.