So, to tell you the truth, I’ll be quite glad when this “official” Lunar New Year period is over.
Otherwise known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival – it runs for 15 days! Yes…15 long days and for locals, Lai See is a crucial part of the age-old tradition, giving the phrase ‘throwing money at people’ new meaning.
Now I’m not one to be a party pooper – I love a good shindig and never shy away from some festive cheer but jeez louise….as a ‘Guailo’ (white person) in an Asian country, this whole Lai See thing is kind of doing my head in.
These small red and gold envelopes are ever present, sneaking their way into every nook and cranny of festival life, determined to be the stars of the party.
They hang from blossom trees in every lobby and shopping centre, and they poke out of people’s handbags and coat pockets, perkily reminding you of your Lai See duty.
In all honesty, I’m still a little confused exactly what my Lai See ‘duty’ consists of – which is probably why the whole process gets me slightly hot under the collar.
It’s actually my first proper experience with Chinese New Year – the first year I’ve been ‘present’ in Hong Kong. During our maiden year here, I was giving birth and well, you can appreciate, I was otherwise engaged.
The next two Lunar New Years, I was off galavanting home, oblivious to the actual responsibilities that come with celebrating this auspicious holiday.
This year I knew it was coming and I thought I was ready, but I was quickly informed, my idea of popping to the ATM to get a few bank notes and shoving them in their red and gold packets, was not going to cut it. You see they need to be new notes, crisp, ironed-flat bank notes, fresh from the money-making machine (wherever that may be)… can you imagine the queues?
My ‘she’ll be right’ attitude was met with some firm shaking of the head. Cannot La!
Really? New? Yes, really! The custom is said to show the ‘giver’ was thinking about the Lai See ‘receiver’ – used notes indicate they were forgotten about! Hmmm….
Thankfully, in my last minute panic, my husband offered me some of his Lai See… he has no choice but to be well prepared for this occasion. For at least the first four days he can expect to be confronted by every man and his dog. By that, I mean all of his staff members, who as his employees, are each entitled to a lucky Lai See packet. (Over the four day holiday period, he’ll give out no less than HK$7000!!)
His Lai See, I note, are elegant and rather chic looking, not your average ‘Joe Blogs’ packet. Traditionally they are red and gold which symbolizes good luck and prosperity, as well as warding off evil spirits. These days, I’m informed, Lai See packets have become somewhat of a status symbol. Corporate companies have their own Lai See envelopes designed (in what I’m told is a rather expensive process) and hand these out to clients, well before CNY!
Branding at its best right?
You’ll even see Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty style envelopes up for grabs these days!
So, over the last four days, every time we leave the house, I’ve been working up a cold sweat, giving myself heart palpitations as I scramble to get my ‘Lai See load’ in order.
You see, it’s important first and foremost, to have enough Lai See. They need to be given to the concierge, doormen, cleaning ladies and security guards…basically anyone who is of service to you. A trip to the supermarket or gym is also liable to be fraught with Lai See lurkers.
The problem, I discovered on my first CNY exit, is – while I was counting on the usual concierge lady, a doorman and a security guard or two, I wasn’t prepared for being mobbed by the paparazzi. (If only all they wanted was a picture!)
Give one Lai See packet and I quickly found out these people can smell you from a mile away.
Staff materialise from out of the wood works in all their Kung Hei Fat Choi-ing glory. (Simply saying this phrase (Happy New Year) is akin to asking for your lucky money.)
To give to one and not to another, well that’s just not done. So with that in mind, I quickly learned you can disperse with a dozen envelopes in one fell swoop.
Meantime, don’t think you can just carelessly toss the packet ever so casually into their hands or on the desk as you strut on by, no – you’re supposed to hand them over with two hands, bowing at the recipient as you do and of course chanting the obligatory Kung Hei Fat Choi….in return.
I’m uncoordinated at the best of times, so with a Dora backpack hooked over my shoulder, a handbag slung over my arm and a couple of winter coats tucked underneath, I’m finding it all a little difficult to carry out this process with any degree of ‘aplomb.’
Oh and just to throw a spanner in the works, I was told today I should be saying something back to the person along the likes of having a ‘healthy and happy’ life. (But make sure you put some thought into it for each individual, ok la?!) A lot to remember for someone just trying to get out the front door isn’t it?
And there are of course different amounts to be given out, usually giving a little more to those who’ve really helped you out during the course of the year (particularly if you want to shore up good service for the year ahead I’m told). Oh the pressure.
For the most part it’s a single $10, $20 or $50 notes…. always ending in an even number and never $40 – must not forget – the number four sounds like death in Chinese.
Trying to remember which coloured envelopes have what money is also a little tricky when you’re being ‘papped’ and need to act quickly. My lack of a ‘system’ failed me miserably.
My other problem after a few days of taking part in this practice – is I can’t remember who I’ve given Lai See to…. and even if James has already handed out packets on behalf of ‘us’ – technically if you want to present as a loving, united couple – as opposed to separated, you need to give one each!
He took Ava to the traditional Lion Dance at work today and with it being customary to give all children Lai See, she certainly banked a few of her own lucky fortunes.
Its even considered customary to feed the dancing lions Lai See in their mouths if you really want to ensure a stream of good luck in the coming year.
Over the course of the weekend we met up with a few friends to celebrate. Of course I forgot to take Lai See for the young children of these friends!! Luckily James had slipped a few surplus packets in his pocket.
Meantime, Ava had me hiding under the table in horror as she hastily ripped open all her packets, revealing her takings to all and sundry – a ritual not to be done in public out of courtesy I’m told! My friends laughed at me as I cringed with embarrassment — even more at realizing I hadn’t given enough in return.
Today, a little short on Lai See, I thought I’d sneak out underground, avoiding too many Kung Hei’s on the way through the gates, but alas, I was unable to escape unscathed from the Lai See lurkers, chased down in the car park by the ever so friendly cleaners who appeared from nowhere like those grinning rabbits out of a hat, with their big toothy smiles and lots of “Gong Shi Gong Shi” (Best Wishes). Amazing how friendly people get around this time of the year.
Ahhhh god love them….if I was them, I’d probably be milking this age-old tradition for all it’s worth too.
Ancient Chinese folklore claims it brings good luck for both givers and receivers, so hopefully for their sake and mine, next year I’ll aim to be better prepared…..complete with fail-safe Lai See ‘system’ at the ready!!
*By the way, a new study shows in today’s digital age, more people prefer to receive their Lai See by internet transfer. Maybe I might have better luck with that?