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A Red Packet Primer:

I suppose every culture celebrates its own festivals.  Living in Asia, we certainly have our share, maybe even more, of fun and interesting holiday periods.  Many of these are based on the Chinese lunar calendar so the exact dates may vary slightly from year-to-year.  However, the mother of all festivals is Chinese New Year.  It seems to be an interesting mix of Christmas, New Year, Easter and National day all wrapped into one go-for-broke celebration.

Chinese New Year is recognized throughout all of Asia, not just China.  Since about one third of the Earth’s population lives in Asia, that’s a lot of partying.  By the way, in case you are interested, it’s the year 4700 on the lunar calendar.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel a day over 3000.  It must be all those vitamins, and that occasional nip of whiskey I’ve been know to take – for medicinal purposes only, of course.

Officially, it’s three days in late January or early February, but any holiday that long will inevitably be so engineered as to flow into a weekend.  That transforms the occasion into something more like seven, and sometimes as many as 10 days.  Many Asians use this time to make an annual pilgrimage to their ancestral home town in China so 10 days can sometimes extend two weeks or longer.  It certainly makes crew scheduling a challenge – thank goodness that’s our slow time of the year.

Another tradition is to have spectacular fireworks shows on the second night of the Chinese New Year.  The Hong Kong government spends upwards of US $1,000,000 on a fireworks spectacular in Hong Kong harbour that can be seen from anywhere in the city.  They’ve even brought the famous Grucci Fireworks family from New York City to Hong Kong to design and engineer the 20-minute pyrotechnical spectacular.  I always thought there was more than a little irony that an Italian family, from New York, would be brought into Hong Kong, to put on a fireworks show for Chinese – who invented fireworks in the first place!

Chinese New Year has many rituals but the most interesting one is “Lai See” or little red packets.  There is widely followed custom that you fold brand new, unused bills and put them into the Lai See packets.  You then give these out during Chinese New Year to certain people.  The rules are fairly complex as to whom you should give Lai See.   For example, be sure to include all unmarried friends (of any age), small children and anyone at all (married, single, young and old) who might be in a position to help you throughout the year.  The doorman in your apartment building, your gardener, a maid, the cleaning lady who tidies up your office, and the like all should receive Lai See.  The amount involved doesn’t have to be much – a few dollars is fine – as long as the bills are unused.  It’s the symbolic meaning that counts.  Lai See means “lucky money” and that’s what it is viewed as, a harbinger of good fortune.

Another custom that you must follow at Chinese New Year time is to wish everyone “Kung Hei, Fat Choy.”  You may see it spelled “Gong Xi Fat Chi” but no matter how you say it, it means make lots of money.  Who can argue with that logic?  Just wish everyone Kung Hei Fat Choy, and give out Lai See packets within the 14-day period following the start of the Chinese New Year.  Do this and I guarantee you will take big strides towards fitting into any Asian culture.

Author: Rob Chipman @ CEO at Asian Tigers Hong Kong

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