The Clog’s guide to the Chinese tradition of hong bao

Photo of red envelopes
Rod Raglin/Creative Commons

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Known as hong bao in Mandarin, lai see in Cantonese and ang bao in Hokkien, these red envelopes containing money are a traditional gift given by elders to the younger generation during special events such as birthdays, weddings and holidays. In Chinese culture, the act of giving red envelopes represents an important gesture of wishing luck and prosperity on the receiver. 

With the recent passing of Lunar New Year, by now children have already opened their red envelopes, from which their parents take the money enclosed inside and put it into their savings funds. This long-standing practice has resulted in the emergence of increasingly diverse designs for envelopes, ranging from simple red and gold Chinese greetings to extravagant 3D pop-up designs. Here’s the Clog’s guide to decoding who your red envelope may be from based on the type of design it portrays.

 

  1. Classic Chinese greeting envelope

The most popular design is the simple red paper envelope with a traditional Chinese greeting wishing good fortune printed in golden lettering. The only downside for these types of envelopes is that they are often flimsy, easily wrinkled and creased. Though it may be simple in design, the printed greetings still carry across a message of earnest well wishes from the sender to the receiver. You would most likely receive this envelope from a distant relative or acquaintance, but you may also get one from your grandparents, who typically tend more towards tradition and simplicity. 

 

  1. Company label envelope

Banks, luxury retailers and supermarkets often give out envelopes displaying their company name amidst a background of sleek, modern designs. Popular designs include brocade and floral-inspired patterns or an outline of that year’s zodiac animal. The paper quality is also sturdier than the classic envelopes and may even be embossed with texture. You’re most likely to receive this type of envelope from a classy relative who’s known for giving the best gifts, or that rich aunt who’s obsessed with luxury goods and designer labels.

 

  1. Cartoon character envelope 

Much to the delight of younger children, red envelopes featuring popular cartoon characters such as Pikachu, Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Snoopy are a common sight. Sometimes you may even see these characters wearing specially designed cultural outfits printed on a colorful material, which is guaranteed to impress any child. Despite being popularized for the younger audience, these envelopes will delight anyone who has an affinity for cartoon characters, young and old alike. Those who know you best are the most likely to deliberately search and give you these types of envelopes which reflect your personal interests. 

 

  1. 3D pop-up envelope

Last, but definitely not least, 3D pop-up envelopes have added a special flair to the art of red envelope giving. As the name suggests, these envelopes are equipped with a pop-up mechanism to transform any 2D image — such as a zodiac animal or your favorite cartoon character — into a more exciting 3D one. Because they’re rarely sold in stores in the United States, you are most likely to receive this envelope from a close relative who lives in an East Asian country. Though they may live overseas, they know you well enough to cater to your favorite pop-culture references.

 

Hopefully, this guide has given you more insight into the Chinese tradition of red envelope giving and who you’re more likely to receive each type from. Just like the blessings printed on the envelopes, we at the Clog wish you all the best fortune for your future!

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].