Chinese New Year angpows: Too little or too much?

Nancy Nais in Kuala Lumpur/The Star
Asia News Network

Kuala Lumpur (The Star/ANN) - Fancy getting a lottery ticket in your angpow packet? Or participating in an angpow lucky draw at an open house?

One Chinese New Year practice that has survived the ages is the giving and receiving of angpows, albeit with some improvisation.

Traditionally, married Chinese couples or the elderly will give angpows, which symbolise good luck, to unmarried siblings or children within the family during the lunar new year. Angpows are also given during other happy occasions such as weddings and birthday celebrations.

To make the coming Year of the Snake more fun and interesting, interior designer Lucas Goh intends to give away "lucky draw angpows" to those who come for his open house.

Goh, who is in his 40s, says he will insert notes of different denominations ranging from 5 ringgit to 50 ringgit into the angpow packets which will be placed in a box, ready for guests to draw throughout the 15-day lunar new year celebration.

"Adults and children who come to my house will get a chance to pick an angpow from the box. I tried it last year and my guests seemed to like the idea."

But, he says, he will still give out individual angpow to his nephews and nieces who are very close to him.

Lawyer Dennis Ngu, 49, is another who has tweaked the practice of giving out the little red packets. Instead of cash, Ngu is giving out angpows with lottery tickets to guests at his open house.

"I intend to buy 100 lottery tickets worth 5 ringgit each," he says.

Ngu notes that youngsters these days tend to expect a big sum in the red packets. In fact, some children have become so adept at guessing the value of the angpow from just the feel of the packet.

This is certainly a far cry from what great grandmother Wee Geok Pek, 94, used to receive as a child.

The Penangite remembers getting "one-cent angpow" from her parents and relatives on the first day of Chinese New Year. Instead of printed red packets, each Straits Settlement coin would be wrapped in a little piece of red paper and given together with two kam (Mandarin oranges).

"In those days, a square one-cent coin with the British crown had tremendous value," she reminisces. "We could buy three pieces of sweet potato."

After she got married, Wee continued the tradition of wrapping coins in red paper.

"By then, the value had increased to 20 cents," she says.

During the Japanese Occupation, she remembers giving the "duit pisang" (Japanese-government issued notes with the banana tree motif) as angpow but the notes had little value.

Wee, who has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, says the value of an angpow these days has gone up due to rising costs and expectations. She gives her grandchildren and great-grandchildren 200 ringgit each for their angpow, she says.

Sales executive Margaret Bong, 42, also feels that the festive celebration has become a "costly affair" due to higher expectations from the younger generation.

"That is why you will see many people shying away from celebrating with friends and relatives. They would rather go away on a vacation," Bong says.

There are also those who end up giving more angpow money than they can afford just to avoid gossip.

"I know some friends who give big angpow just to keep their reputation. One friend even took out a personal loan so that he could give 50 ringgit angpow to keep others from branding him a cheapskate. It's rather foolish," observes 42-year-old tuition centre operator Jackson Ng.

"Give within your means," he advises.

"If you cannot afford it, don't pretend you can, or you'll end up with more debts."

Newly-weds Paul Ng, 29 and Janice Sim, 31 are already feeling the pressure of giving out angpow next week.

After spending almost 29,000 ringgit for their wedding in December, the young IT specialist couple is dreading the idea of splurging more within such a short time.

Ng laments that they also have other monthly commitments such as housing, car and education loans to pay.

"When we held our wedding reception, we gave out angpow to the kids. Our concern now is they will remember how much we gave then and expect an equal amount for Chinese New Year," Sim says.

For sales manager Jason Mok, 35, being able to give an angpow is a blessing in itself.

"It is something I'm very happy to do. It's not really about keeping reputations, although the sum can reflect a person's financial situation. It's the sincerity in giving that counts and children who receive angpow must be thankful, regardless of the amount inside."

Lawyer Sandra Shek, who gives angpow to family members, relatives and friends' children, does not see the practice as a burden.

"For the children, it is a blessing and for our parents, the angpow symbolises longevity."

Joanne Tham, 38, admits that when she was a kid, she used to think those who gave 2 ringgit angpow were "cheap".

But after she started working, she began to realise the value of hard-earned money.

Businesswoman P'ng Yen Ling, 56, remembers receiving gold-wrapped chocolate coins in angpow packets when she was a child in the early 1970s.

"None of us children sulked or got angry; we were just grateful for what we received. Now things are very different. If you put chocolates or give anything less than 5 ringgit even to an acquaintance's child, they will say you are stingy."

For medical student Sarah Ann, however, the 1 ringgit angpow she receives from her great-granduncle is as good as getting a 100 ringgit angpow.

"My great-granduncle is really old, about 96. How can I be cross with someone without an income? All I know is he loves me and that is the most important thing."