Too old to receive? Not for some singles

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 19, 2014.

Retired bank executive Jannie Ng likes it that singles receive hongbao, no matter how old they are.

"Obviously, I like this practice. No need to work out balance sheets. Every year, it's a nett profit," says Ms Ng, who is in her 50s, in jest.

It is a Chinese custom for married adults to give red packets to those who are not married during the new year.

The practice originated from a time when few adults were unmarried and those who were single were considered still young and needed the care of elders.

Dr Lee Guan Kin, Distinguished Senior Research Fellow of the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture at Nanyang Technological University, says: "Singles then were thought to have not entered adulthood yet. They were not financially well-off, especially if they were women, so giving them hongbao was a way for their elders to care for them."

While Ms Ng - who lives with her mother, a younger widowed brother and his three children aged 13 to 18 - is unabashed about her one-way cash inflow, other older singles SundayLife! interviewed were more reticent about receiving hongbao, especially when they are past the age of 30.

IT consultant Z.W. Zheng, 51, says: "In my 30s, I was paiseh about getting hongbao because my peers were getting married and giving hongbao, and I was still receiving." Paiseh means embarrassed in Hokkien.

He theorises, only half jokingly, that the "whole idea of giving hongbao to singles is to make you feel paiseh, so you'll get married".

"But you learn to be thick-skinned and believe in yourself. It's not that you want to be single. It's just that you haven't found the right one," he adds.

Mr Zheng, who has a 47-year-old brother who is married, lives with his 50-year-old single sister and their parents in a five-room HDB flat in Tampines.

Elder homecare provider Wen Cheng Zheng, 54, says that in his 30s and 40s, he felt "like a kid still receiving hongbao".

When he refused relatives' red packets, they would say, "If you don't want to receive, you must get married and settle down".

"Now, they have accepted that I'm single."

And he accepts hongbao "because of the good wishes that come with it".

He gives them out too.

Mr Wen's outlay is about $1,000 a year. The bulk of it goes to his widowed 80-year-old plumber father, with whom he lives in a five-room HDB flat in Hougang.

Statistics show the proportion of singles among the resident population aged 15 years and over rose from 30 per cent in 2002 to 32 per cent in 2012.

There were 78,400 residents in the 40 to 49 age bracket who were single in 2002. The number was 81,400 in 2012.

With more singles being financially independent, they receive as well as give hongbao to "make each other happy", Dr Lee says, even though singles customarily do not hand out hongbao.

Music coach Karen Tay, 50, says she had tried giving hongbao to feel less awkward about getting hongbao, only to be told it was not customary for singles to do so.

Worse, when she was in her 30s, well-meaning relatives said to her: "Hopefully, next year we'll receive hongbao from you."

It was a none too subtle way of saying maybe she would marry and start handing out the red packets.

"After years of trial and error, you don't fight it anymore," says Ms Tay, who receives from her 74-year-old retiree parents, a younger married brother and relatives.

"When you are past the critical 30s, people stop saying it and just say, 'This is a symbolic gesture' instead."

Ms Tay, who lives on her own in a three-room HDB flat in Tampines, now merely tells close relatives giving her hongbao to keep the amount small.

She says: "You don't want to break with tradition but you are paiseh to take too much from them."

Ms Iris Lin, a senior social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, says singles in their late 20s and 30s may find it hardest to receive red packets.

Says Ms Lin, 32: "In their early 20s, people are focusing on their careers and feel there's still time to find a partner.

"But in their late 20s and 30s, as the clock ticks on, they may find it embarrassing to receive hongbao."

She adds that hongbao givers should avoid even gentle ribbing, like asking "Where's your boyfriend?" or "When are you getting married?".

Mother of two children, aged seven and four, Violet Lim, 34, goes further than that. She does not give hongbao to her single peers so as "not to embarrass them".

"They already have a lot of questions about when they are settling down thrown at them. I don't want to give them hongbao as I feel it would be a reminder that I'm married and they are single," says Ms Lim, who runs dating agency Lunch Actually with her 38-year-old spouse.

When faced with less thoughtful people who not only give hongbao to older singles but also make a quip about their unmarried status, some singletons say they have their own comeback lines.

Ms Sharon Rodrigues, 40, principal of a student care centre, says: "I told my aunties, 'You ask God to drop a man from the sky for me. If not, next year, I'll still be receiving.'"

The ploy worked for her: Relatives have stopped kidding with the "get married" line.

Her relatives now simply hand out the red packets with general wishes for health, wealth, happiness and job success, she says.

Ms Rodrigues, whose 71-year-old Eurasian father is a security officer, observes Chinese New Year with her maternal relatives: Her mother, who died in 2005 of heart failure, was a Peranakan.

An only child, she now continues her mother's hongbao-giving practice. She puts aside about $350 in hongbao for eight maternal uncles and aunts.

She says: "I have been receiving from them since I was young and they treat me as their own child. So it's only nice to give them back to make them happy."

eveyap@sph.com.sg