From ‘waste paper’ to prized collection: Highlights of couple’s 60k red packets in museum campaign

Mr Tan Tiam Lai and Mrs Lilian Tan with their red packet collection. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY
There are 39 red packet designs in this year's Museum Roundtable Lunar New Year Hongbao Campaign. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Over the decades, a couple have amassed about 60,000 red packets, most of them from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. To grow their collection, they exchanged red packets in the mail with collectors and friends in Hong Kong.

Mrs Lilian Tan, a 44-year-old nurse-turned-housewife, started her hobby when she was about nine years old and, years later, influenced her husband to take up the hobby as well. 

As a child, Mrs Tan was attracted to the fragrance and designs of red packets given to her by her relatives, and that sparked her three-and-a-half-decade collection effort.

Her husband, Mr Tan Tiam Lai, 50, initially felt red packets were “waste paper”. However, a few years after meeting his wife, he started appreciating her collection and picked up the hobby as well.

The Malaysian couple have been married for 23 years.

Nine years ago, they even spent RM888 in one day at a shopping centre in Malaysia to meet the minimum spend to redeem limited-edition red packets at the shopping centre.

“When we get red packets we like, it feels like a child getting sweets or new toys and wanting to hug them to sleep,” said Mr Tan.

Most of their red packets are now stored in plastic sheets and then placed in boxes at their home in Johor Bahru. Silica gel is placed in the boxes to absorb moisture, along with tea leaves for their deodorising properties.

Mrs Tan lives in their Johor Bahru home while Mr Tan rents a room in Singapore and returns to Johor every three to five days. He works here as a senior storekeeper at Malaysia Dairy Industries, which has brands like Marigold and Vitagen.

A unique design in their collection is a box from Hong Kong that, when opened, has pop-up art, and contains red packets with designs inspired by traditional Chinese paper cutting, an ancient art form in China.

Another box, given out by a sushi eatery in Hong Kong, contains red packet designs resembling ikura nigiri, salmon nigiri and tamago nigiri.

Most of their red packets are now stored in plastic sheets and then placed in boxes at their home in Johor Bahru. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The Tans’ collection includes red packets from the first edition of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Museum Roundtable Lunar New Year Hongbao Campaign from the previous Year of the Rabbit in 2011.

The couple were invited to the media preview of the 2023 hongbao campaign on Tuesday to showcase highlights from their collection.

A unique design in the Tans' collection is this collector’s box with pop-up art. It stores red packets with designs inspired by traditional Chinese paper cuts. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

From Jan 6 to Feb 3, visitors can collect free red packets at 39 local museums, heritage institutions and galleries. Visit for details.

There is also an $88 collector’s album that will contain Museum Roundtable red packet designs, plus a special-edition red packet design to celebrate NHB’s 30th anniversary in 2023. Registration for purchase slots opens on Jan 9.

There will be 400 collector’s albums for pre-registered buyers, and 50 albums for walk-in buyers.

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