Is $2 hongbao too little?

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

Those planning to give $2 hongbao during Chinese New Year might want to think twice: This amount just does not cut it anymore, say some couples.

Tax accountant Clarissa Tan, 25, says: "All my aunties and uncles give $50 hongbao, or at least $10 or $20. $2 is just too little - what can you buy with $2 these days?"

She and her husband, speech pathologist Maximillion Tan, 31, will give out hongbao during Chinese New Year for the first time next year as they just tied the knot last month.

Newlyweds are sometimes exempted from giving hongbao in their first year of marriage, depending on their family tradition.

Giving hongbao, also known as angpow or red packet, is a key part of Chinese New Year celebrations, which run for 15 days. The first day of Chinese New Year this year is Jan 31. These red packets, which symbolise good luck and are thought to ward off evil spirits, are usually handed out by married couples to single adults, children and parents.

The Tans say when it comes to their turn next year, they will give out hongbao containing $10 to $20 to their friends and $50 to closer relatives.

Indeed, couples interviewed say a $2 hongbao seems too miserly and can be embarrassing for the giver, especially when others are handing out red packets containing at least $6 or $8.

Mr Errol Tan, 38, an art director, says he gives out $2 red packets, but these are only for "the children of distant relatives or random strangers that you meet while visiting".

He and his wife give at least $8 to $10 to family members and close friends.

Mr Tan adds: "The minimum sum to give our parents is $100 each. But it also depends on how much you can afford to give... if your parents are retired, now is your turn to repay their love."

Personal trainer Aldrin Ho, 39, who owns a gym and sports rehabilitation facility, says $2 is too "kiam siap" (Hokkien for stingy), and $6 is the minimum these days.

"But I have $4 hongbao in case we meet kids whom we do not know during visiting," he adds.

He and his wife give their nieces and nephews red packets of $10 or $20, while their two children each receive $50.

Etiquette expert Agnes Koh, director of Etiquette & Image International who is in her 40s, says $10 is considered an acceptable rate for siblings, nieces and nephews, while red packets for parents should start from $200.

These are the rates given by friends and others whom she has come into contact with over the years, she says. "But ultimately, it still boils down to family culture and tradition," she adds. "$2 was more common and acceptable about 10 to 20 years ago. Now, the average amount in red packets tends to be $8 to $10."

Associate Professor Su Jui-Lung, from the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, says there are no hard and fast rules when deciding on the amount to give.

He says: "The amount is decided from the perspective and financial situation of the recipient. For example, with $2, what can a kid buy? If he can't even buy a chocolate bar, then it is too little."

But he adds: "Adults should give hongbao to their parents and that amount certainly has to be larger than what you give others."

Many couples take the cue from their parents in deciding how much to give friends and family during Chinese New Year.

Mr Raymond Teo, 28, and his wife Izabella, both civil servants, have decided to follow the norms of their respective families. They wed last month and are giving hongbao, ranging from $8 to $28, for the first time.

Mrs Teo, 26, says: "There is no fixed rate. We have different family cultures. One side of the family is more conservative with red packets, choosing to give blessings in other ways such as giving delicacies during Chinese New Year, while the other side is more generous with its red packets."

Given the hassle of having to decide how much money to stuff in red packets, some newlywed couples are glad to be exempted from the practice this year.

Teacher Dawn Wong, 33, who got hitched last month, says: "My parents said there was no need to give hongbao in the first year of our marriage. My cousins did not have to either. I'm glad I don't have to think about it this year."

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