Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Chinese New Years

“Show me the Money”
           My wife and I are experiencing our first Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Every day we learn something new or something different about the New Year. In the Chinese culture, this holiday is probably very close to the Western Christmas.  The most common Chinese ways of saying Happy New Year are Gong Xi Fa Cai (Mandarin) and Gong Hey Fat Choy (Cantonese). Even though the pronunciations are a little different, both are written the same way.
   When I can pull it off, I use the Cantonese verbiage. However, after I said this to my friend Morgan, he replied to me “why did you call me a fat boy”. Of course he is a fat boy with a little wise mouth. So as my wife and I make our way thru this new Chinese New Year which is The Year of the Rabbit, we learn about tradition, the holiday and the little red envelopes (packets)

Dreaded red envelopes

     The tradition of the red envelope has been our most challenging tradition to learn, get right and participate. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck. It is sometimes referred to as the Red Packet. The story of red packet dates back to the Sung Dynasty in China. A village called Chang-Chieu was at the time terrorized by a huge demon. No one was capable of defeating it, not even their greatest warriors or statesmen. However, a young orphan, armed with a magical sabre inherited from his ancestors, fought the evil demon and eventually killed it. The villagers were triumphant and the elders presented the brave young man with a red packet filled with money for his courage in saving them. Since then, the red packet has become a part of traditional Chinese customs. During Chinese New Year, they are given by married couples to small children, teenagers, helpers, and unmarried adults.

Very nice person working it

     Now this is where our story really begins. We were originally told that the people who operate our apartment building should be given an envelope by us. These people include the door people, the custodian staff and anyone who cares for our building that has a direct effect on our day to day lives.  For us, who are watching our US and our Hong Kong Dollar budget, this seemed like an expensive proposition. I have resisted but Mary Barbara took the reins to make this happen.  About three weeks ago, I noticed an increase in activity among these helpers when I was around. I mentioned this but no one really noticed. Then as we paid attention, it was noticeable that the helpers were going out of their way to be nice. I became increasingly aware of the over friendly and pleasantness. In a culture that does not believe in tipping, everyone seemed to be working it to get that extra red packet. I found myself resistant to people being nice. I would race to the door so they would not open it for me. I would yell across the room, I will get it, please do not, as all I could think of was how many red packets I would be distributing. I have become suspicious of everyone who is nice to me. In my mind I would imagine telling this person, “Don’t you dare be nice to me, as I do not want to give you a red packet”. I had become the Grinch of the Chinese New Year. I was not going to accept anyone being nice to me. I became the neighbor who had the ball come in the yard, grab the ball and not give it back. If people opened the door, I would stop and grab the door myself. I would race to the door so that they would not get it, If someone said good morning, I was questioning whether it was an actually a good morning or just a red packet morning. I finally had to stop the madness and give in to the season. At my work, I gave out the red packets to the people who got my hot tea packets, took out the trash, cleaned the restrooms, said Good Morning or just smiled at me. I went from that Grinch who suspected an alternative motive to “oh well, let’s get this over with, here is your red packet”. I started just giving the red packets to people who smiled at me, who said good morning, and who opened the door.  Please just stop the madness.

Tree and plants in our Apartment lobby

      The people take these red packets and normally put them on what I call the money tree. Trees, plants and flowers are everywhere and very beautiful. I have been working the angle to get a free tangerine tree as they are all over the place. Apparently, this probably will not happen even though my red packets are eventually placed on several these trees.

   Every day the rules seem to change. So today someone tells us that we should each give an envelope to each person, not as a married couple. Mary Barbara said that was ridiculous. I was glad she was on my side in this latest revelation. Then I find out that I the amount of money given should always be an even number and amounts ending with 8 are very popular as the number 8 sounds like prosperity. Depending of the currency base, the most popular amounts are 8, 18, 168, and 888. An amount that is usually avoided despite ending with eight is 38 especially during weddings as “3” and “8” when used together sometimes refers to an unpleasant woman. An amount that ends or involves 4 is usually avoided as 4 in Mandarin and most Chinese dialects sounds like death.  The worse amount to give in a red packet is 44. So why do I tell this is because I gave out $40 Hong Kong dollars to several of the people who work in my office. I should have known this one as every building does not have a floor ending in 4. My apartment building is missing a 4th and 14th floor. But I did it anyway and gave them $40.  I wondered why I got the dirty looks the rest of the day.  I am hoping that the fact that one of them was Philippine will make a difference, but I doubt it.
     We have a friend who is an Asian unmarried woman. She is horrified by the fact that people are supposed to give her money. Children, unmarried and servants are supposed to be the rule of thumb. Not sure why but it is so. Naturally, I find this a sense of great enjoyment to torment her with the fact that I am going to give her money because she is unmarried.  Several times I have told her I hope that with all the money she gets, she can buy a husband or love. Of course, this usually ends with something thrown my way. I open the door for my wife all the time, and am expecting a red packet, although I am just happy with the “Thank you” she always gives me.
    So here we are celebrating the Chinese New Year, telling people they are a fat boy and giving away our money in red envelopes. This week I went to the dentist and he charged me $13,000 Hong Kong dollars.  I should have given it to him in a red envelope as I was just giving my money away to him.  For the amount of money he charged, he should be giving me a Red Envelope.  When does all the madness end?  All this for a rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year.

1 comment:

  1. I guess the term "Happy Chinese New Year" is correct because who would not be happy with so much money coming their way. Were you and your wife entitled to receive any red packets and did you? Thank you for sharing information on this tradition and for making me thankful I'm not having to celebrate by distributing money in red packets. If I ever visit China I will not go during Chinese New Year:)