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Lai see dos and don’ts

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By Kate Zhou

Chinese New Year is upon us again. In the years I’ve spent giving talks on Chinese culture, I’ve realized that this festival, especially when it comes to lai see, is a cause of great stress for expatriates.

Here are three things to bear in mind regarding the giving of lai see…

1.  Lai see is not a tip

A student of mine, as a newbie to Hong Kong, gave her favorite doormen a HK$1,000 lai see. It was a gold note with no unlucky digits. So she was mortified when the next day, he knocked on her door and returned it, saying: “Madam, I think you made a mistake.” The amount was equivalent to around US$120, a reasonable Christmas tip for doormen back home in New York, she thought.

And therein lies the rub. A lai see is not a Christmas tip or year-end bonus. It is an offer of good blessing. In Chinese, ‘lai see’ can be written ‘利是’, ‘利事’ or ‘利市’. Each of these is pronounced the same way. The character 利 means ‘good for or smooth’, 是/事 refers to ‘things’ or ‘matters’, and 市 refers to ‘the market/ business’. So together, lai see is a wish of good luck, for everything to go smoothly or for one’s business to be good.

Chinese people believe that luck is a two-way street. So the more ‘luck’ you give to others, the more luck you will receive. The quantity inside each lai see is irrelevant. Bigger amounts do not equal to bigger luck.

My student’s favourite doorman was a man of integrity. Someone else would have happily pocketed the HK$1,000 and she would have been none the wiser, however he genuinely believed the lai see pack she had given him had been intended instead for a wedding or family member’s newborn child celebration.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t get this concept either. Where I grew up in mainland China, the practice of lai see is very different. So this custom was new to me as well.

One day, I saw one of my neighbours, a local, personally giving out lai see to the doormen, security guard and cleaners. I asked her why she did that since we’d already contributed to the building’s lai see fund. She explained that the giving of lai see was meant to be a joyous act of spreading good cheer and best wishes – like sending Christmas cards or throwing confetti on New Year’s Eve.

Many expats stress over the amount to put in when it really isn’t about that at all. In fact, the long practice by non-locals of treating it like a Christmas/ year-end tip has turned it into somewhat of a materialistic exercise.

We live in a world that values the almighty dollar. We, myself included, often think if we put too little in the lai see packet, people will consider us cheap. We think this, and we teach this error to our foreign friends and to our children, thereby perpetuating the misconception of what lai see is actually about.

2.  Children should never give lai see

More egregious than over-giving is the growing trend among some people of having their children hand out lai see, especially when giving to service staff. While you may think this is cute, the recipient unfortunately won’t – it is in reality inappropriate and insulting.

Your service staff won’t say this to you, and they will smilingly accept your token, but it is bad etiquette. There is an order to lai see giving: older to younger, married to non-married, or between people of the same generation. And for giving to people who work for us in one way or another, the adult does the giving – not the child. Children should not give lai see. They only receive – period.

3.  The 15-day grace

There are 15 days of Chinese New Year celebrations. This year, the festivities run from February 16 to March 2. Lai see is given out during this period – not before and not after. Timing is everything, and lai see giving needs to be timed within those 15 days.

I hope this helps you. And Kung Hey Fat Choi!


Kate Zhou is founder of Yifan Mandarin, which offers Mandarin and Cantonese classes for adults, as well as Mandarin classes for children through its Mandarin for Munchkins brand. For more information, visit www.yifan-mandarin.com.hk and www.mandarinformunchkins.com.

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