Ang Pao – Thoughts From Receiver to Becoming a Giver

22nd February 2018
fan of ang pao with $100 note

First of all, Happy Chinese New Year to all my readers who celebrate! 16th February 2018 brings forth the Year of the Dog; ushering qualities such as loyalty and intelligence. But let’s leave these talk about prosperity and love life with other zodiacs to Feng Shui masters. When I was young(er), the Lunar or Chinese New Year (CNY for short) meant 2 things: good food and ang pao!

But alas, for I am not only older now, but also married. So I fall into the other category which is the giver of ang paos! At least I still have the good food part!

What is an Ang Pao?

The term “Ang Pao” literally translates from the Hokkien of “Red Packet”. In Mandarin it’s “Hong Bao”. Now, you may or may not know what an “ang pao” is depending on how long you’ve stayed in not only Brunei but even Singapore and Malaysia! But if you’ve been in Brunei for quite a while, then it should be familiar! That’s because our Muslim friends also use the term for their gift envelopes during Hari Raya celebrations!

These envelopes, containing money, are usually red in colour; in Chinese culture, red signifies good luck and blessings. The envelopes will almost always be embellished with gold colours and greetings wishing good wealth and health. The act of giving someone an ang pao is seen as well-wishing but for the kids, it’s all about the money, money, money! But be sure not to open the ang pao right then and there when you receive it though; it’s seen as a very rude act!

Receiving ang paos when young

Ah, back when we were young and also before marriage, we would usually get some ang paos from family and friends. In our young minds, being able to get these little monetary gifts equates to getting a paycheck once a year!

If I recount getting ang pao, I vividly remember socking them away in my drawer and even ended up forgetting about it! It’s always a nice surprise to find some money you forget about and this was the set up; unconsciously of course. I don’t remember why I never had the urge to spend the money I received. I was just so happy to actually have money of “my own”!

In hindsight, this little habit was probably how my mindset about money got ingrained and eventually evolved. From all the misconceptions of young adulthood to learning more about how it works, growing a healthy respect for it and finally to sharing it with you all through this blog!

The art of giving ang paos

Ang pao giving is much more convoluted than what I thought when I was a kid. I’ve always thought it was only given by elders (especially those who are married) to youngsters who are single; though the elders may also give to the married ones but that’s usually reserved for very close family. Frankly, there are more “classes or groups” to give than that, and my wife and I learned this as we went along. The giving extends to:

1. Parents

The kids who are all grown up and working now usually will give ang paos to their parents on CNY. This is one ang pao I do not shy from giving. I don’t think any amount I give will ever be enough as repayment, but that’s just me.

2. Siblings

As an older brother I am forced to do give my younger siblings ang pao; it’s all about the blessings, after all! I’ve never heard of married younger siblings giving their older single siblings the red packet though. Probably because we usually have a culture of “looking after the younger ones”.

3. Relative’s and Friend’s kids

Young relatives and friend’s children are a group of “must gives” when it comes to ang pao. There’s really not much to think about; we were once in their position too getting all the celebration moneys! So now it’s our turn to give some gifts to the younger generations.

4. Random or unfamiliar people’s kids

Some people who are better off do give ang paos to every Tom, Dick and Nancy. Usually we only give to people who visit our house for the festivities or when we visit them, and not other times. There was one time where we carried some ang paos everywhere with us but found it to be a little troublesome so took that practice out altogether.

5. Workers and subordinates

Usually business owners or managers give ang paos to their workers and subordinates (or “minions”) as a sign of wishing them a good year ahead as well as thanking them for their hard work and service. This one is entirely up to the individual to give. As a civil servant, there are people who I work with who are under my care; I find it’s a nice little personal gift to my guys and girls while not breaking professionalism. They seem pretty happy too; so that’s a huge plus!

Tips for giving ang paos

I believe if money was not an issue, people would give ang paos to everyone! But not everyone is Jack Ma so the majority of us can actually feel the bite of being too big of a giver. Here are some tips to not break the piggy bank:

1. Budget

One of the last things we think about during celebrations is setting a budget. But setting a maximum you’re willing to spend, and working within it will make your wallet and bank account sing praises for you.

I’ve personally gone through the shock of how much just ang paos cost when it comes down to it. All those $1’s and $5’s add up in a blink of an eye! And this is excluding things like decorations, food and drinks!

2. Don’t be afraid to go small

When I was young, every time I received ang paos of $1 and $2, I’d be a little disappointed. It’s only now that I understand: not everyone can give you huge amounts especially if you’re some random kid. Coupled with the fact that they actually did give something really brings home their intentions to share whatever they had. I think those smaller packets are more heartfelt in hindsight.

Or they could be cheap. But let’s look on the bright side.

3. Amounts given can differ

Want to micromanage your budget a bit more? No problem! You can plan out some sort of hierarchy for the ang pao you give. It’s not a must to give everyone $5 or $10 ang paos, you know. Like I said previously, people who do not have a close relationship with you really just take ang paos as a blessing (well, mostly). So you could give more to family and probably less for friends and the minimum for strangers.

This is meant to be a celebration of blessings but objectively, I do not believe anyone should suffer for tradition.

4. You can be selective on who to give

If you really, really can’t give additional ang paos due to budget constraints, know that there’s no harm in not giving to random people altogether. It does take a certain level of sucking in your pride and ego, though. That’s where I can see people folding and give anyway, because “that’s what you’re supposed to do!” But if it puts you in a bad spot financially, I don’t see what’s there to lose (other than your hard earned cash).

Mind you, this should only apply if you don’t have budget for it and not if you’re simply stingy! Though it works the same way if you just want to save cash too.


CNY is one of those celebrations where gift giving particularly the red packet a.k.a. “ang pao” is a part of the culture. Ang paos are awesome to receive but as an adult giving back, it’s surprisingly painful if you don’t watch out. It would probably be a better mindset to see giving ang pao as blessings rather than spending. But do it within a reasonable budget! There are methods on controlling spending during celebrations which do not involve getting out of the country and hiding outright.

Usually people do not like to be stingy during CNY but seen from an objective point of view, I believe in only giving what you’re willing and able to. Similar concept to investing really; only don’t expect to have any ROI!

With this, I would like to wish everyone a prosperous year with blessings in health and wealth!


Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái
May you be happy and prosperous

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