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Changing of the red packet

Clockwise from top left) Ang pow packets from Mulberry, DKNY, Paul Smith and Marc Jacobs.

Publication Date : 29-01-2014


The ubiquitous ang pow has been revolutionised and comes in many different forms now


As we welcome the Lunar New Year, children probably look forward to the festivities the most. Apart from visiting open houses, feasting on Chinese specialities and dressing in their New Year best, they will be receiving lucky ang pows (red packets).

Usually, married couples will be dishing out money to their parents as a mark of filial piety and to children. As long as one is still single, one is entitled to receive an ang pow. However, some are too embarrassed and rather forego the red packet, as it often comes with a short lecture that you should get married soon!

Originating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in Chang Chieu, legend has it that a young orphaned boy fought an evil dragon and defeated the creature which was terrorising the village. Delighted, the villagers presented him with a red packet containing money as a gesture of thanks. Ang pows have since been handed down to signify luck, goodwill and prosperity throughout Chinese culture.

Back during our parents’ time, celebrating Chinese New Year didn’t necessarily mean having to break the bank. The amount of money inside the ang pows was significantly much less, simply because the ringgit went a lot further those days.

Numbers were always a tricky issue though when it came to handing out money.

The Chinese tend to stress on even numbers as these are considered lucky “pairs”. As such, giving sums of money that came up to 2 ringgit (US$0.60), 4 ringgit, 6 ringgit, 8 ringgit and 10 ringgit was acceptable practice. Some people gave 1.10 ringgit or 11 ringgit as they considered these figures to be “paired numerals” as well, although logically, 11 is an odd number. However, most would refrain from giving 4 ringgit. This is because the number four has a similar prononciation as the word “death” in Chinese. You certainly wouldn’t want to wish death upon your relatives on Chinese New Year!

In the past, to receive 10 ringgit was a big deal and indicated that you meant a lot to that person. Nowadays, receiving 5 ringgit is considered the bare minimum.

Today, it appears there’s even a market rate on what amount is considered “acceptable”, depending on whether you are in the low, middle or high income bracket.

It is touted that if you earn around 150,000 ringgit annually, be prepared to fork out between 88 ringgit and 200 ringgit (or more) for your parents and in-laws. Children may demand up to 80 ringgit, and children of friends and colleagues sometimes expect as much as 50 ringgit in their ang pows! How times have changed.

In typical Malaysian fashion, the tradition of handing out ang pows has crossed borders and is now shared cross-culturally amongst the other races in the country. For example, the Malays give out green packets during Hari Raya.

Major corporations often hand out ang pows with their brand name to stamp their presence. In recent years, designer labels and beauty brands have also jumped on the bandwagon, and upped the ante on design.

The practice of giving out ang pows has risen to a form of status reflection, as it’s no longer just about what’s inside the red packets, but the type of ang pows used as well.

For the longest time, designs on ang pow packets typically contained elements of flowers, carps, or the animal sign of the year. The colour red is also featured predominantly (hence the name ang pow, which means “red packet” in Chinese) as it symbolises prosperity.

While some ang pows still employ floral patterns or zodiac signs, these now come in abstract and artistic forms, sometimes drawn by well-known artists. Some no longer even carrry the red hue and come embossed, with the name of the designer label, or in distinctive materials beyond ordinary paper such as velvet, chinoiserie and PV.

This year, cosmetics and skincare brand Cle de Peau (under Shiseido) has an exclusive limited edition ang pow in chinoiserie fabric with a Chinese frog-button closure. These are really too gorgeous to be given away to just anybody, and will probably be reserved for parents and in-laws, or special occasions. HSBC/The Gardens Mall offers a fushcia variant in a unique PVC material that’s embossed and has a frog-button closure as well.

Fashion labels such as Guess, DKNY, Marc Jacobs, Mulberry and Emporio Armani are giving out simple but elegant ang pows that stand out in a class of their own, while Paul Smith employs cutesy prints that you wish you could have on your whole dress.

From a basic folded red paper envelope to intricate designs and mind-boggling complexities, the ang pow has evolved into a veritable art form. Hopefully, it won’t change so much that we won’t recognise it anymore!

*US$1 = 3.34 ringgit


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