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Tue, Jan 20, 2009
The Sunday Times
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Beauty queen still accepts hong bao at 43
by Frankie Chee

When Chinese New Year swings round in eight days, everything will be awash in the traditional festive colour: red clothes, red decorations, red packets and... red faces.

Well, red is what older singles cannot help turning when they face the annual dilemma of whether to accept hongbao (red money packets given as tokens of well wishes).

Local Chinese custom dictates that only married couples can give hongbao, not unmarried folk.

It can result in awkward social situations where younger married couples - presumably needing to watch every cent they spend as they start their families - dole out dosh to less-needy older, single relatives.

No wonder the well-meaning gesture can result in embarrassment.

Human resource director Eileen Ang, 30, who is single, says: 'I have been receiving hongbao from my cousins for the last two years. I also get them from my younger girlfriends. I feel bad but my girlfriends will say, 'It's a must, it's a token'.'

Similarly, bachelor Chan Kee Boon, 42, a senior manager, says: 'Well, I don't mind, it's just that it can be a little embarrassing, like when my younger cousins give hongbao to me - I used to take care of them when they were young!'

Other singletons, such as regional manager Edmund Toh, 37, baulk at the idea altogether. He says that if offered a hongbao, 'I'd probably not accept because I don't need it in the first place'.

He adds: 'It's very embarrassing. Being senior to them, it just doesn't feel right to be accepting hongbao from them.'

Hong Kong has the same practice as Singapore but in China and Taiwan, the custom is for working people, single or married, to give hongbao.

So should there be a time for singles here to stop receiving hongbao? No, says 58-year-old Laura Quek, who is self-employed. 'It's a Chinese New Year tradition. It doesn't matter how old you are, you should just accept the goodwill that comes with it. It is a form of respect and blessing.'

Professor Lee Guan Kin, director of the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture in Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, says there are no hard and fast rules governing the custom. 'It depends on each family's practice. Some families even dispense with the whole giving out of hongbao because it is too troublesome.'

He pointed out that 'things have changed in Singapore and marital patterns are no longer like before'. People are marrying later or not marrying at all. It is common for singles to also give hongbao.

Adds Ms Grace Chew, a research associate at the Chinese Heritage Centre: 'The tradition of giving and receiving hongbao is subject to various interpretations and there is no fixed rule.'

On the awkward ritual of young marrieds giving the auspicious red packets to older unmarrieds, sales executive Alicia Tan, 26, who tied the knot two years ago, says: 'I will give them but will they accept? They may be shy because they are older.'

Ms Chew notes: 'Some people give them to service providers such as their hairdresser, cleaner or even taxi drivers as a form of blessing or tip.'

And she reminds people: 'The modern idea of the hongbao is like the Christmas gift. This is not to say that these customs have merged, but rather, the thoughts and wishes for a relative, a friend, a friend's child or a fellow human being may be conveyed by giving this symbolic token.'

Singles who get it

Former Miss Singapore World, Teo Ser Lee, 43, still gets hongbao from relatives and her younger brother who is married. But she gives hongbao to her parents, niece, nephew, younger single friends and children of her married friends. 'It's okay because the tradition is to give to singles, so I graciously accept. I'm very practical. But of course, I hope one day I don't have to receive anymore,' she jokes.

Actor Vincent Ng, 33, receives hongbao from relatives such as his older married cousins. In turn, he gives hongbao to his parents, grandmother, two nieces and instructors in his wushu school. 'I feel embarrassed but I'll take the hongbao for good luck and tradition.'

Ms Ponz Goo, 37, chief executive of Haach, a chain of spa and bodycare centres, gives hongbao to her parents and grand-mother, from whom she also receives hongbao. Her older and married siblings also give her hongbao. 'It's embarrassing but I accept them because of traditional Chinese custom. It's a form of blessing for the year ahead.'

Actor Thomas Ong, 39, gives hongbao to his nephews and nieces, and receives them from his parents and three older married brothers. He says he will not take hongbao from his younger sister, who is married. 'I set my own standards when it comes to hongbao: We go by age and seniority. It's not embarrassing because I'm still young.'



This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Jan 18, 2009.

readers' comments
I am so surprised that some people have opportunity to be embarrassed as married people around me don't really have the habit of giving hongbao.
Posted by Ashley_Francois on Wed, 21 Jan 2009 at 03:36 AM
Maybe Ms Teo can spent her cny in India.

At least she had lesser chance to meet another chinese that will asked her for ang pow
Posted by amfreeaccess on Tue, 20 Jan 2009 at 23:00 PM
Are we really running out of issues to discuss?
Posted by sintiow on Tue, 20 Jan 2009 at 19:58 PM
I am still single and available. Please give me a chance to play the guitar and sing a song of love to mesmerize her?
Posted by freecomment on Tue, 20 Jan 2009 at 19:44 PM
It is high time Miss Teo gets married.

You cannot be pretty forever.

The beauty window is very short.

Life is never complete without being married, have children and becoming a grandparent.
Posted by Peter Low on Tue, 20 Jan 2009 at 16:40 PM

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