Colour 101 for the colour blind

There are no clear literary sources from which to trace the origin of the red envelope tradition. In China, during the Qin Dynasty, the elderly would thread coins with a red string. The money was called yāsuì qiánmeaning “money warding off evil spirits”, and was believed to protect the elderly from sickness and death. The yāsuì qián was replaced by red envelopes when printing presses became more common. Red envelopes are also referred to as yāsuì qián.

Other similar traditions also exist in other countries in Asia. In Vietnam, red envelopes are called lì xì (similar to the Cantonese pronunciation “li see”) or, in some cases, phong bao mừng tuổi (happy new age envelope). In Thailand, they are known as ang pow (the pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “red envelope” in the Teochew dialect) or tae ea among the Chinese-Thai. In Myanmar (Burma), the Burmese Chinese refer to them as an-pao (Burmese: ), and South Korea’s envelopes, which are white, not red, are called “sae bae don”.

In Japan, a monetary gift called otoshidama is given to children by their relatives during the New Year period. However, white envelopes are used instead, with the name of the receiver written on its obverse. A similar practice is observed for Japanese weddings, but the envelope is folded rather than sealed, and decorated with an elaborate bow.

In the Philippines, Chinese Filipinos exchange ang pao (from the Hokkien pronunciation, as most Chinese in the Philippines are of Hokkien descent) during the Chinese New Year. For non-Chinese Filipinos, ang pao is an easily recognizable symbol of the Lunar New Year holiday and in some places, the envelopes are also appropriated by non-Chinese in giving monetary gifts on other occasions such as Christmas and birthdays.