Those bizarre ang pow rules

Alwyn Lau

Alwyn Lau, Malay Mail Online

Today the Year of the Monkey begins and getting an ang pow is the only time people love to see red. These flaming packets, though, come with rules:

1.            You don’t give an ang pow if you’re not married and for those who tied the knot less than a year ago, it’s two packs per pax. Couples in this “predicament” also get the right to crack jokes about visiting fewer people this year; their friends will, obviously, find reasons to gate-crash the couple’s place. The discourse of “profit and loss” is accepted but don’t ever say it like you actually cared about how much money you gained or gave from ang pows (don’t even say it to your spouse).

2.            It totally isn’t cool to give cheques or coins — nothing to do with the weight. It just shows a lack of finesse. The red packet isn’t entirely an empty container, it’s a container meant for something specific. This is why Chinese people hate to get those “promotional” ang pows (sometimes given in malls or restaurants) with nothing but ads or scratch-n-win BS.

3.            Don’t ever give an empty packet; like most symbolic gestures, the thought isn’t the only thing that counts.

4.            Don’t ever commit the Ibrahim Ali boo-boo of giving a white packet thus turning a family celebration into a death in the family. Then again, I’m also curious as to why those people accepted the white packet; maybe they were just too polite (or indifferent) to berate a VIP about customs. If you reject a white (or black or any red packet which isn’t primarily red in colour), does that mean you’re superstitious? Not at all. It’s like if a dude gave your son a Swastika badge for his birthday — you’d tell the guy to fly a kite and read some World War II history while he’s at it?

5.            Never give ang pows before the first day of CNY or after the fifteenth day; kick-off begins on the dot and there is no extra time. It’s fine if, say, I passed an ang pow to a friend within the two weeks but he received it after the 15th — that’s cool. But the giving itself cannot happen earlier or later than the stipulated date-range.

6.            Always accept the ang pow with two hands; the giver isn’t a Tesco cashier handing you change. This is the beauty of ang pow exchange: Social status, for once, is thrown out the bleedin’ window. If the ice-kacang selling uncle or aunty hands your kid a red packet, and you just happen to be a Datuk who switches BMWs for fun, you jolly well should teach your children to accept it humbly as if nobody in the room cared how much the other person earned. The sorry-ass Gini Coefficient ain’t got nothin’ on CNY.

7.            In the same context, if somebody gave your kids RM50 in an ang pow, it’s “nice” but not “necessary” to match it. This is where Chinese culture tends to cave in to Capitalist protocol. French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, counterfeit or debt. The principle should apply most during a festive celebration of a brand new exciting year. Ang pow giving should never be a tool for social manipulation, one-upping, status-checking and so on. It must be absolute well-wishing and total joy.

8.            Never send or receive electronic ang pows; “virtual” ang pows makes as much sense as virtual air. Yes, dear Millenials, not everything fits the social media mould.

9.            Finally, no matter how much the Chinese talk about wealth and prosperity, one does not simply give CNY cash to people without the red packet (it’s safer to walk into Mordor naked). If that’s all we wish to do, then just play some cards and throw every game.

Ang pows, like everything about Chinese New Year, remind us that forms and rules cannot be ignored. Just because those dancing lions aren’t real, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter for what’s real. Firecrackers, the Mandarin oranges, not sweeping the floor for 15 days, winning at Black Jack—and even the colour red—they mirror a world (of spirits, of convention, of the virtual) co-existing with our “everyday” world (of cheese-burgers, traffic jams and Windows crashes). 

The “fiction” of giving money in a shiny crimson paper envelope upholds our being ”wrapped up” in roles and identities not quite our own. This is a game of Pretend at its communal best — it may be “fake” (or so we think), but it’s still necessary and it still ”works”.

Via such happy feigning, we commit ourselves to each other even if we “really” don’t want to. We help others create fantasies for their world even as we rely on everybody else acting as if they believe what we do. These are the worlds ”in between” this one: The mutually constructed yet non-negotiable holograms we need in order to exist socially.

Chinese New Year is not only a celebration of a new 12 months under the Lunar calendar, but it can also be a declaration that creative fictionalising begets new realities. The noise, the food, the colours—they all point to the casting out of evil and the inviting in of the good. It’s a 15-day nation-wide concert to ask the Universe to do it again — better this time. 

Red storm rising, new worlds coming.

Happy Chinese New Year, Malaysia.