Within the Tsinoy community, an ang pao, or hóngbāo, is a gift given during special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, graduations, and Chinese New Year. It refers to an envelope in red—the color of good luck, energy, and happiness—usually ornate and containing money. It’s a gift that says you are sending the best of luck and good wishes, for another good year in peace and safety.
According to Meah Ang See, director of the Bahay Tsinoy Museum in Manila, for the giver, the ang pao is also about sharing one’s blessings and bounty. “As a recipient, you keep the money for a rainy day. [And also] para pag pasok ng New Year, you have money.”
Bahay Tsinoy recently posted an etiquette guide to receiving ang pao:
•Thank the giver profusely.
•Never open the envelope during the event.
•Open it and count your blessings in private.
•For some families, it is even impolite to stare at the angpao. As soon as it touches your hand, say your thanks, put it in your pocket and do not even glance at it.
•Angpao money is often also not to be spent immediately. You keep it until you really, really need it. Or if your parents refuse to buy you a toy that you really really want, you could then negotiate to buy it with your angpao money.
It’s usually elders who give out ang pao, or if one has started earning money or gotten married. But is one ever too old to receive this lucky gift? At what age is one no longer qualified for an ang pao?
“Walang hard and fast rules,” says Meah. “In general, once you become an adult, wala na. And then when you start working, it’s your turn na dapat. Pero in some families, dere-derecho lang. I still receive from the generation above me pero I also have to give to my younger cousins and generation below me.”
“The hard practice is when you’re married, you no longer get [ang pao],” says Ivan Man Dy, the noted tour guide who does local Chinatown tours for Old Manila Walks. “But it’s not set in stone naman. The idea being if you’re married, you give to the elders na, [parang] gulong ng buhay.” For example, Ivan, a bachelor over 40, still gets his red envelopes from his aunts during Christmas. “I don’t expect na but I just say thank you.” It’s his married sister that has stopped getting the gifts, but in her stead, it’s her children who now receives the monetary ayuda. The circle of life indeed.
For a simple tradition of sharing one’s bounty and wishing others well, the giving and receiving of ang pao has quite a few rules, apart from the ones we already mentioned: Give out only crisp bills (this is why there are often long lines in banks leading up to CNY). Don’t give out crumpled, dirty-looking money; it’s looked down upon. Give an amount your heart is happy to give—just best to have the number 8 in it (because that’s a lucky number) and best to avoid the ones with the number 4 in them (because number 4 is believed to be inauspicious; its sound is similar to the Chinese word for death).
Always receive the ang pao with both hands and keep it immediately, says Meah. “You don’t look and you don’t compare with others,” she adds. “And definitely don’t count in public.” How much was the biggest ang pao she’s received? “No, you don’t ask that ever!”
The ang pao is like the Pinoy aguinaldo, then, but with implementing guidelines. Not that abiding by them is difficult. “It’s an all around appreciated gift really,” says Ivan of the lucky red envelope. “Who does not like extra money, right?”