An Expat's Guide to Lai See Etiquette

An Expat's Guide to Lai See Etiquette dicksonyue / Flickr

During Chinese New Year, and stretching into the following week, you may notice a flurry of red envelopes being exchanged almost everywhere you go. These fancy little red envelopes, called "lai see" (利是), are packets that contain good luck money. Giving lai see to people is a big part of Chinese New Year celebrations, so you don't want to miss out on giving (or receiving!) them in the following couple of weeks.


But giving lai see is not like handing out candy to children on Halloween (unless you're one of those grumps who don't like giving treats to the kids without costumes). There's a set of rules you have to abide by when giving out lai see.

Locals give out lai see like it's second nature to them, but in fact, there are different amounts distinguished for different people and people with different marital statuses and also people with different job positions. Starting to feel a little weary about this whole business? You'll get the hang of it once you understand proper lai see etiquette.


Lai see is bestowed from "big to small", "old to young", and "senior to junior". For example, if you are the boss or manager, you should give lai see to your employees. If you live in an apartment complex with its own management staff, you should give lai see to your security guard, cleaners, and doorman. Married couples also give to their single, younger relatives, and may give two lai see packets to each recipient (one from each spouse). If you are unmarried, you will usually only need to give one packet to each recipient.


You don't have to give lai see to everyone you know, but keep in mind that there is a chance you may forget somebody. People usually bring a pile of red envelopes with them whenever they go out, just in case they might bump into someone accidentally (and since this is Hong Kong, you probably will). It's best to keep a mixture of $10, $20, $50, and $100 envelopes on you to be ready at all times.


The amount you put in the lai see is up to you, but there are ballpark figures for each set of people. For services you frequently use or go to, such as your waiter, dry cleaner, or doorman, $20 will do. For young kids (below 10 years old), a $10 lai see is acceptable. For older kids and young adults, you can give $20 to $50. Depending on how close you are to the person, you can choose to give more. Bosses, married couples, and older relatives tend to give higher amounts.


Remember to never use coins and try to use a single, crisp bank note. It should be a single bill with an even amount, so avoid putting two $20 bills into a lai see (especially because it equals forty and "four" sounds similar to "die" in Cantonese). This shows that you gave your lai see recipient some consideration. During the days leading up to Chinese New Year, hordes of people will be lining up at the banks to get new notes printed especially for lai see. You can call the banks ahead of time to find out when they are releasing them, and try to avoid lunch hours to spare yourself the trouble of lining up for hours with the lunch hour crowd.


For the lai see packets themselves, lots of stalls will be selling them on most of the street markets in Wan Chai or Mong Kok. Buy a couple of stacks — a few extra packets can always come in handy. Once you have slipped all the fresh bills into the lai see, you are now ready to hand them out and participate in this time-honoured tradition.



Use this handy guide to avoid any lai see faux-pas! Don’t forget to give and receive with both hands as this is regarded as a sign of courtesy. Also, never let children give out lai sees to older folk or service staff – this is considered insulting.


Who? How Much?
Security guard / door man / building management team / cleaning staff $20 - $50 per person, more if you’re in a smaller building with a single guard/cleaner
Helper / driver $100 (for part-time helpers) - $500
Staff (if you’re the boss) $50 - $500
Colleagues and friends $20 - $100
Waitress or waiter/ barista / anyone who serves you regularly $20 - $50
Hairdresser, manicurist, massage therapist, etc. $50 - $100