Red pocket fun

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Chinese New Year is generally a time for rejoicing -- in three days of holiday from work, in the killer squid-and-pork, home-village-style dish my mother-in-law always makes, in seeing some of my favorite in-laws and in not seeing some not-so-favorite ones, and so on.

But there is a CNY problem that threatens to overshadow all of its joys: the dread red pockets, the scourge of the married man in a Chinese city.

Red pockets, for the uninitiated, are in one sense very simple. They're little crimson envelopes. The basic rules for their use are as follows. Red pockets are stuffed with money. Married people give them to unmarried people, especially children. They're to be handed out in the first 15 days of a new year.

Okay, that wasn't so bad -- it sounds just about like giving Christmas gifts, doesn't it? And the red pocket system has a certain clarity and directness that's actually quite refreshing. No sweaty hours spent ransacking shopping malls looking for 'perfect' gifts -- you just sit down for a few minutes on New Year's Eve and decide how much each person you'll be giving a red pocket to is worth to you.

Ah, if only it were really that simple. There are several unfortunate complications to red pocket disbursement:

1 You have to give them to lots of children you don't know.

2 You're supposed to give them to your adult friends and relatives who aren't married.

3 You may need to give them to your colleagues.

4 You really must give them to the service people in your life.

We'll just have a little look at each of these problem areas in turn.

The first problem with red pockets is that they're not just for your own offspring and your nephews and nieces and such -- you're more or less culturally bound to give them to any child who's shameless enough to waltz up to you and bawl out 'Kung Hei Fat Choy', i.e. 'Happy New Year'. In all honesty, this isn't likely to happen as you walk down the street. It will happen sooner or later, however, when you go visiting relatives, as I do with Mrs Tall. When you're at Uncle and Aunty Chan's flat, you're of course delighted to give their sprogs some fat red pockets. But just as you're about to leave, some relatives from the other side of the family -- i.e. the married-in side, who you literally have never laid eyes on before, and most likely never will again -- arrive with their five-strong spawn contingent. Well, it would be churlish to just blow past them with a shout of 'Happy New Year, almost-random strangers!'. No, you must dish out pockets to each and every youngster smirking at his good fortune.

Next we've got the problem of red pockets and grown-ups. The issue here is not really the money involved, since the amounts of these red pockets are usually small, but rather the implications of the act of red pocket-giving itself. This act draws attention to the fact that the giver is married, and the taker is not. In some situations this is no problem, but in others it can be more than a little uncomfortable.

Giving red pockets to colleagues combines problems 1 and 2: it can be both expensive and uncomfortable. If you're a manager or supervisor, you may well feel obligated to give quite substantial sums to those whom you supervise or even just outrank. And it's often hard in practice to decide how far your circle of disbursements should go: do you give to only the unmarrieds? If so, do you really remember who they are? Or do you give to everybody, and end up looking as if you're trying to be a big shot like the head of your department? Hmmmm. Many a potential headache here.

Finally, your eyes and memory must be finely-honed to overcome problem 4, giving red pockets to service people. For example, you must give your residential building's watchmen red pockets. You'll know this even if you're a newcomer to Hong Kong, since this is the one time of year you'll witness them actually looking at you and trying to smile. The problem is that since they've been glowering at the racing form every other time you've walked by, you can't remember what they actually look like. You've got to take an accurate mental picture of each one as you hand over the red pocket, and then make sure you don't leave any of them out, or you'll need to worry about Mr Unappreciated taking revenge in the coming year by issuing detailed burglary guides with your flat highlighted in fluorescent pink.

And this is only the beginning. I haven't even touched on the art and science of deciding who gets how much, and how to organize an array of red pockets with differing amounts in them, and how to avoid giving a $200 red pocket to a $20 recipient. That's all going to have to wait until next year!