Saturday, February 9, 2013

Newlyweds face CNY hongbao "heartache"

Give too small a hongbao and you could look bad. Give too generously and you could feel the pinch.

This is the dilemma some young Singaporeans face in their first Chinese New Year as a newly married, hongbao-dispensing couple. Without previous experience, some couples do not know "the market rate" or if there is even such a thing at all.

Couples tell SundayLife! that they decide the amounts based on what their parents had given their relatives over the years, what they themselves had received growing up and on their income.

Total hongbao budgets are between $500 and $2,000 for each couple, with individual red packets ranging from $4 for a child and $50 for a younger sibling to $200 each for a parent or a grandparent.

Newlyweds Jacelyn Tan, 26, and Ng Kok Weng, 29, will give $18 and $28 hongbao to nephews and nieces. Ms Tan, a civil servant who is Teochew, says her Cantonese sales and marketing executive husband prefers sums ending with the numeral 8 because it is an auspicious figure in Cantonese.

The couple, who had a civil marriage last October, are still living apart and with their respective parents.

Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan council member Tan Kian Choon says there are "no hard and fast rules" on the amounts to give. Practices differ from clan to clan. "Ultimately, how much to give depends on the relationship between giver and recipient," he explains. "The closer the ties, the more the couple may want to give to express their gratitude for the care given."

Sums for older folk should be "dignified, showing gratitude and care", the 68-year-old adds.

For children of distant relatives, $6 may be an "acceptable minimum". Mr Tan says: "It's a good number - not too stingy or too lavish for young couples, bearing in mind the high cost of living."

Hongbao giving is both an art and a science, says business undergraduate Onson Li, 25, who married two months ago. "You want to give enough so that you won't feel guilty but not too much that the other party will feel guilty about it because he could have given you much less."

One of his methods to calculate the amount to give is to forecast "inflow and outflow". He explains: "I would forecast the total inflow based on the trends of what I had received in the past multiplied by the number of children we have, then divide that by the number of children I expect to meet to get the figure of each red packet."

But he adds that his wife, analyst Zhang Yacong, 25, is "nicer and we'll err on the generous side".
Ms Zhang says: "The hongbao is a blessing the giver wishes to bestow on others, taking into account his circumstances. So $10 from a less well-to-do aunt means more than $50 from a Ferrari-driving uncle."

As they are just starting out as a family, Ms Zhang and Mr Li, who live in a Yishun condominium, hopes the $6, $8 and $10 hongbao they plan to give to friends' children will be well-received. They will also be giving each of their parents a three-figure sum.

For Mr Timothy Koh, 26, and his wife Christine Pang, 31, they intend to carry on the practice in his family, which is to "upgrade" the amount a child receives as he grows older.

Red packets came in single-digit sums in primary school, "going up by $2 every two or three years" till they were double-digit sums in his secondary school years, says Mr Koh, a support team leader at a software house. "I will also start with a single-digit sum for younger children and increase it as they grow older."

Ms Pang, who manages outpatient specialist clinics at a hospital, says amounts from relatives "didn't change with age in my family because the hongbao is meant as a token" but she will take her husband's lead.

The couple, who wed last September, live with MsPang's parents in their executive maisonette in Tampines. They will be contributing to the hongbao kitty equally as both husband and wife are working.

Other couples plan to do the same. But civil servant Joan Wu says her analyst husband Emmanuel Wu will put aside about $800 from his kitty for both sets of parents, grandparents, siblings and several nephews and nieces.

Both in their mid-20s, the couple, who have been married since November last year, live in MrsWu's family home, a terrace unit, near Bukit Batok.

Mrs Wu says with a laugh: "We voluntarily offer our money, depending on whose account has more then. This year, it's his account for the hongbao."

Newlyweds may want to take a leaf from second- year hongbao-givers Jasmine Chua Huilin, 27, and her husband Vincent Ha Kwang Yuen, 28.

Theirs is a four-tier system of "small, normal, bigger and special" hongbao, says Ms Chua, a principal executive at the National Trades Union Congress.

The first lot at $8 each is for helpers and "kids of strangers" while "normal" red packets of $10 go to nephews, nieces and younger or unmarried cousins.

She adds: "Our parents were generous even to domestic helpers and they gave more to our elders and those from lower-income families. We would do that too."

In the third tier are $50 packets for children from less well-to-do families and who are "very close".

The "special" hongbao of between $100 and $500 will be set aside for parents and grandparents.

Mr Ha is a co-founder and chief executive officer of Gushcloud, a social media crowd-sourcing tool.

The couple are living with his parents in their terrace home in Bishan while waiting to move into their executive condominium in Punggol at the end of the year.

They spent $2,000 on hongbao last year. It will likely be half that amount this year as Mr Ha is in San Francisco and Ms Chua will fly over to meet him, spending two weeks in the United States over the festive period.

She and her husband each used to net four-figure "hongbao hauls" every year before marriage, adds MsChua. She says in jest: "So it was rather 'heart pain' to start giving out. We have a running joke that we should have children soon to 'recoup'."

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