Chinese New Year: Gifts When You Come Calling

Red or yellow chrysanthemums, oranges or tangerines with leaves attached, red envelopes with crisp bills for children, are all part of visiting friends and family at New Year.


It's lunar New Year, and Chinese, among Koreans, Vietnamese and Hmong, are still celebrating for another week.

If you're visiting friends and want to wish them a happy Snake Year, a little something is always nice to have in hand. 

Growing up Chinese American, I learned the worst thing we could do was come empty-handed at New Year.

Whether it was a last-minute scooping up of oranges or tangerines we had in a bowl, or making a trip to the chrysanthemum farm down the road (in the days before this place was called Silicon Valley), we arrived at our friends' homes with a small gift to mark the new year. 

Here are a few tips, if you want mark the holiday with your Chinese friends who celebrate: 

  • Gift items are always in various hues of gold or red to symbolize prosperity (pink will do).
  • Choose that are round, symbolizing abundance. That's why fruit such as oranges and tangerines are popular. Among them must be some that have stems and leaves to represent spring's arrival and new life.
  • Flowers, in addition to hewing to the red or gold theme (yellow mums are popular), can also include budding tree twigs, such as the deep pink flowering quince, which grow in this valley. 
  • Red envelopes, called lai see in Cantonese, or hong bao in Mandarin, are a nice extra. It was always a special treat as a child to get one from an adult, containing a $1 bill or other small amount of money, crisp and new. Red envelopes can be easily and inexpensively purchased in packs at markets such as 99 Ranch and Marina Food in Daly City, Foster City and San Mateo.
  • Tea and Candy. High-quaility green and herbal teas from Chinatown in San Francisco are always nice but locally you can get wonderful tea at New Leaf Community Markets in Half Moon Bay or Lovey's Tea Shoppe in Pacifica. And when it comes to candy, it doesn't need to be chocolate. Hard candies and others can be wrapped in nice package and make a fine gift.
  • Wine or spirits. For those who bring a bottle of Scotch whiskey, you'll find a line for you in the movie mentioned below.

For some humorous insight on how this custom has been practiced in its humblest way—including re-gifting while on the New Year visiting circuit—rent director Wayne Wang's 1985 movie, "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart." 

In countries with large Chinese populations, lunar New Year is akin wrapping together all in one, Christmas, Thanksgiving and, of course, western New Year celebrations. Gift exchanges among close relatives can get quite extravagant, the way Christmas does here. Indeed, while luxury goods are produced for the holiday with snake themes—from Burberry snakeskin prints to Gucci accessories in bright red—as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, most people prefer money. The Journal reported that a new survey from research firm TNS, which polled 5,000 people in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore said most spent an average of $212 to give to close family members.

Fortunately, when visiting friends, a nice yellow potted mum or flowering quince arrangement will do nicely.

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