I have my two nephews, Paul from Canada and Ian from London with me in Melbourne. Paul and his wife Jacqui have two sons aged 4 and 6. My grandnephews are delightful and the best hong bao I can ever have. Hong bao’s are money placed in small red envelopes that we give to children and other youngsters on Chinese New Year day. However, when we are old, the young ones can give us hong bao’s instead. A sort of reciprocity. When they are young, we give them presents and when we are old, they give back to us. The children usually give us hong bao when we are over sixty, the age of wisdom. (I am still waiting.) On this note, my mind wanders off to two important values in Chinese culture -love and money. On the most important day in the Chinese lunar calendar i.e. Chinese New Year day, which is the spring harvest celebration, and also on that day, all Chinese turn one year older! That is the birthday of all Chinese. As my four year old grand nephew asked me: so don’t Chinese people have a birthday, his face was sad and I can read his mind – you mean to say no birthday cakes and pressies for me! Instead I made him happy by giving him a hong bao. His rose bud mouth smiled so sweetly when his little fingers opened up the red envelope. Four years old and already he knew the value of money i.e. it can buy him a present. Hong bao‘s always make me think how practical we Chinese are.
Instead of buying presents which require so much more time and effort, we stick some money into a red envelope to wish someone all the good things in life – prosperity, good health, long life and of course harmony and love in all its many guises – filial piety, abundance, grand children etc. Chinese culture is money centred.We give and receive money on all our important occasions, Chinese New Year and birthdays (the actual day of our births in the lunar calendar), weddings and funerals. In the context of Chinese culture, weddings and funerals are such huge face giving and saving events therefore money is important. It can make a difference to losing or keeping face. In the overall context of Chinese family dynamics, giving and taking money becomes a metaphor for love. For example, going out to eat in a group, and who pays becomes very significant to friendships and family relationships for underlying this custom of paying (no Dutch treat for Chinese) is the bigger and more complex value of love. In loving relationships, giving money to someone and paying for him usually means we love that person. This is on a very superficial level one may say. Nevertheless, the money and love psycho dynamics in a family can make or break the whole family nexus. Given the demand and supply of money as an economic entity, one can imagine what sorts of things may result. In the ideal sense, love should come first before money, friendship first before profit, etc. These are the mantras of Chinese culture. However, as in all ideals, we have to struggle to attain them. Often we fail miserably. Neither a lender or borrower be according to Shakespearean wisdom may be all right for the English but in Chinese culture, a good friend lends money to another.
Thus unless, one knows that a loving friend can truly afford to lend, one never asks in case s/he has to say no and the whole friendship is put in jeopardy. So a good friend must never put another friend in a position where she has to say no. By the same token, a good friend also must have eyes to see that another friend is in need of money and should offer without being asked. By offering first, by not being asked, one does not put one’s friend in a position of humiliation. So what is love in Chinese? So much is silence and left unsaid, not being told. This leaves lots of room for communication breakdowns.
Love and money, the eternal equation, the eternal paradox the Chinese way. There are many examples that I can think of when love and money intersects in some way. For instance, very often love and money, status and face go hand in hand in the ancient custom of keeping concubines. The more money one has, the more concubines one keeps acquiring. Like prestige cars, like mansions maintained and penthouses kept empty in many cities wherever Chinese have businesses, this ancient custom persists relentlessly. In the case of concubines, a wealthy man can give jewellery, an expensive car, and even a penthouse to a newly acquired concubine. Recently while in Hong Kong, I picked up the gossip round a dinner table one night– I was amused to hear so and so, a well-known figure in Hong Kong, had ‘fallen in love or lust’ again. To a 21 year old budding film star. Her hong bao from her lover was a lovely penthouse in Melbourne. That such an ancient custom still persists in the 21st century should not surprise me! But it does! So some things do not change – love and money in the form of hong bao’s.