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The Politics of the $50 Ang Bao

The Politics of the $50 Ang Bao

  • Culture
  • Life
(Top image: TODAY)

Fifty bucks.

In all my twenty-eight years of life as an unwed Singaporean, this is the largest amount I’ve ever received in a single Chinese New Year ang bao.

Given to me by an uncle before the extended family’s annual lo hei and extensive discussions on horoscopes thanks to Channel 8, that smidgen of blue in a sea of red was what I looked forward to the most during the holidays.

It’s not exactly something to be proud of, but when you have to figure out how to put a good spin on “I’m failing all my classes in school” or “I’d probably earn more as a stripper and I’m seriously considering a career switch” so you don’t become a disgrace to the family name, that $50 ang bao makes getting through the festivities a bit easier.

It was and still is the perfect amount. Enough that my efforts in bending the truth were worth it, and not too much that I’d actually feel guilty.

As a kid, I’d trade that one red packet for multiple packs of Pokémon or wrestling cards. When I got a bit older (not wiser), that fifty dollars became seed money for my ban-luck and baccarat exploits. Cliché as it sounds, it was only after I joined the workforce did I realise how difficult it was to earn that fifty bucks, only to give it away later.

Since then, I’ve always wondered why my uncle gives the amount he does, and after countless conversations with a few friends, I’ve discovered that the $50 ang bao is about a lot more than just money.

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For most of us, fifty dollars is not an insignificant sum of money. Unlike the 2, 5, and 10 dollar notes we use daily for cai fan lunches and cups of kopi, the value of a $50 note is high both literally and metaphorically.

It has a greater purpose. When a $50 note is withdrawn from the ATM—singly or as part of a larger amount—it’s usage is often already decided upon.

Whether used for buying a big-ticket item or to tide us over for a longer period of time, the $50 dollar note is different because it isn’t pocket change.

As such, the $50 ang bao is most commonly reserved for immediate family members and the select few relatives we’re closer to. It’s an indicator that you’re part of their “inner circle”, and according to a friend, an accurate gauge of how close the relationship is.

“Everyone knows that giving ang baos is a tradition and they’re a symbolic gesture of goodwill, but the more money the giver includes, the more you know that he/she values you. Especially since they won’t get it back,” he says.

The $50 ang bao is the perfect way to tell someone you love them without actually saying it out loud. The amount is safe—not so small that it appears you don’t care, and not excessive to the point where it crosses into bragging. It’s just how our older and more stoic family members express their affection.  

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Shan, a friend of mine, shares that for her and her cousins, the sole $50 ang bao they receive during Chinese New Year comes from their grandparents. But there’s a catch: the amount fluctuates depending on how much effort their grandparents felt they’ve put in to bond with them.

Upon receiving their ang baos, Shan and her cousins then eagerly compare the amounts before teasing those who received less for not treating their grandparents well enough during the year.

Unbeknownst to all of them, their grandparents have been discreetly “buying” their time, and thanks to the $50 ang bao, have managed to strengthen their sense of filial piety. Indeed, Shan sheepishly attributes part of the strong bond she has with her grandparents to their $50 ang bao.

“When I was younger, it was a bit tough connecting with my grandparents because I hadn’t learnt how to speak dialect, so the money was definitely an incentive. As we got older, all of us pretty much figured out what they did but by then, we genuinely wanted to spend time with them and enjoyed the many hours spent together.

“I think they must’ve secretly told all our parents their plan years ago but no one has ever confirmed anything!” she says through hearty laughter.

In Shan’s grandparents’ case, the amount nicely straddled the line between being big enough to entice their grandchildren, and small enough that it didn’t burn a significant hole in their pockets.

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And then you have your crazy rich Asians. Or at least those who want to portray themselves as such. To them, giving a $50 ang bao is as much of a statement as it is a formality. It’s about “face”, or what millennials would call “flexing”.

When you’re a taitai whose social media is filled with pictures of daily afternoon tea at the swankiest cafes, or shopping trips to Italian and French fashion houses, giving an ang bao that’s too small can ruin your reputation. The fear of being labelled “cheap” (what they consider the biggest insult imaginable) is real.

That said, an explicit flaunting of wealth, especially if directed towards family, is no good either. Rubbing a relative’s face in your huge bank account balance is much too brash by Asian standards.

The $50 ang bao is thus the classiest option for giving the impression that you shit gold and use Cartier love bracelets as cock-rings.

Ming, a friend whose mother is obsessed with keeping up this appearance, shares that it’s probably the subtle snob value of a $50 ang bao (anything more comes off as charity) which makes it so appealing.

As mentioned earlier, $50 is significant to a lot of people, and when someone hands it out so casually, you automatically compare it to the amount you’d give the same person. Their $50 compared to your $10? Ouch.

But it’s precisely this financial superiority that sparks joy, especially amongst those who don’t get along with some of their relatives. After all, what’s the point of being loaded if you can’t (subtly) show it off to those you don’t particularly like, right?

“During periods when money was tight, my mum would still insist on handing out $50 ang baos and felt pressured to do so. As long as you’ve done it once, there’s no going back. You have to maintain that image of wealth to prevent gossip. Save face lah and once a year, show off a bit,” he says.

From kickstarting and affirming relationships, to being used as a strategic power play, the $50 ang bao does what other ang baos cant. For whatever reason, we’ve come to the consensus that fifty bucks is the perfect amount to achieve our aims, whatever they may be.

And yet, should the figure matter? Not one bit.

Chinese New Year is when the entire extended family gets together with the express purpose of catching up and staying in each other’s lives, no matter how busy we may be with our own. During those two days, we remember the meaning of family. Ang baos are just a tradition that’s a small part of the festivities.

Yes, receiving more cash is great, but lest we forget, the money inside an ang bao is a privilege and not an entitlement. Also, it’s the act of giving an ang bao that’s significant, not what’s in it.

At the end of the day, to judge someone based on the amount they put in an ang bao would be incredibly myopic, not to mention selfish. These people are your family and even if they’re not, were kind enough to regard you as more than a stranger. They’ll give what they want and more importantly, what they can.

By the time you read this, I’d have received my annual $50 ang bao. But for the first time, I’m not going to even open it because it doesn’t matter. What does, is the person who gave it to me, along with everyone else who’s been gracious enough to wish me well with an ang bao.

I just hope I’d have figured out how to tell them about my interest in stripping by then.

What else does a $50 ang bao mean to you? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co

Author

Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer