Ang Pow, a packet of good tidings

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

A monetary gift, straightforward and convenient, garners universal appreciation. The Chinese community worldwide traditionally exchanges red envelopes, known as ang pows, containing money as a gesture of goodwill during significant events like Chinese New Year, birthdays, and weddings. Although this humble offering dates back thousands of years, this modest tradition is still prevalent to this very day.

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

Ang pow © Adrian CheahRight: The God of Longevity (left) and the God of Wealth, two very auspicious Chinese deities adorning ang pow envelopes.

The concept of gifting money transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. In Western culture, money is typically enclosed within a birthday card or provided in the form of cash vouchers without much ado about the way it is presented. However, to the Chinese community, the bestowment of money is an auspicious offering – always insert it in an ang pow decorated with lucky symbols, Chinese characters of abundance or deities representing fortune and longevity. The vibrant red hue not only signifies auspiciousness and prosperity but is also believed to possess the "power" to repel malevolent spirits.

Creative illustrations decorating ang pows bestow a multitude of blessings from well wishes to great health and more. Each year, graphic designers exhibit ingenuity in amplifying the resonance of goodwill through the covers of ang pows. These encompass intricate depictions such as nine resplendent carps gracefully navigating amidst blooming lotuses, mythical embodiments of yin and yang like the phoenix and dragon, Chinese zodiac animals depicted in diverse poses, vibrant peonies or cherry blossoms celebrating the arrival of spring, the venerable trio of immortals (Fu Lu Shou), ancient gold ingots and an array of imagery symbolising abundance and good fortune.

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

It is crucial to avoid placing a monetary gift for a festive or auspicious occasion in a white envelope when gifting to a Chinese person. Such an action could elicit the wrath and displeasure of the recipient, as white envelopes are exclusively reserved for funerals. Referred to as "pek kim," this tradition involves offering monetary assistance to the grieving family to help cover the expenses of the funeral. Mixing this customary practice with joyous events would be culturally inappropriate and potentially offensive.

The first gift of the ang pow 

While the exact origin of the first ang pow remains elusive, a captivating tale, recounted countless times, traces back to the Sung Dynasty (960–1279) in the village of Chang-Chieu, China. In this village, a huge ferocious dragon-like demon terrorised the villagers and no one was brave enough to slay it, not even the skilled warriors or statesmen of the land. It was the fearless zeal of a young orphan who changed the fate of the village when he took up the challenge. Armed with only a sacred sabre inherited from his ancestors, he valiantly engaged in battle and emerged victorious over the demon. Overjoyed, the villagers jubilantly celebrated the historic victory and the elders presented the brave young lad an ang pows filled with money for his courageous deed. It is believed that since then, the ang pow has become an integral part of Chinese customs that has gained popularity through the passage of time.

How much to give?

ang pow © Adrian Cheah

While the generosity of the giver ultimately dictates the amount, it is customary to include an auspicious-sounding figure when placing money in an ang pow. For example, individuals might opt for a favourable amount ending with the numeral eight (such as 88 or 888), given its association with fortune in Chinese culture. Alternatively, numbers ending with nine (like 99 or 999) are chosen for their phonetic resemblance to the word for longevity. Some would even top up a round figure to illustrate abundance (e.g., 11 or 101). Regardless of the specific amount chosen, the presentation of an ang pow always evokes excitement and appreciation from the recipient.

When are ang pows are given?

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

15 days of the Chinese New Year

During the Chinese New Year celebration (1st to the 15th day of the first lunar month), ang pows are given by married couples tochildren, teenagers and unmarried adults (the lucky ones who will continue to receive them until they get hitched).

My sweet run of collecting ang pows came to a grinding halt in 1999, the day I got married. Since then, my role shifted to that of a giver, and this practice will persist throughout my lifetime. I made a conscious effort to reciprocate the gesture by giving ang pows to my parents when I started earning. As Chinese New Year approaches, my daughter eagerly anticipates the festivity, accumulating a bounty of ang pows each year. I share in her excitement, knowing that, like me, she is now part of the enduring cycle of receiving and giving ang pows.

Baby's "full moon", birthdays and weddings

In Penang, when a new-born baby celebrates his/her "first moon", parents customarily distribute gift boxes to well-wishers. Each box contain nasi kunyit (turmeric glutinous rice), curry chicken, two hard-boiled eggs dyed red and ang ku (red tortoise cakes). The shape of the ang ku announces the baby's gender – tortoise shell-shaped ang ku for a baby girl and smooth round-shaped ang yee for a baby boy. Although in the good old days, these food items would be prepared at home, it has become more convenient to order them from shops offering such packages. Some well-wishers may opt for alternatives like a cake, a Kentucky Fried Chicken voucher or an Ayamas full moon gift pack. In adherence to traditional Chinese customs, it is customary for recipients to give back an ang pow to the proud parents in return for the thoughtful gesture.

ang pow © Adrian Cheah

ang pow © Adrian Cheah

In the Chinese community, the tradition of giving ang pows extends beyond just Chinese New Year. It is common to present ang pows during weddings and birthdays, allowing the recipients the freedom to decide how best to utilise the gifted money.

Interestingly, during grand birthday celebrations, especially significant milestones like an 80th birthday, some elderly individuals not only receive ang pows but also take the opportunity to distribute ang pows to the younger generation. This practice reflects a reciprocal and generational exchange of good wishes and blessings within the community.


Some Chinese sinsehs (practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine) are usually given ang pows in lieu of cash payment for services rendered, like resetting dislocated joints and such. According to your late sister Sandra, it is considered inauspicious for these practitioners to accept cash upfront for their services. The belief is that doing so may bring unwanted ills and bad luck upon them.

The same applies to some Chinese mediums when their "channelling" services are sought after. While it might seem paradoxical, the distinction lies in the nature of the transaction – the offering of an ang pow, even though it contains money, is seen as a voluntary and symbolic gesture, devoid of any contractual obligations. This practice is rooted in cultural and superstitious beliefs that intertwine the exchange of services with traditional customs.

Feng Shui

For those who believe in feng shui, placing an ang pow containing "gold coins" tied with a red thread in the northern sector of the house is believed to attract good luck. If you happen to spot this in your friend's house, you would understand that it serves as a subtle indicator of their belief in feng shui principles and their intention to invite positive energy and fortune into their home.

Other cultures

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

In Malaysia, the tradition of gifting of ang pows has cut across cultural lines and is no longer observed only by the Chinese community. Some Malays have made it a norm of giving out green ang pow decorated with Islamic motifs during Syawal. Similarly, Indians have also joined in the act of giving cash, tucking legal tender into colourful ang pows for kids during Deepavali.

Ang pow envelopes are easily obtained for free from banks, jewellers, hotels and certain shops during festive seasons. You can also purchased them online or at some stationery shops.

I believe that this Chinese custom of ang pow gifting, packaged and sealed with good tidings, will always be in vogue. However, with the ongoing shift toward a cashless society, the concept of virtual ang pows could potentially become the new norm. As technology advances, embracing virtual forms of this traditional practice may offer a modern twist while maintaining the essence of the customary goodwill associated with ang pows.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 7 February 2024