Electronic red packets grow in popularity but not for all occasions
Alipay and WeChat Pay expect Hongkongers to give more electronic cash envelopes this Chinese New Year, but many in the city prefer paper when giving to family members
Touching an application on his smartphone, student Danny Wong types in an amount of HK$20, and clicks the “confirm” button.
The 25-year-old Hongkonger says he just sent lai see to a friend electronically and wished him a happy Lunar New Year.
Hongkongers hand out lai see – red paper packets filled with “lucky money” – on auspicious occasions like birthdays, weddings and the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 25 this year and lasts two weeks.
The festive red packets are given out by Chinese elsewhere too, and are known as hongbao in mainland China, or ang pow and ang pau in other countries.
Now more Hongkongers are taking to sending their festive gifts and greetings digitally, with e-payment operators and banks reporting greater interest in their e-lai see services.
Many like the ease of sending gifts this way, while others feel it is more environmentally friendly to avoid using paper packets.
Wong, who started sending e-lai see last year, says it is convenient, environmentally friendly and an especially good way to send greetings to those far away.
But he sticks with tradition when he hands physical red packets to family members.
“For many people, especially the older generation, receiving traditional lai see is considered more sincere,” he says.
Two major e-payment service providers, AlipayHK and WeChat Pay HK, expect the e-lai see trend to grow this year.
AlipayHK is adding new features to its “Lucky Money” e-lai see service this year. Those who send gifts this way with creative greetings and upload screenshots to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram stand to win HK$100.
AlipayHK, a joint venture between CK Hutchison Holdings and Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba, which owns the Post, says its e-lai see service has been growing since it was introduced in September 2018, although detailed figures have not been released.
The environmentally friendly nature of e-lai see has been a special appeal. “We expect a growing trend of giving out lucky money via mobile wallets,” the company says in a statement.
As of March 2019, AlipayHK had more than 2 million users and covered over 50,000 local retail outlets. Jennifer Tan, its chief executive, says e-lai see is one of multiple features – including cross-border payment and blockchain remittance – the company has introduced to become a super lifestyle application.
Tencent’s WeChat Pay HK says it has also seen a significant rise in e-lai see users and transactions over the past two years.
“Mobile payments have become more prevalent in Hong Kong in recent years,” says Norman Tam, general manager of international business group of Tencent. He is optimistic the trend will grow as more people realize the convenience of e-payments and are assured of the security measures provided.
HSBC and Hang Seng Bank launched their e-lai see functions in 2017, while Octopus Cards introduced its e-lai see service for its smartphone app “O! ePay” in 2018.
Local environmental group Greeners Action says it is wasteful to produce a huge amount of paper lai see every year.
It says Hongkongers use about 320 million lai see packets each year, equivalent to 16,000 trees.
Contemporary designs featuring glitter, sequins and even small microphones to record messages have made paper packets harder to recycle, says assistant project manager Yip Chui-man.
For the past 11 years, the group has collected used red packets to redistribute those still in good condition, and the number has been rising every year. Last year, it collected 10 million packets.
“Of course, this is partly because more people know about our project, but we’ve also noticed an increase in the number of businesses giving out lai see packets,” Yip says.
Aside from wanting businesses and organisations to use fewer paper packets, the group also approached 10 banks to get them to agree to exclude the year and Chinese zodiac sign on their red packets, so that any left over can continue to be used.
Despite the growing e-lai see trend, Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, says Hongkongers are less keen on giving festive gifts this way compared with mainland Chinese.
Aside from caring about customs and traditions, many Hongkongers remain concerned about protecting their privacy when it comes to peer-to-peer electronic transfers, he adds.
Information technology sector lawmaker Charles Mok says most people in Hong Kong still prefer to hand out red packets in person.
Cyrus Cheung, marketing manager of Ecoart Group – a major printer of red packets – says it received about 500 orders and printed around 10 million for the coming Lunar New Year.
This is about 40% less than last year, but Cheung blames the recession for companies cutting their budgets, rather than the rising popularity of e-lai see.
“Giving lai see in person is still a tradition in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday, and it will not disappear because of advanced technologies,” he says.