It was 2014. A huge family event was taking place, all of my to-be-in-laws were gathered together. Noodles were being happily tossed and relations chatted away. These little envelopes, ang paos, were being handed around but I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to accept them. In fact, I found it difficult to accept them all the way up until recently. So what changed?
First of all I discovered how I fit in the picture. I’m woven in, I can’t just receive ang bao’s I have to pass them on too. The ang bao is supposed to be symbolic of a blessing or well wish and it would be discourteous and rude not to pass them on. But where do these ang baos come from?
In popular stories the colour red, loud noises (think of drums and the dragon dance), and coin shaped charms are revealed to offer protection from an evil spirit that lived in the sea or mountains. He was known as Nian, 年兽, and he typically terrorised villages, most famously Peach Village. This sets a mythical origin for the gifting of money packaged in red.
That’s bad news because if we have to start at a myth, then the evolution of the ang pao to what it is today cannot be clear.
The connection between money and blessings, seems to have origins in early China, likely predating the time of the Three Kingdoms (220C.E). Eminent officials and leaders had began producing coins with blessings on, or coin shaped charms, that have survived until today (primaltrek). The most obvious continuation of this idea is the string of replica coins and charms that are continually for sale for the purposes of fengshui. Then as now, carrying these charms is believed to offer protection, luck, or fortune, amongst other things. Given the symbolism of the colour red, passing a red bag of such positively charged coins to a loved one or a neighbour would have been an extra compassionate gesture.
“Coins, as a form of money, represent power. Coin-shaped charms are, therefore, a very compact form of power.” primaltrek
Today, the ang pao remains a symbol of well wishing and blessing and its contents echo that intention wherever they are distributed; at Weddings, Tea Ceremonies, the Lunar New Year, in exchange for a service like Lion Dancing, a bribe, or a baby’s first month celebration. However, ideas, particularly those disconnected from an original purpose or belief, are quick to change. Mystical coin charms are still occasionally found in effigy, printed on ang paos, but it’s rare. Ang pao’s are more often emblazoned with corporate logos instead of blessings and they do not even need to be red.
After using Italic&Bold’s special themed design of red packet, we wanted to create ang paos of our own. First we trawled the internet for templates. This is a good way to start because then you have some print ready layouts and the measurements are all predefined for you. There are some already available online, see below examples, but usually you can just inquire at a printers directly.
Presuming you have the correct software, you can quickly adapt the colours and image to suit your taste. Do you remember that coat of arms we were talking about using? Well that ended up emblazoned on our red packets. We didn’t specify that all the specs on our ang bao were supposed to be in gold foil so we got the CMYK version of gold instead. My bad.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about printing techniques but just know that you should be able to print in “foil” if you have marked a colour or layer for printing in a shiny colour. There is also hot stamping if you want a raised image but honestly, what does this add?
We scanned around in Singapore for a good price and almost went with the company Print City. But in the end we went with a printer in China for cost reasons. Whether printing in Singapore or abroad, ask about gluing, you don’t want 500 unglued and unfolded red packets to deal with.
Prepare to print in advance of your event as designing might take a week and printing can take anywhere from 3 days to three weeks depending on where you’re sourcing the print from.
Extra note: As a teacher, these ang baos were perfect for giving a token gift to my students. We used The Natural Confectionary Co. chews for most packets and YumEarth organic pops for the kids that don’t eat meat or pork. See below.