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Preparing for the year of the Ox

10 Feb 2021 —
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year of the ox

Every year, billions of red envelopes containing crisp new banknotes are exchanged between friends, family and colleagues to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year, the festivities will take place from 11th to 26th February, the Year of the Ox actually starting on the 12th.

Every year, billions of red envelopes containing crisp new banknotes are exchanged between friends, family and colleagues to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year, the festivities will take place from 11th to 26th February, the Year of the Ox actually starting on the 12th.

The tradition of red envelopes originated in China, probably around the Song Dynasty, as a means of keeping young children away from evil spirits. Today, they represent a major element of communication for Asian companies, and a very strong tradition for nearly 2 billion people. They could be the Asian counterpart of Western greeting cards, with one major difference: traditionally, red envelopes must be hand delivered, and while greeting cards are a way of wishing someone a Happy New Year, red envelopes are a way of bringing the recipient good luck for the coming year.

It is in fact the envelope itself that is considered a good-luck charm and is often filled with auspicious symbols that are fascinating to decipher. The colour red, for example, is traditionally an important element, as red has always been an auspicious colour in Chinese culture. But other elements also come into play, such as the amount of money put into the envelope, the graphic elements that decorate it, etc.

We asked three accomplished designers from Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to explain the tradition to us. A good opportunity to see how red envelopes, or red packets, which originated in China, have grown and evolved throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Eric-Chan

Eric Chan is a veteran graphic designer and corporate identity consultant working and living in Hong Kong.

 

Could you please explain to our readers who have never heard of the Red Package tradition what it is all about?

We call them "Lai See" in Cantonese, or "Hong Bao" in Mandarin. The red packets are part of a tradition of sending warm greetings to our beloved ones during the Chinese New Year. The tradition of red packets began as a simple sheet of red paper that could fit in the palm of the hand, to wrap money to offer wishes of joy and prosperity for the New Year, a token of blessing given to relatives and friends. Today, this small envelope has evolved into large design projects.

The colour red is an important part of this tradition, could you tell us more about it?

In Chinese culture, red symbolises luck, happiness and joy. It is a very auspicious colour, brides, for example, usually use red on their wedding day. Traditionally, vermilion was used, which is a specific shade of red, but today, there are more varieties of red, and even other colours that can be used for red packages.

As an experienced graphic designer, how do you approach the traditional aspect of Red Packets?

You can find a breakthrough without being bound by tradition. It's important to pay more attention to the things around you, including the elements of tradition, and to create what I like to call a mental library. It can give you materials to find inspiration and ideas for your creation. 

How do you see it evolving with the growing use of new media like WeChat?
I have been working in the design industry for over 30 years. The Internet has changed a lot, but I hope that the paper culture and tradition can be passed on. Paper has its own temperature, people can transmit warmth to their loved ones through it.

As a designer from Hong Kong, do you see a local Hong Kong identity regarding red packets?

In recent years many beautiful designs have been launched, some unique Hong Kong elements have been added to most of them. For example, I once designed red packets in the shape of candies and macaroons as a metaphor for the government distributing cash to the public, which we called "candy distribution". In addition, there is a tendency to use proverb formulations for the red packet in Hong Kong, and this shows Hong Kong characteristics such as "Booming numbers in daily sales", "Straight A in academic", etc.

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"There are many similarities between the design of a greeting card and that of a red packet. In both cases, you need to fully understand the cultural context and local traditions."

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Would you like to share some of the inspiration behind your red package projects?

Project for prudential.PNG

 

Yes, of course. Chinese characters are a great source of fun and inspiration for Chinese designers. For example, I worked on a project for Prudential Hong Kong. The design concept was fish caught by a fisherman. It shows a pair of fish with fishing nets in the shape of a circle. The character "fish" sounds like the word "abundance" in Chinese, which makes it a good omen. Technical progress can also be a source of inspiration, like the work I did for Shama, or Asia Miles. Laser cutting can bring a high-end feeling.

projects eric chan.PNG

Chinese graphic design seems full of hidden meaning and symbols, can you describe more examples?

Of course, if you take my project for China CITIC Bank Private Banking, it played with auspicious symbols. The Eurasian magpie is a bird that symbolises joy, in Chinese culture we often use animals to express blessings. As with fish, they are in pairs, so we will normally use even numbers. Actually, the money inside the envelopes must also be an even number, except for anything with four, four is a very unpropitious number in China, as it sounds like the word dead.

Do you have any other advice to give to someone who is not used to red packages and would like to enter into this tradition in a work environment?

There are many similarities between the design of a greeting card and that of a red packet. In both cases, you need to fully understand the cultural context and local traditions. I like to be inspired by paying more attention to the details of everyday life.

EricProfile.PNG

JoanneChew

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Joanne Chew is a visual storyteller, graphic artist, creative director and aspiring writer.

 

Malaysia is such a melting pot, does that influence the tradition of red envelopes there?

Yes, definitely. As a multi-racial country, we celebrate various kinds of festivals throughout the year. Lunar New Year is one of the biggest celebrations for Malaysians, not just for the Chinese folk but for the entire nation as well as we tend to celebrate together through food and togetherness. And that is why the act of giving and receiving red envelopes is a common and an encouraged gesture.

 

Your work as a studio is based on storytelling, does it drive your approach on designing red envelopes?

Yes, definitely. Each project is different in its genesis and intention. We always start by understanding and identifying both of these notions. We then craft a core concept which tells a story as succinctly and imaginatively as possible, all within the boundaries of the project; boundaries we often try to push. The final step is to generate the designs – whether it’s a logo, a red envelope or a brand – with accompanying visual imprints, reinforcing the story we would like to tell.

 

For this type of project, how do you envision the weight of tradition?

When designing a red envelope specifically, my team and I are always trying to see how we can disrupt the traditional outlook or visual tropes that are usually associated with it, but not without considering the traditional meaning behind its usage and symbolism. A red envelope is essentially an auspicious token given out to others during momentous occasions, so that key intent should always be present, however it can also be manifested in a multitude of creative ways.

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"We see the red envelope as a blank canvas upon which we can paint a different portrait every time the Lunar New Year comes around."

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Have you noticed certain trends and changes in the last years?

I feel that there are increasingly more independent designers who are trying to come up with more interesting ways to repackage the red envelope. That's precisely what we have been trying to do in Malaysia — we see the red envelope as a blank canvas upon which we can paint a different portrait every time the Lunar New Year comes around.

Is there a project of red envelopes from your agency you would like to share with us? Could you tell us about it?

red envelopeYes, one of my favourites is for the year of the Pig, which we designed in 2019. It's called Porksperity Lunar New Year 2019. We wanted to challenge the convention of traditional red envelopes by not implementing any of the common culturally-auspicious motifs (flowers, fishes, or gold coins) or a literal visual representation of the zodiac animal of the year.  We then conceptualised a design which is inspired by the zeitgeist of our times. That to us was the way we feverishly thrive on convenience.

Whether it is getting a midnight snack or a ride to a destination, we crave and favour anything instant. Inspired by this, we illustrated two different designs — one featuring instant noodles and the other luncheon meat. Both are instant edibles and also references auspicious meanings — in Chinese culture, there is a dish called longevity noodles which is consumed for good luck. Luncheon meat or fondly known as "spam" which is made of pork is a witty reference to the pig which is the zodiac animal for the year of 2019.

To our pleasant surprise, this project was also shortlisted for a 2019 D&AD award for the Illustration category.

Do you have any advice for someone who is not used to red envelopes and would like to enter this tradition in a working environment?

I would say simply to embrace it as a medium and gesture of wishing upon others a plentiful dose of good luck and endearing positivity.

joannprofile

VictorLim

Born and raised in Singapore, Victor is a partner and creative director of Trine Design Associates.

 

As a designer, you have worked with many large companies. How does the tradition of the red package fit into the communication of a brand? Why is it so important?

For most companies in Asia, offering company branded red packets is an important way for them to catch up with their customers. Especially since the Chinese Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays. It has become more important to project the right corporate image on the red packets, as this is another form of branding. All the more so if customers choose the red packets designed by a brand to be their main gift choice during the Lunar New Year. This opportunity to create widely distributed red packets would certainly not be missed, as they also signify good luck and good fortune, which most companies seek to associate with. 

 

Singapore is an international hub, where multiple cultures coexist. Does this influence the way red envelopes are designed and used?

Perhaps growing up in a multiracial society where we value racial harmony and tolerance shapes us as designers, we are more sensitive when we design using images or icons, taking care not to offend other religions.

 

After this difficult year, we have seen an increasing activity in the creation of greeting cards by companies for the Christmas holidays. Do you see a similar trend in the activity surrounding red envelopes?

No, in fact with the reduction of large gatherings during this period, I foresee a lower usage of red packets especially since it is not a common practice to mail a red packet.

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"I believe nothing beats the personal touch of giving a physical red packet."

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Is there a red envelope project from your agency that you would like to share with us? Could you tell us about it?

 

VictorLimproject

 


One of my favourite red packet projects would be for SC Global, a luxury property developer based in Singapore. We went all out to create a stunning red packet gift for their VVIP. But most importantly, we also wanted this to reflect their brand tagline, "Own the Original." The hand-made box to contain the red packets was wrapped in opulent silk, hot stamped with metallic pink hot-foil. Red packets with floral motif hot stamped on a special suede-like paper from France, customised blind embossed greeting card and for the finishing touch, traditional Chinese ribbon was custom made in Shanghai to lock the box.
We decided on a bold palette of bright magenta and cyan to lend a surprising touch of unconventionality to the brand while the use of traditional floral motif throughout the packaging design was to convey a sense of Chinese heritage to complement the festive season.

VictorProjects

The project you described has almost no red at all, is this common for a red packet project?

It's usually not common as predominantly red packets tend to sway towards red and gold. But there are many cases over the last few years where companies started using brighter colours like pink or teal or even emerald green to differentiate. I guess it’s accepted as long as it’s not an inauspicious colour, like black which is a big no.

 

We have seen an increasing place for digital red envelopes, especially with applications such as WeChat, how do you see the place of creative paper in this evolution?

I believe that nothing beats the personal touch of a physical red package, but we cannot ignore the fact that digital media will only spread in the years to come. Although the practice is currently only on a case-by-case basis. For example, companies that have a lot of staff and perhaps people with relatives or friends at a distance, especially during this pandemic. Most still prefer to give physical red packets, especially to family and friends. For the future, this would mean that more effort would have to be put into the quality and design of the red packets, as people would certainly be more selective.

 

Would you like to share a personal red envelope memory with us?

As a child growing up in a big extended family, you always do look forward to receiving many red packets from all your relatives. But one thing that I always did at the end of Lunar New Year was to choose a favourite red packet and keep all the money I had collected inside. This red packet would be the only one spared from being thrown away.

 

VictorProfile