Year of the Tiger: Citi and other HK banks hand out electronic lai see as pandemic halts annual ritual

28-Jan-2022 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong’s banks are handing out their annual lai see to employees electronically, as the city’s resurgent Covid-19 outbreak kept many employees working from home and curtailed social mingling.

Citi remitted HK$688 (US$88) on Wednesday to 4,500 employees ahead of the Year of the Tiger, which begins on February 1 in the lunar calendar. HSBC and its Hang Seng Bank subsidiary will follow on the Lunar New Year’s eve on January 31, setting aside HK$15 million between them to send HK$500 to each of their 30,000 employees.

“We want to bring warmth and a little festive cheer to our staff before the holidays, and wish them a happy start to the new year,” Citi’s Hong Kong chief executive Angel Ng said.

The first three days of the Lunar New Year are public holidays and non-market days in Hong Kong, and most offices and businesses resume operations on Friday, February 4.

The lai see cash wrapped in vibrantly coloured packets, typically red is a tradition that harks back millennia, usually given by elders to young or unmarried visitors who come calling during the festive season. Six and eight, homonyms for “good fortune” and “prosperity,” are the favourite amounts to hand out.

The tradition has carried over to the workplace. Pony Ma Huateng, the billionaire founder of China’s most valuable technology company Tencent Holdings, used to personally hand out red packets known as hong bao on the mainland at his Shenzhen headquarters to hundreds of employees standing in queue. The tradition was halted in 2020 due to social distancing considerations to avoid the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The Year of the Tiger is just around the corner, auspiciously denoting a year of strength, vitality and growth,” said HSBC’s interim Hong Kong chief executive Luanne Lim said in the memo seen by the Post. “The start of this year may seem uncomfortably familiar to the beginning of 2021: a hope for a return to normal but at the same time managing the challenges of the pandemic, social distancing and travel restrictions, and work from home arrangements.”

In Hong Kong, custom dictates the giving of lai see on the first work day in the lunar calendar to thank employees, and as a mark of goodwill. Several banks and stockbroking firms in Hong Kong surveyed by the Post said they are preparing return-to-work lai see with between HK$50 and HK$200 in them, similar to the level 12 months earlier to mark the Year of the Ox.

Lai see in the time of the coronavirus has become a hi-tech affair. Bank of China (Hong Kong), one of three currency-issuing banks in the city, said it would distribute its lai see electronically, although the value this year has yet to be determined.

The bank this week kicked off the first corporate e-lai see, allowing corporate customers to send up to 10,000 electronic lai see to staff, according to BOCHK’s general manager of personal banking and wealth management Stephen Chan.

HSBC will also disburse its lai see electronically, avoiding the previous practice when senior executives handed out the red packets to staff. The bank has instructed its staff to work from home in A-B teams after the resurgence of the so-called fifth wave of Covid-19 infections.

The “new normal” of social distancing and work-from-home have allowed everybody to have “hiked new peaks, discovered lesser-known corners of Hong Kong, found time to read, and learned new languages and culinary skills,” Lim said.

“I recognise the frustration and anxiety many of us will experience as traditional gatherings and visits with extended families and loved ones are impacted by the current COVID restrictions,” she said. “I am heartened by the warmth and support shown by my colleagues and friends and am confident that by looking after each other.”

The Bank of East Asia will put HK$50 in each of its staff lai see.

Not everyone is going electronic, however, with many of Hong Kong’s stockbrokers preferring to stick to the tradition of handing out physical red packets. Brokers with fewer employees than the large banks typically hand out between HK$100 and HK$1,000 in each lai see, depending on market conditions.

“I still like the traditional way of handing out lai see to my staff, for the personal touch,” said Christopher Cheung Wah-fung, chief executive of Christfund Securities.


Category: Hong Kong

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