Christmas was always nothing in Hong Kong. No Bing Crosby, no James Stewart. A lack of camaraderie and of spirit.
My staff thought it odd that I bought them something for Christmas. They would look at me in amusement as I struggled to wrap up big boxes in my office destined for the kids.
We had lights on the buildings of Tsim Sha Tsui East, but they did little to remind me of my Mother’s two-day preparation of a turkey.
Then there were those ‘still-life’ Christmas lunches at Pacific Club listening to two Australians sing pop versions of Christmas carols, like elevator music. Or me staring, like Clint Eastwood, at the carving chef as he gives me such a small slice of turkey.
I knew Chinese New Year was coming soon (it always does after Christmas). I would see the bundles of crisp new banknotes left on the study desk by my wife. She had ordered them from the bank. I never understood why we had to give money to others, even complete strangers, and disguise it in red envelopes with HSBC written on them, or even some red bags that an Italian bank had sent me.
My wife had three types of envelope: one with HK$10 for the underclass (like a doorman or a car park attendant), one with HK$50 dollars for my staff (so they would think we had money), and one with HK$100 for those special people.
My wife would sit for hours in the study filling the red envelopes sponsored by big banks, wrapping them up in three different piles with elastic bands.
I would get my own supply of red packets, three types, to carry around with me and a warning from my wife to make sure that I gave the right kind of envelope to the right kind of people. I never understood why, sometimes, you gave one envelope or two. Something to do with being married or single.
The day after Chinese New Year, I leave for work loaded with envelopes. The security guard at my condo has been asleep every morning of the past 12 months. But on this morning he stands outside his box, smiling as he sees me coming, using his hands like a Thai monk to greet me, and screaming “Kung Hei Fat Choy!”
He seems worried that I will walk off without giving him something. Definitely a HK$10-dollar performance. I make it to my car, having walked briskly to get there after spotting the car park cleaner, who is usually comatose, trundling towards me with a big grin on his face. Escaped!
A drive to work and past the very (very) miserable security gate operator... but not today. The gate operator beams at me with all his gold teeth and greets me with a booming “Kung Hei Fat Choy!”
I drive straight through. He gets nothing. I park but do not pay attention to the usually-walking-dead car park attendant, who accosts me from behind and yells “Kung Hei Fat Choy, New Year Happy!” I give him a 100-dollar envelope. I have a soft spot for him.
Tomorrow, everybody will be back to sleeping, grumbling, miserable, or half-dead.
I sit in my office nervously anticipating going out and delivering the red packets to my staff. I know they all wonder why they have not gotten them yet. I need a psychiatrist to explain why I felt almost embarrassed, silly, to go and deliver the envelopes to the staff and mumble an incomprehensible version of “Kung Hei Fat Choy.”
I remember my old boss used to throw red envelopes at me from 10 meters away and mumble “All the best.” It seems many bosses find it difficult to do those more sentimental, spiritual things.
Of course, I also pick up red packets here and there. I am not giving mine away and building up quite a hoard of cash. Luckily, the wife never asks about the fate of the money envelopes so, maybe a week after people stop smiling for their free handouts, I am able to sit down in Mes Amis wine bar in Wanchai to count my stash.
I sit at the end of the bar, take the money out of the envelopes, and throw the envelopes away in the waste bin next to me at the end of the bar. I do this after the lunchtime crowd has vanished and the bar is empty in the early afternoon.
I end up with a thick wad of crisp new notes and, when I put them in my wallet, it is like it has had an erection and will not fold up easily. Then I walk around with a big bulge in my jacket pocket, until I spend the notes in the next couple of weeks.
My wife never gets suspicious that I never ask for cash during this period, as I always seem to be doing the rest of the year. Well, that’s what I would like to believe.
But she knows exactly what I have been doing and has just decided to not to say anything.
Incidentally, for the whole year, every drawer in our house is full of unopened packets of new red envelopes given to us by every bank that has an office in Hong Kong.
But the next year, we only use new packets of envelopes that were just given us.
Every time we have moved house in Hong Kong, we end up throwing out thousands of unused red envelopes.
Kung Hei Fat Choy! It is the year of the snake but all the Chinese decorations look like fish rather than snakes. Just like the rat looked like Micky Mouse.
I am now waiting for the piles of cash to appear in the study.
Print ed: 02/13