Red envelopes inspired by B.C. man's love for family, culture launch for Lunar New Year

Red envelopes that hold lucky money are given away on Lunar New Year and signify good luck.  (Olivier Hyland/CBC - image credit)
Red envelopes that hold lucky money are given away on Lunar New Year and signify good luck. (Olivier Hyland/CBC - image credit)

Red envelopes with a little bit of cash slipped inside have been handed out at Lunar New Year celebrations for centuries. This year, a new dad in Vancouver, B.C., is putting a new spin on the cultural practice to make it more accessible for the next generation of Chinese Canadians.

Kevin K. Li is the man behind a new project called Mission: Red Pocket and has worked with local Asian artists to create three envelope designs inspired by past Lunar New Year celebrations with a modern twist.

Red envelopes — known as hóngbāo in Mandarin or lai see in Cantonese — are given out at holidays and special occasions with money inside.

While they are traditionally printed with Chinese greetings on them, Li's also have an explanation in English on the back.

"We believe in the importance of being able to understand our own culture and building bridges through art and stories to combat anti-Asian hate," reads the project's website.

Olivier Hyland/CBC
Olivier Hyland/CBC

The designs can be purchased online and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Vancouver's Chinatown Storytelling Centre.

To talk about what inspired his project, Li sat down with The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

I like a person with a mission. Tell me about yours.

My daughter was born last year and my wife and I made a plan to speak more Chinese ... and then we couldn't even get through the first hour before cracking out some some English because our Chinese is limited. If I couldn't even pass on a daily conversation to my daughter, how was I going to pass on tradition?

I was thinking about how to carry tradition forward in our own Chinese Canadian way and this idea of red pockets came about.

(The two compare samples of traditional red envelopes with Mission: Red Pocket's designs)

This is heavier cardboard and a much more modern graphic interpretation of the original. I also see characters here that say dai gut dai lei, Cantonese for big luck, big wins.

Look, you spoke Cantonese! How amazing is that?

The card also has the Mandarin version, Dàjí dàlì, because it's to really connect with the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects in Vancouver. So even though you may not understand it fully, you can at least carry a little bit forward.

How do you think an older Chinese person would react to receiving one of your red envelopes?

Red pockets are not just limited to Lunar New Year, they can be used throughout the year and I actually to have to call my dad and ask, 'Hey dad, what does this mean? Is this appropriate for a birthday? Is this appropriate for an anniversary?'

I think it's definitely for the next generation of Chinese Canadians — parents like myself — who want to give these.

When my own daughter was an infant, the folks who owned the place I regularly picked up produce gave me a red envelope as a wish for her and it was just the loveliest thing.

With Mission Red Pocket, your daughter would then understand what the well wishes are because you wouldn't throw away a Hallmark card somebody gave you for Christmas because they took the time to choose it. So the red envelope — the red pocket — is the same thing.

We want people to appreciate the art and we want people to appreciate the greeting. This greeting is personally selected for you.