HSBC, Hang Seng Bank to give staff HK$500 each in electronic lai see to mark the Year of the Tiger

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Hang Seng Bank, HSBC, Tencent Holdings, tradition was halted in 2020

HSBC and its Hang Seng Bank unit will set aside HK$15 million (US$2 million) between them to pay their 30,000 employees a ceremonial lai see on the eve of the Year of the Tiger in the lunar calendar, the first among Hong Kong’s banks to do so.

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Each HSBC and Hang Seng employee will receive HK$500 in the lai see on January 31, according to an internal memo on Thursday. 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 Thursday, February 4.

“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.”

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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.

Hang Seng Bank, HSBC, Tencent Holdings, tradition was halted in 2020

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Staff at HSBC distributing new, empty lai see packets outside the bank’s Kwun Tong branch in Hong Kong on 13 January 2022. Photo: Felix Wong

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.

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.

Hang Seng Bank, HSBC, Tencent Holdings, tradition was halted in 2020

Tencent Holdings’ founder Pony Ma Huateng handing out hong bao at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen in 2019. Photo: Handout

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.

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