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Homecommentary singaporeCommentary: Expectations around hongbao make wedding banquets unpleasant

Commentary: Expectations around hongbao make wedding banquets unpleasant

SINGAPORE: A woman in Malaysia went viral on TikTok in September, after sharing that she received two hand-drawn RM20 (US$4.25) notes at her wedding.

Struck by the level of detail on the notes, netizens offered theories for why this mystery guest took the time and effort to produce them, instead of forking out the real deal.

The notes look like they might have been drawn by a child, so perhaps the little one wanted to take part in the celebration by gifting money too. If not, perhaps the guest was strapped for cash and did what they could.

But these might be generous interpretations when the host probably saw the act as stingy.

“Is this a new currency? … I thought empty hongbao (red packets) are bad, but this is worse,” wrote the original poster of the video.

In response, some netizens argued that couples shouldn’t expect money from their guests. “You should be sincere and have intentions to be charitable when you invite guests,” said one.

These comments touch on a perennial debate about Asian weddings. Must guests always prepare a cash gift of an appropriate amount? Or does the thought of the gift, regardless of its value, count more?

WEDDINGS ARE GETTING MORE EXORBITANT

In Singapore and Malaysia, it is customary to gift the newlyweds a hongbao – cash in an envelope – rather than items like tableware or home appliances. The hongbao not only conveys the guest’s well wishes, but also helps to defray the cost of the wedding.

It’s common knowledge in Singapore that weddings are exorbitant, and becoming more so. Singapore hotels have raised wedding banquet prices by up to 10 per cent in 2023, to cope with inflation and higher costs of labour.

Given the mounting expenses of hosting a wedding, it seems disingenuous to say that couples should have no expectations about receiving hongbao from guests. The cash gift can also be used to start the newlyweds off on their life journey – a step that’s getting more expensive amid rising costs of living.

The practice is so commonplace that local websites offer frequently updated wedding hongbao rates to help guests gauge how much they should give, depending on the time and location of the wedding.

Hosts who receive less than what’s stipulated online might wonder why their guests “shortchanged” them, and whether the decision was personal. This might engender all kinds of pettiness – frosty smiles, backhanded compliments, and smaller-than-usual hongbao at future festive occasions.

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A TRANSACTIONAL MINDSET MAKES WEDDINGS UNPLEASANT

But at the same time, the fact that market rates for wedding hongbao exist makes it hard for guests to give from their hearts.

Wedding hongbao rates can go up to S$400 (US$290) for swanky locations like Capella Singapore. If you aren’t close to the couple, it’s unlikely you’ll part with that much cash entirely out of goodwill.

The notion that wedding guests have to pay for their seat at the table makes the hongbao a transaction, not a gift. This transaction can make weddings unpleasant for some guests. It may give the impression that you’re not really there to celebrate a milestone of someone important to you – you’re there to help foot the bill.

The expense of attending weddings takes a toll on guests too. Whenever wedding season hits, my friends and I bemoan not only the effort of enduring weekend after weekend of weddings, but also its impact on our wallets.

But because gifting wedding hongbao is such an established norm, it never occurs to us that we can opt out or give less. Doing so feels like a faux pas.

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A MINEFIELD OF EXPECTATIONS

The minefield of expectations around wedding hongbao was part of the reason why my fiance and I wanted a simpler celebration, so that guests wouldn’t feel pressured to give a large hongbao.

We also created a bridal registry, to give guests the option of buying a gift if they prefer. It hasn’t taken off with our Singaporean friends and family, but many of our guests from abroad have sent us gifts.

Weddings, I have come to learn, are full of contradictions. Couples are often told the day is all about them, but parents also have executive power, especially if they’re financing it.

Likewise when it comes to wedding gifts, we repeat aphorisms that it’s the thought that counts, and what’s most important is that everyone has a good time. But this isn’t the case when there are unspoken rules about exactly what guests should give.

Because the stakes are high for weddings to be a joyous, perfect occasion, most people would stick to tried-and-tested traditions, suppressing their discontent when certain practices are expensive or incongruent. The wedding hongbao is one such tradition.

Erin Low is Deputy Editor, Commentary at CNA Digital.

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