Ya Sui Qian
China’s tech giants are blurring the lines between virtual and traditional gift giving
By Joon Ian Wong & Echo Huang For centuries, Chinese have given money to children during the lunar new year, known as ya sui qian (压岁钱). Imperial Chinese coins were threaded on red string and hidden under children’s pillows on New Year’s eve. As paper money came into circulation, the practice morphed into slipping coins and notes into red envelopes, known on the mainland as hongbao. Since 2014, hongbao giving has gone digital. The Chinese internet giant Tencent came up with the idea of letting users send digital hongbao on its WeChat messaging platform. In an update to the tradition, gifters can send a sum of money to a group of friends, which the app randomly splits among the group. Virtual hongbao are now a bona fide thing; the Chinese government has issued its own virtual red packets, while WeChat’s payments rival AliPay, owned by the e-commerce titan Alibaba, is also pushing a version on its payment platform. The virtual gifts are also slowly bridging a generation gap. While over 80% of WeChat’s digital hongbao users are under the age of 40, according to the company, some older users are adopting them for their convenience. “WeChat hongbao is more convenient since you don’t have to keep change like coins anymore,” Rosa Chen, a 50-year-old from Guangzhou, said. WeChat users say the digital versions of hongbao are both fun and meaningful. One user, Xin Zhenchong, told the South China Morning Post, “I feel so happy when I see I’ve won a ‘red envelope’. It makes me feel that my friends are thinking of me and haven’t forgotten about me.” The emotional significance of a virtual gift—the realness of it—isn’t just some quirk of Chinese hyper-development. Indeed, virtual goods with a material significance have been with us since at least 1999, when players of early online role-playing games began hawking in-game items on eBay for cold hard cash, according to research by Vili Lehdonvirta (pdf), an economic sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute. Virtual objects tend to evolve over time, from the purely mimetic, like a JPG of a birthday cake to be posted on a friend’s Facebook Wall; to something that’s “embedded” in the digital environment and couldn’t exist as a material object, Lehdonvirta says. “Like a badge, or something you send to a friend, it doesn’t have a physical analogue, but it makes sense in a mobile [and digital] context. You can call them native virtual goods,” he says. “They are more directly integrated into our digital social practices, they enhance our digital social practices.” Lehdonvirta’s research from 2009 gives us a glimpse of how the virtual goods economy has evolved. Facebook once had high hopes for turning its range of virtual gifts into a gusher of cash. It sold virtual cupcakes, birthday cakes, and even Obama ’08 button badges through the Facebook Gift Shop. Facebook had good reason to be optimistic about the real-world cash from virtual gifts. Early Korean social network Cyworld was reportedly making $300,000 per day in 2006 from virtual goods and presents. Other platforms with robust virtual-goods economies from the time included the cutesy pixelated world of Habbo Hotel, run from Finland; Eve Online, from Iceland; and the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Ultima Online, from major US developers. Though Facebook never quite figured it out, shuttering its Gift Shop in 2010, virtual goods have remained big business. Just think of the ¥28.7 billion ($268 million) in digital stickers that messaging app Line sold in 2015. On the back of the consumption of these virtual goods, Line raised over $1 billion in a public stock flotation, making it the biggest IPO of the year. Virtual items can replace material goods in both social and cultural significance. Lehdonvirta has written of how children used to brag about their action figures, but now show off their World of Warcraft avatars instead. He explains: “Something like red envelopes are very much part of the social fabric of Chinese society so they are very real in that sense,” he says. “Meaning comes from the application, not the technology, and the value comes from the meaning.” A similar effect is taking place in China with virtual hongbao. But not everyone is on board with the virtualization of tradition. Zhiming Huang, a 52-year-old from Guangzhou, says virtual versions of the red packets have become so widely used that he feels peer pressure to use them himself, even though he isn’t comfortable with the idea of linking a virtual wallet with his bank account. “I felt like I am a stranger among my friends if I don’t use [virtual] hongbao,” he said. Huang has since caved in to social pressure. He set up a separate bank account just for his digital red packets.
A monster behind Spring Festival’s origin
Spring Festival celebrations are known as guo nian in Chinese. It is one of China’s most fun and delicious holidays, not to mention the most lucrative for children. But how did the tradition of Spring Festival begin? A monster named Nian Legend has it that in ancient times there was a vicious monster called Nian, which came out on the final day of each lunar year to destroy crops and injure people and livestock. One year, Nian went on another of its vandalising trips only to be scared away when passing a house with red clothing hanging outside and kids lighting firecrackers. The incident made people realise that Nian was terrified by the red colour, flares and loud noises. This led to putting up red couplets expressing New Year’s wishes on the front door, hanging red lanterns, and lighting firecrackers. The next time Nian came around, it was horrified to see red flares and firecrackers everywhere and never came out again after that. In this way people remained untroubled by Nian and began to describe the annual occasion as guo nian, or literally “surviving the threat of Nian”. Therefore, it could be said that is a monster behind Spring Festival’s origin. Modern Spring Festival customs Every year when Spring Festival draws near, people do a thorough clean of their home and go out of the way to prepare lots of delicious, gourmet food, as well as but new clothing. Celebrations begin on chuxi, or the Lunar New Year’s Eve. It is on the last evening of the old lunar year when all members of the family gather together, hang up the couplets on the front door and gateposts, light the firecrackers and enjoy dinner together. Afterwards, they remain chatting and sometimes make dumplings for the coming days. Numerous Chinese families spend the evening watching the CCTV Spring Festival Gala Evening. Many stay up the whole evening, a tradition aimed at celebrating the midnight beginnings of a new year. The second day of Spring Festival celebrations is Lunar New Year’s Day when people visit relatives and friends to wish each other a happy and rewarding new year. It is customary for adults to give red envelopes of money to children. Money dispatched in this manner is called ya sui qian, meaning ‘lucky money’, carrying wishes of another year of well-being and happiness.
Eatery chain is hungry to grow
BY RONG XIAQING When Johnson Chen was just 8 and living in a poor coastal town in China, he spent his life savings — equal to about 15 cents — to feed his family for a week. More than three decades later, he applies his considerably bigger savings to feeding New Yorkers and expanding his chain of Asian-fusion restaurants. Called MoCA, short for Modern Concept of Culinary Art, the chain started in Hewlitt, L.I., in 2005. A second restaurant opened in 2007 in Inwood, L.I., No. 3 opened in Forest Hills, Queens, in October, followed quickly by a shop in Lawrence, L.I. Chen, 41, is in talks for a fifth restaurant that could open later this year. Amid a tough time for small businesses, Chen has ambitious expansion plans. Banks are tightfisted, but Chen doesn’t need their financing, anyway. He poured his savings into the first one, and each restaurant’s profits fund the next. Born in Fuzhou in southeast China, Chen’s father was an entrepreneur. He sold fish and vegetables — a venture that landed him in jail when Chen was 8. To help his family, the youngster took out all the “ya sui qian,” or gift money he’d collected from adult relatives as a tradition in the Chinese New Year. He gathered the grand total of one yuan and spent it on rice and fish, which fed the family for a week. “I was so impressed that one yuan of savings can be so useful when you need it,” Chen recalled. “I guess that’s how I realized the importance of saving and frugality.” When Chen came to the U.S. in 1992 to marry his longtime girlfriend, who’d become a citizen, he found jobs in restaurants. He worked in places specializing in Chinese, Japanese and Jewish cuisine, and learned each phase of the business, from delivery to management. Five years later, he took over a small Chinese restaurant in Atlantic Beach, L.I. But all the while, he wanted to bring a higher-end version of Chinese food to Americans. He sold the restaurant and opened his first MoCA, fusing Chinese food with French cooking skills. A main dish at MoCA, such as char-grilled Chilean sea bass or sangria crispy duck, costs about the same as at a typical French restaurant in Manhattan. “I encourage customers to compare our food with other restaurants, but I’ll never lower the prices to attract them,” Chen said. His frugal touch is still in play at MoCA. For example, most restaurants throw away preparation waste such as chicken bones, ginger peel and shrimp shells. At MoCA, these items are brewed following a special recipe. The soup helps enhance the flavor of food. It also helps to reduce garbage collections, saving $200 a week.Chen sees a silver lining in the economic downturn. Commercial rents have fallen about 15%, and good sites are available. For his Forest Hills location, Chen had to pay full rent while the restaurant was renovated. But for the next launch in Lawrence, L.I., he can wait till it opens. Chen acknowledges MoCA may outgrow the self-financing model. Then he could turn to investors instead of banks. “There are a lot of people who have saved a lot of cash and want to invest in a place that’s safer than the real estate or the stock market,” he said.
1 Ya Sui Qian means money given to children as a Chinese Lunar New Year gift which is usually put in a red envelope or paper bag.
2 Lucky Money (Ya Sui Qian) is an essential ingredient in China's Spring Festival.
3 On the night of new year's eve, parents or grandparents usually put (ya sui qian) or "end of year money" under children's pillows.