Fun-loving foreigners see virtual red packets as another aspect of Chinese culture. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Felicity Miller, a 32-year-old British woman who has a Chinese husband, still remembers the excitement she felt when she first learned to use the "red packet" function on WeChat during Chinese New Year in 2015.
She sent some private individual ones to her husband's younger cousins and some in her Chinese family's group chat on WeChat. She also grabbed some.
"It was quite fun. No one sent big amounts. It was more like a game," said Miller. WeChat limits the amount that can be sent in a single red packet to 200 yuan ($29).
Like Miller, some foreigners have started to join their Chinese friends and family in sending or grabbing virtual red packets during Spring Festival and other special occasions. Attracted by the unique way of interacting with people as well as the culture that gave birth to the phenomenon, many foreigners say competing with friends to grab red packets in a WeChat group can be a lot of fun.
Alipay and Tencent's QQ took things up a notch when they launched augmented reality (AR) virtual red packets with location based service (LBS) technology, a feature similar to Pokémon Go, in January. Through this service, users can create or get red packets by scanning an object in real life.
Miller has not tried the AR red packet as yet, but she thoroughly enjoys using virtual red packets. It adds a bit of fun and competition to any festive group chat, she said. The rule in her family is that the person who grabs the highest amount from the previous red packet sends the next.
She said that during festivals in her home country, people usually just send gifts or give gift vouchers; they only give cash if they do not know what to buy for the other person.
One of Miller's fondest memories of red packet exchange was in 2015 when her Chinese family members shared photos of their delicious Spring Festival dinner in a group chat and one of her husband's cousins who studies away from home shared a photo of a mantou (plain buns).
"I felt that he was struggling. So, I sent him a red packet and added the message, 'Poor boy, use it to buy a baozi (steamed buns with filling),'" she said.
Mattias Klement, 27, a Swede who has been living in China for four and a half years, said more foreigners have started to gravitate toward red packets because of the popularity of WeChat wallet.
"I think it is because more and more places now allow paying with WeChat. It's also fun to just immerse yourself in the culture of it," said Klement, a teacher.
Two years ago, when some friends sent him 5.20 or 8.88 yuan red packets, he had no clue about the hidden meanings. Now, he is not only quite versed on them but has also sent a few.
"It's nice to be able to say 'I love you' with 5.20 yuan, I guess," he said, laughing. "I also remember trying to tick some of my friends off by paying back 99.99 instead of 100. Why? Just because."
This year, Miller's family will spend Spring Festival in the UK. They will connect with their Chinese family members via WeChat.
Despite the growing popularity of virtual red packets, Miller said real red packets will still remain current. "People like the traditional, the smell of new money, feeling how thick the packet is and wondering how much is inside," she said. "But I think online red packets can be used in a more entertaining way. They are relatively new and people are still working out the etiquette of how to give and receive online ones.