MEMORIES start flooding back after I stumbled upon several red packets with their contents intact in a drawer during spring cleaning.
These precious hongbao (or angpow in the Hokkien dialect), which were given to me during Chinese New Year some four decades ago, have become precious keepsakes as I left Alor Star to further my education just a few days after receiving them.
During those days when communication with loved ones was not as convenient as it is today, those little red envelopes and the crisp Malaysian currency notes inside became reassuring links to home whenever I felt lonely or homesick.
Since then, these tokens of good wishes have remained with me through the years, serving their function as symbols of happiness, good health and prosperity.
Recalling childhood stories told by my parents, a legend related to this age-old practice of presenting money as gifts stand out prominently. Originating in Qing dynasty China, it tells of the Eight Immortals transforming themselves into coins to aid an elderly couple in the act of saving their son from a demon named Sui, which always made its appearance on Chinese New Year eve.
On that fateful evening, the enchanted coins were wrapped in red paper and placed under the pillow of the sleeping child. Even with the couple keeping vigil, the demon boldly made its appearance by way of a powerful gust of wind that blew the doors and windows ajar.
Just as the Sui was reaching out for the child, the pillow began to take on a shimmering golden hue that startled the demon and banished it back to the realm of darkness. The magical effect of the coins wrapped in red paper spread like wildfire and everyone began adopting the practice to ward off the evil spirit.
TRADITION CATCHES ON
Eventually, it became custom for married couples, who were deemed adults, to present children and those who were single with money wrapped in red paper during Chinese New Year as protective talismans, as well as to bring good fortune.
Until today, the amount given during this auspicious celebration is always in an even number as odd aggregates are usually associated with condolence money given at funerals. People from the Cantonese and Hokkien dialect groups often go a step further by giving hongbao in pairs to the children of close relatives, as tradition has it that good things always come in twos.
The practice of folding plain red paper for this purpose began to ebb sometime in the late 19th century, when enterprising printing press owners began producing ready-to-use red envelopes. This novel invention, in turn, saw the rise in popularity of paper money over coins.
Apart from being a better fit for the printed envelopes, banknotes are favoured until today as they are lighter and, unlike coins, made it difficult for the recipient to judge the amount given without physically opening the hongbao. Thus, adding an air of suspense to the act of generosity.
BANKS LEAD THE WAY
While browsing through my collection of vintage red packets that have been painstakingly formed over the years through repeated flea market visits, it becomes obvious that a vast majority of those produced in Malaya during the post-war years were issued by local financial institutions.
Among the noteworthy are banks like Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank today), Development and Commercial Bank (D&C Bank) and the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), as well as several smaller financial companies, such as Visa Finance and Sim Lim Finance.
One particular hongbao, featuring a cute Mickey Mouse dressed in a Chinese costume lighting a string of fire crackers, stands out above the rest. Issued by the Chartered Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank) to coincide with the Lunar Year of the Rat in 1972, the design was part of the Disney character series used during a campaign to inculcate the habit of saving money among young account holders.
Excited by the fact that this fast approaching Lunar New Year welcomes the arrival of the Metal Rat, I decide to take a walk down memory lane and trace the development of the oldest bank in Malaysia following the establishment of its first branch in Penang some 145 years ago in 1875.
Known then as the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China with its headquarters in London, its early business was primarily concentrated on the rapidly growing trade in Asia, including parts of the Malay Archipelago.
EARLY BANKING ACTIVITIES
The aim of providing trade finance and exchange facilities for British merchants who shadowed the expansion of the British East India Company paid handsome profits for the bank. The strong influence gained back home in England prompted Queen Victoria to grant the bank a Royal Charter on Dec 29, 1853. The recognition was the first of its kind for a Western financial institution serving in the Far East.
In Penang, the bank quickly earned loyal support among local merchants and, within three short years, the branch had established a strong footing on the island in terms of exchange volume, deposits and local note circulation.
During those early days, European merchant houses, like Boustead, Guthrie, Harrisons & Crosfield and Sime Darby, had
direct access to the bank while business with Asian customers were conducted largely through the services of Indian chettiars and Chinese compradors.
In the latter instance, banks issued credit notes against securities brought to them by these middlemen. The collateral often took the form of promissory notes, title deeds and, in extreme situations, bags of opium were accepted and stored in the bank vaults.
By the late 19th century, the bank’s fortunes grew in tandem with the tin rush and rubber boom that boosted entrepot trade in Penang. The fledgling British colony prospered as the influx of Chinese and Indian migrant workers destined for the interiors of Malaya transformed the sparsely inhabited island in the backwaters into a thriving business hub.
The flow of money into the Malay states prompted the Chartered Bank to initiate plans for the establishment of more branches in towns, like Taiping in Perak, to provide credit and trade financing facilities for tin mining and rubber concerns.
Forays into Selangor began in the 1860s when the bank started financing investors from Penang and Singapore, which were keen on setting up strategically located trading posts in Kuala Lumpur and the rest of the Klang Valley that had rich tin deposits.
During those days, the Klang Valley tin output was comparable to those from Perak’s Kinta Valley and together they accounted for more than half of the total exports, making Malaya the world’s largest producer of tin.
Some three decades later, the large scale cultivation of rubber began edging out former cash crops like tapioca, gambir and pepper, which were suffering declining fortunes. Aided by innovative planting and tapping techniques, as well as ample financing from banks, rubber began vying with tin for pole position as the most important export commodity from Malaya.
PRIVATE BANK NOTE ISSUERS
The Chartered Bank was among four private note-issuing banks in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore in the second half of the 19th century. The official currencies in use then were a mixture of Mexican and Spanish coins, Hong Kong dollars, Indian rupees, Dutch duit, Japanese yen and American dollars.
Paper notes issued by these commercial banks after 1860 were in larger denominations and that alleviated the problem of coin shortages. Those bank notes, however, were not legal tender and had to be backed by silver dollars and securities of equivalent value.
The Chartered Bank in Penang began issuing bank notes from the date of its establishment in 1875 to 1907. The numbers, dates and signatures of the managers and accountant were individually handwritten on each piece that was engraved and printed by the London firm of W.W. Sprague Company. This practice ceased a decade after the Straits Settlements government began printing its own currency notes in 1899.
The early 20th century saw an unprecedented demand for tin and rubber from industrialised Western countries and that gave the Malayan economy a significant boost. Banks seized the opportunity to open more branches to provide financial services to agencies and companies that had mushroomed in the wake of the boom.
The Chartered Bank led the way with new offices in Klang in 1909, Seremban (1910), Melaka (1911) Ipoh (1912) and Alor Star (1920). It was also during that time that the bank changed its policy and ventured into domestic banking, throwing its doors open to all and sundry.
Malaya suffered little consequences of World War 1 and experienced an expanded trade with Europe during that period despite a steady decrease in the number of ships available to transport tin and rubber.
By the time hostilities ended, the Penang branch, based at 11 Beach Street, was in dire need of additional space for business expansion. As a result, the present 20,000sq ft site, nine doors up the same road, was acquired.
Although plans for the new building were approved in 1925, construction was delayed due to problems concerning the foundation and the structure was only ready several years later.
The opening of the grand new building was, however, marred by the onset of the Great Depression which began in 1929. Worldwide demand for commodities slumped and prices fluctuated severely.
Fortunately, the bank weathered the decade long economic storm admirably thanks to its earlier decision to secure a more diverse client base.
SURVIVING THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION
The Chartered Bank was not spared during the Japanese Occupation. Many of its premises throughout Malaya were damaged by bombs, while others were stripped of their furniture and fittings by looters before they were repurposed by the occupying force.
In Kuala Lumpur, the bank building was occupied by the Telecommunications Department, while the Seremban premise gave way to the Yokohama Specie Bank. Worse still, the Klang office became headquarters to the dreaded Kempeitai, or the Japanese secret police. Unfortunate victims of frivolous trials were locked in strongrooms and the office was used as a torture chamber.
War came to an end in August 1945 and, despite its crippling losses, the bank exhibited exemplary conduct by honouring all deposits with interest. Branches were quickly refurbished and reopened while surviving staff members were each paid at least eight months’ worth of salary in lieu of the lost years.
Post-war recovery was, however, hampered by communist instigated labour unrests and the Malayan Emergency.
Thanks in part to the bank’s support for post-war rehabilitation efforts through the provision of loans for the restoration of rubber estates, production of the commodity quickly bounced back to pre-war levels and a reasonable external trade balance was restored.
A growing sense of nationalism among Malayans at that time culminated in Independence for Malaya and the end of British rule in 1957. That historical milestone ushered a new era of dramatic changes in the way banks conducted business and the dynamism placed the industry in good stead until this very day.
While returning my hongbao collection to its storage space, sight of a partially hidden packet of recently acquired bric-a-brac brings to mind that the adoption of the hongbao by the other races in Malaysia through the custom of handing out monetary gifts in envelopes.
Instead of red packets, Muslims show a preference for green envelopes as the colour is traditionally associated with Islam. During Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations, it is custom for families to prepare money for visitors and well-wishers and many felt it is more presentable to distribute them in green envelopes.
This adaptation of the hongbao is believed to be based on the Muslim custom of sedekah (voluntary charity), which, unlike the practice of zakat, is not considered a religious obligation.
At the same time, banks join in the festivities by issuing purple envelopes to Indian customers during Deepavali. In Hinduism, this colour represents the noble attributes of wisdom and purity of mind.
Today, the presentation of monetary gifts in envelopes has evolved into a universally accepted way for Malaysians to present monetary gifts as expressions of gratitude, love, care and appreciation to those around them.