There’s no celebration in the world like Lunar New Year — red envelopes, firecrackers, lion dances and people saying “Gong hei fat choy” in Cantonese or “Gong xi fa cai” in Mandarin to each other.
The only thing is, those phrases don’t mean Happy New Year. It’s wishing you good fortune, wealth and riches. So when did Chinese people and other Asian groups start saying this phrase?
One source claims that the Cantonese version supposedly stemmed from the post-Opium War era in the mid-19th century and from the Guangzhou Cantonese dialect.
The Lowy Institute states that it started during the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861–1895) in the late Qing period around the Guangdong region. Chinese workers wished their foreign employers to gain wealth so they could share it with them.
University of Indonesia linguistic professor Hermina Sutami even broke down the emotions behind “Gong hei fat choy/Gong xi fa cai” and found that the blessing had the component meanings “[+positive expectation] [+hope] [+rich] [+business] [+treasure].” To her, the optimal time to say the phrases would be to a business partner since the thought behind it is “success in business.”
Wishing good fortune and wealth on Lunar New Year is a tradition shared all over Asia in countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and more. More recently, Malaysian actor and comedian Ronny Chieng popularized the translation “Hope you get rich” in his 2019 Netflix standup special.
“The go-to phrase during Chinese New Year isn’t, ‘Hey, happy New Year,’” Chieng says. “It’s, ‘Yo, hope you get rich’…and you better hope I get rich.”
Now the phrases are synonymous with the Lunar New Year and are said around the world. You can also cheekily tack on the following rhyming phrases, “lai see dou loi” (in Cantonese) or “hong bao na lai” (in Mandarin) to ask for a red envelope after.
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