SINGAPORE, Feb 11 — Leave taken near Chinese New Year would typically be used to spring clean and prepare for the festive celebrations, but 43-year-old Tim Ho uses these days off to museum hop, all for the love of red packets.

“Once we know when the ang pow campaign starts, I quickly book a tour slot at museums that require you to (do so) for the ang pow, take leave and plan which museums to go first,” said the casino dealer, who spent four days of his leave to hunt for these red packets.

“Some of us collectors will then go around (Singapore) together to finish our collection together.”

He is not alone. With 30 to 40 museums, heritage galleries and institutions giving out these empty red packets yearly, 46-year-old Sally Ng, a civil servant, started a Facebook group for fellow collectors to trade and share information about red packet collections to “make things easier”.

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The Facebook group, which she started in 2020, now has more than 270 members. Members request trades to complete their collection and share information about the requirements to redeem the red packets from the different museums.

Some like Ng and Ho have also found life-long friends with whom they spend every year collecting the red packets.

At the centre of their yearly hunt is the Museum Roundtable, a collective established by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to promote museum-going in Singapore, and its red packet giveaway.

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More than 60 museums are part of the collective, although not all museums participate in the annual giveaway — which started in 2011 with 39 museums.

With some breaks in subsequent years, the ang pow handout’s 10th edition this year sees a record 43 members of the Museum Roundtable taking part.

They include the Singapore Arts Museum, Singapore Navy Museum, Woodbridge Museum and Republic of Singapore Air Force Museum.

On offer are red packets decorated with an illustrated dragon and the museum’s building facade or an exhibit.

In response to TODAY’s queries, NHB said that about 29,000 sets of red packets were available for collection this year across the museums, and that it is “appreciative of the support” that Ng and members of the Facebook group have given to the campaign.

Each museum sets different requirements for the redemption of the red packets.

Some, such as the National University of Singapore Baba House, require guests to attend their guided tours while others require ang pow hunters only to follow the museum’s social media page.

Several locations ran out of the red packets within the first few days of the Museum Roundtable’s campaign which ran from Jan 12 to Feb 9, such as the National Library Board and the National Museum of Singapore.

NHB also sold 450 collector box sets of red packets — including two sets of all 43 designs and an exclusive NHB red packet with an orange background.

“The proceeds from the sales of the box sets will be channelled back to NHB for use in the planning of upcoming museum and heritage programmes,” it told TODAY. Each box set costs S$108 (RM382).

Chasing red packets

When she would receive red packets as a child, Ho kept the “pretty ones”, often featuring unique designs and features.

It was in 2015 when she found out about the Museum Roundtable through her colleague at the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

“She had taken the red packet from the HDB gallery and showed us — we all wondered since when did HDB have red packets (that were) so cute,” Ms Ng recalled.

She and some colleagues then went to the gallery to collect their red packets, and that was where they learnt about the Museum Roundtable’s campaign.

From then on, she and her colleagues would spend their lunch breaks visiting participating museums, such as in-house ones at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

Weekends would be spent visiting other museums further from her office to collect their red packets or scrolling through online marketplace Carousell for people to trade or buy these museum-themed red packets.

“Back then, the red packets weren’t all free because some museums required you to buy an admission ticket. So I would buy (the admission) ticket and visit these (museum) exhibits,” Ng said. Her last museum visit before 2015 was when she was a student.

“Because of the red packet, I realised how many museums we have in Singapore,” she added.

Her collection is also documented on her computer, where she has fun facts for each collection, including which museums joined the campaign in that year and which artist designed the year’s red packet.

As she spent the days leading up to the holiday running around museums, though, Ng grew increasingly frustrated year after year.

This was because she would sometimes reach a museum only to find that the red packets were fully redeemed.

“A lot of time was wasted. These museums are spread across Singapore and some are quite inaccessible like the NEWater one,” she recalled, referring to the NEWater Visitor Centre in Tanah Merah.

That was when she created the Facebook group.

“(The Facebook group) is only busy near Chinese New Year and goes dead during the rest of the year,” Ng added with a chuckle. “I usually offer some of my extra pieces after the festivities, or trade them to help others complete their collections.”

She has made friends through the group and she works with them to finish their collections by splitting up the museums they need to visit.

While Ng’s goal is to collect one piece of red packet for each museum, Ho takes his love for red packets to another level.

So much so that he has to wear gloves if he takes a red packet out of its plastic packaging, and collects only full sets of red packets.

“If you touch it with your hands, you leave fingerprints and oil stains so they don’t age well,” the collector told TODAY.

He has collected all Museum Roundtable red packets over the years and has also bought every collector set.

Although he collects other red packets — such as those issued by banks — the red packets from museums are his favourite.

“It’s a big collection of 30 to 40 museums and when you look at them together, it makes you feel very happy,” Ho said, adding that the collection size means he has collectors in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China often asking to trade for the red packets.

His red packet collection is “in the thousands”, which he stores in a box that he opens occasionally to admire.

Ho has a friend group of “fellow aunties and uncles” with whom he goes red-packet hunting.

Once NHB announces the list of participating museums typically at the start of the year, he strategically plans which museums to visit and applies for leave from his employer.

He has met fellow collectors on his hunt who offered to drive him around for the day. They also split taxi fares for hard-to-reach places.

“Sometimes we’ll forget to eat lunch, but we keep telling ourselves, ‘Just one more’,” he said with a laugh. “We just have dinner at the end.”

This year, he has taken extra red packets for a friend with whom he used to collect red packets, but she is unable to do it now due to her ailing health.

Ng said: “You’ll find a lot of kindness among the collectors... we’re all just trying to help each other finish our collection.

“You feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when you look at all your red packets that you manage to collect.”

For Ng, collecting a full Chinese zodiac cycle worth of museum red packets is her goal and she hopes NHB will print more red packets each year so that more people can join in the fun of collecting them.

Ho also has a similar goal and hopes to one day publish a book documenting his collection of red packets “like a museum”.

“People always ask me what I’m going to do with all my red packets when I die,” he told TODAY.

“I love my red packet collection so much, I want to be cremated with them.” — TODAY