Just days before the dawn of the Year of the Monkey, David Pham walked out of a Wells Fargo bank in Little Saigon — past tubs of purple holiday orchids — clutching $500 in crisp bills.
He spread them out across his palm, satisfied.
"When we give lucky money as a gift, it has to be new," Pham said. "The newness is part of the beginning of another year. If it's old and wrinkled, it's not special."
Pham, who owns a financial services firm in Westminster, will mark the Lunar New Year Monday by presenting the li xi in traditional red envelopes to youngsters in his inner circle as well as to clients.
In the run-up to the celebration — the biggest of the year for many in the Vietnamese and Chinese communities here — banks stock millions of dollars worth of new bills to fill their customers' needs.
At the Wells Fargo and a Bank of America branch on Bolsa Avenue in the heart of Orange County's Little Saigon, immigrants streamed in and out all afternoon, leaving with stacks of $50, $20, $10 and $2 bills (the most popular request).
"I like to have plenty of $2 bills … people like to collect it," said Pham, who planned to mail some money gifts to folks out-of-state to wish them safety and prosperity in the coming months.
Paul Lai, a manager at the BofA, said he ordered three shipments of $2 million each in January to make sure there would be enough new bills to meet the demand. By contrast, he said, the bank orders $200,000 to $300,000 in new bills for casual gift-giving at Thanksgiving, and about $500,000 for Christmas.
"It's a huge challenge for us for when they deliver the bills," he said. "It takes three hours for employees to sort and count the packages before putting money away in our vault."
In the weeks before Tet, as the Lunar New Year is known in Vietnamese, Lai works six days a week, supervising a staff of 17. No one is allowed to schedule a vacation before mid-February.
Little Saigon is a magnet for Vietnamese around the world who return to be with family during the holiday, Lai said. "They get off the plane or even Xe Do Hoang" — a regional bus service — and the first thing people do is head to the bank, he said.
Then there are those with plans to go to Vietnam, some of whom want to take up to $10,000 to help finance extended families.
"I always change money weeks ahead," said Son Ly, who had lost his job as a restaurant cook and was selling Tet decorations.
He stood outside the Thai Son grocery on Bolsa Avenue, surrounded by sticky rice cakes, red and gold lanterns and pots of mums and gladioluses. He also was hawking the red money envelopes, $1 for a packet of 6.
"All the traditions of the homeland, I will keep," he said, noting that he had more than 20 children to give money to — plus a few elders.
"The newness makes a difference," said Linh Pham, a teacher at Coastline Beauty College in Westminster. She had just been shopping at Trai Cay Ngon, a local fruit seller, where she bought cherimoyas to place on an ancestral altar.
"You should see their faces when they open the envelope and see old money," Pham said. "They frown and they're asking why you didn't take the time to prepare."
"That's so true," said her friend Ricky Tran, an engineer from Seattle who had just moved to Southern California. "These are like blessings. They're part of what you share from your good intentions to someone who you want to make happy and do well."
With Tran was family friend Maria Huynh, who at 90 rules as matriarch over nine children and their assorted children and grandchildren.
Asked about Lunar New Year spending, she chortled: "They're the ones who have to be gifting me — I'm old, I don't have money left."