(Photos by Zijia Song)

During Lunar New Year celebrations, Chinese, East Asian, and Southeast Asian elders traditionally give red envelopes to their children and grandchildren, who eagerly tear them open to find out how much money is inside. But Wednesday night at DeKalb Market Hall, the humble red packets were themselves valued at $10 to $400 apiece. No tearing in sight.

The atmosphere was festive as artists, mostly from New York and Los Angeles, showcased red envelopes adorned with rats, the zodiac animal of 2020. The perennial subway pest was glorified in the form of foodie rat, rat detective, rats dancing around the bonfire, and of course, Mickey Mouse. Even Scabby the Rat, the giant union protest inflatable, made an appearance. 

Traditionally, the red envelopes are meant to wish younger family members another safe and lucky year.  It’s considered rude to open the red envelope– — hong bao in Mandarin, lai see in Cantonese, and ang pow in Minnan– in front of the sender. But since red envelope money always comes in 100 yuan bills (roughly $14.70) and Chinese people like the round numbers 5 and 10, the experienced adults around me could always tell the exact amount of money simply from the thickness of the envelope. As a kid, whenever I received a red envelope, I’d watch with a mixture of amazement, excitement and slight concern as my dad held the envelopes between his thumb and index finger to determine whether the amount was socially appropriate for a little girl like me. 

Wednesday’s exhibition was put together by grumpy bert, an art gallery that was located in Brooklyn until its storefront closed in June 2018. Not all of the featured artists stuck to rats. Authan Chen explained that his piece of three children parading in jerboa, flying squirrel, and hedgehog costumes was a “twist” incorporating other kinds of rodents.

Authan Chen’s piece.

Other artists drew inspiration from their own lives. Aaron Meshon’s design portrays a comic full of dark humor. “Sometimes life gives you a curveball when you least expect it,” Meshon said in a text. “We lost our apartment in a fire last year and I wanted to make something slightly morbid. I wanted to make something cute, yet horrible. And hopefully make some people laugh ;)”

Aaron Meshon’s piece.