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The Significance of Numbers and Colors
by Angi Ma Wong

Quick! What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read the following?

  1. Black and Orange
  2. Red and Green
  3. Black and Yellow
  4. Red, White, and Blue

Did you answer a. Halloween? b. Christmas? c. a bumble bee? d. an American flag? What other color symbols can you think of?

In Asian cultures, colors have hidden meanings too. Using the wrong colored ink when printing someone's name or decorating your showroom in colors associated with death may be "deadly" to your marketing or sales efforts.

The following list of colors and their descriptions can enlighten you on some of these cultural pitfalls.


It stands for joy and happiness to the Chinese and Japanese. To the former, it also represents fire and the direction south. Some Koreans associate this color with communism and do not like the use of it. Avoid using pens with red ink in your bank or office where Asian customers have to sign their names. To some, the appearance of one's name in red ink is associated with being deceased! On the other hand, just as "red-letter" days are cause for celebration in the United States on calendars everywhere, Chinese clients and customers may choose a "red number day" to celebrate a birthday, the movie into a new home, open a business, or conduct a birthday party.


This color is associated with heaven and the emperor in China. Do not wear purple (or white) to a Japanese wedding as this is considered bringing bad luck to the newlyweds. As purple is known to be the quickest color to fade, your wearing it would mean that the love/marriage may suffer the same fate.


It is a favorite of the Japanese who use it in glazed tiles for roofs on their houses. (An example of this can be seen on many residences in Japan, or even closer to us, throughout the Japanese Village Plaza in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.) To the Chinese, on the contrary, it is unlucky to wear blue flowers or ribbons in one's hair and a sign of mourning for women is to wear a blue yarn flower bobby-pinned on their tresses. The blue which printers call reflex blue, also known as ultramarine blue, is the funeral color worn by many Chinese.


To the Chinese, this is the wonderful color of health, growth, family life, wood, youth, prosperity, and harmony. Notice in your local Chinatown how popular this color is as a roofing material.


This color represents the earth for the Chinese and another imperial color. Taoists monks wear the color gold while Buddhist monks wear orange. Yellow chrysanthemums are a funeral flower to Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.


It is the universal funeral color throughout the world. Just as in the West, this color stands for purity and innocence and the direction west. Indian men as well as women wear white to funerals. Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese use white and yellow chrysanthemums in funeral floral sprays and wreaths so do not send this combination for happy occasions.


It is often associated with guilt, evil, death, mourning, and the direction north. Many Japanese and Chinese like the combination of black with red, but not black with white as this is a funeral combination. Indians consider black as unlucky or a bad omen.

     There are a few miscellaneous details regarding colors that I need to mention here. Women should avoid wearing red, white, blue, or black to a Chinese wedding. The first is reserved for the bride; the remaining are the colors of mourning.

     When presenting gifts to your Japanese friends, neighbors or business associates, use pastel colors (or red for a wedding) but not white. You can also skip the bows and ribbons. For most Asians, black is an inappropriate color for gift wrapping so resist the urge to use the "Over the hill" wraps so popular for 40 and 50-year birthday celebrations. Allusions to death and dying are considered very inauspicious or in extremely bad taste. Never give a clock to a Chinese for it has funeral connotations. Syrians consider brown their funeral color as it symbolizes falling leaves.

     Gift giving is conducted privately so as not to appear as a bribe (except at a banquet to a public official). In Arab communities, giftgiving is handled so as not to appear underhanded. Opening a gift in the presence of the giver is not considered polite and the recipient should not be urged to do so.

     What constitutes an appropriate gift for your Asian clients at the closure of a home or a major purchase? For the Japanese and upper class Asian clients, signature gift items are always appreciated, although they should not be too personal. Desk sets, leather goods, handmade wood accessories, fine European crystal (Lalique) or American china and silver (Lennox, Waterford, etc.), beautiful coffee table books make good corporate gifts for men.

     For women, I have found that elegant, American-made costume jewelry such as Trifari and Monet, scarves and small leather items are liked very much by wives of executives. You don't have to spend a bundle, but rather be original or creative. Sometimes finding something beautifully handcrafted, original, or unusual, (mainstream but not bizarre or weird) such as hand painted silk, can be appropriate.

     A generous basket with sparkling wines or cider, fine chocolates, beautiful fruit (kiwis, apples, oranges, etc.), and imported coffees make a gift that everyone in a family can enjoy. A big, wide red bow should be tied on the handle. As cheeses are not universally liked, you may wish to leave them out of the basket. Just for the record, many Asian are lactose-intolerant.

     Another gift well received is a house plant with its container hidden in a wicker or brass pot (with its big red bow). Ficus trees, schefflera, Chinese evergreens, and other hardy, low-maintenance house plants can be good candidates. If someone you know is opening a business, a dwarf kumquat, orange, or tangerine tree is in order, for the green leaves represent growth, the gold-colored fruit, prosperity.

     Some Japanese do not like receiving a potted plant if they are hospital patients, for the roots signify a long stay. For them, cut flowers which will quickly wilt and die means that they will recover and home just as quickly. The opposite is true for many Chinese who view cut flowers as funeral (especially those yellow or white chrysanthemums) and would prefer potted plants instead.

     The top alcoholic gifts are the best brandies and cognacs such as XO, Hennessey, Courvasier, Martell, and scotches such as Chivas Regal, Crown Royal, Johnny Walker Black. These can be served to guests at family, business, and social occasions. Remember: don't be stingy when choosing a gift. After all, if your client or customer has just made a million-dollar purchase, the least you can do to is to splurge on a respectable, generous token of appreciation for his business. These are the details that will be noted, remembered, and recounted to the others in his network.

     Whether you are presenting a status or thoughtful gift, be certain that it is not manufactured or produced in any Asian country. On the other hand, if you are taking executive wives shopping, you may be amazed to find them interested in the apparel made in their countries that appear in our retail stores. The highest quality knits and other clothing are made for export and the natives never see their counterparts in their own countries.

     There are other influences that may impact the conduct of business. Elders, parents, and other siblings, may be consulted. Many Chinese wont' make a move without consulting the almanac called the tung shu that is sold around the lunar new year. Others swear by the ancient Book of Changes, the I Ching, astrologers, and fortune tellers. In India, astrologers are consulted for major decisions regarding business and marriage.

Other articles by Angi:
The Significance of Numbers
The Significance of Colors
Crash Course on Asian Corporate Etiquettes

This article is from Target: The U.S. Asian Market
Copyright Angi Ma Wong, 1993





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