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Shirley Leung

For Charlie Baker, it’s a matter of outreach — with a stash of luck

Charlie Baker soon learned the meaning of lucky money.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Everywhere Charlie Baker goes he carries with him a secret.

As governor he has to be impeccably turned out — pressed shirts, sharp ties, crisp suits — but in his pocket at all times is this frayed red envelope from a tradition he hardly understands. All he knows is that to be without the envelope is to invite trouble.

“It falls into the category of, ‘Why mess with a good thing?,’ ” explained Baker last week sitting in his ceremonial office in the State House. “We won the election. We had a pretty good first year. I’m scared to death to leave the house without it.”

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If you are Chinese, you know exactly what the red envelope is: lucky money given out on special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and most notably during the lunar new year, which starts Monday.

Baker received the envelope stuffed with a $2 bill at a campaign stop in Chinatown in August 2014. A man from the crowd handed it to him with the simple instruction: “Good luck.”

The Republican needed plenty of it if he was going to win in a state dominated by Democrats. Baker beat the odds — besting gubernatorial rival Martha Coakley. A year into office, Baker now has the distinction of being the most popular governor in America, with some polls showing him with an approval rating of more than 70 percent.

Baker may be feeling lucky, but in many ways he made his own luck when he pursued the vote in Chinatown, something he failed to do in his crushing loss to Deval Patrick in 2010.

Though the community was unfamiliar territory, Baker knew whom to go to first: Uncle Frank.

“I knew that Frank was a real elder statesman in Chinatown,” said the governor.

Uncle Frank is Frank Chin. He and his brother Billy built a restaurant empire that started in the 1960s with China Pearl, in Chinatown.

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Billy ran the business, while Frank worked in the administrations of three Boston mayors: Kevin White, Ray Flynn, and Tom Menino. Both brothers had become politically active, but it was Frank who acted as the front man and old-school ward boss who knew how to get out the vote.

The first meeting with Baker took place in Chinatown in the spring of 2014 over Chinese takeout from Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant. Baker and his team met with Frank Chin at his family association’s office on Harrison Avenue.

Over pork buns and dumplings, Baker and Chin got to know each other. The longtime Democrat had crossed party lines before. He supported both Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci in their campaigns — two governors Baker worked for. But that’s not the reason Chin backed Baker.

Truth be told, Chin didn’t want Coakley to win. He had been unhappy with how the attorney general’s office handled inquiries into a Chinatown nonprofit that he thought was improperly spending funds.

That was that. “I wanted to help Baker,” said Chin, 83.

Help came in the form of arranging about a half-dozen meetings and campaign stops in and around Chinatown, from a senior home to the August Moon Festival.

Chin, along with help from Republican state Representative Don Wong from Saugus, plastered some 100 Baker signs all over Chinatown. As he does for other candidates he supports, Chin also gave Baker a Chinese name so he could connect with voters in their native language.

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There was never a press release sent out about Chin’s endorsement, but one wasn’t needed.

People knew, especially the day of the August Moon Festival, when throngs descended on Chinatown to enjoy street food and cultural performances. Baker walked around with Chin and his political entourage. The candidate worked the crowd, took the mike for some brief remarks, and then ended up by the volleyball courts off Kneeland Street.

Throughout the campaign, supporters are always giving candidates something – hats, T-shirts, books. But when an older Chinese man handed Baker a red envelope, he had no idea what it was for.

“I thought he was looking for a donation,” recalled Baker.

The candidate slipped some money into the envelope and gave it back.

Obviously, Baker had never heard of the Chinese tradition of lucky money.

The man, completely perplexed, politely returned Baker’s money, waved the red envelope in his face, and proclaimed that it was for him and for “good luck.”

While many people spend their lucky money, Wong told Baker he should carry it around. Passing out red envelopes, or hong bao, is a centuries-old tradition, a way to wish good fortune and ward off evil spirits in the new year, according to a University of California Irvine student research project on the topic.

In modern times, the tradition has extended to other occasions such as weddings and birthdays, and they’re usually given to kids and young adults.

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The Chinese prefer to use new bills and consider the $2 denomination lucky, and banks that serve the community know to stock up ahead of the lunar new year.

By all accounts, giving out a red envelope during an election campaign is a bit unusual. The one the governor has features a ship and a Chinese saying that wishes the recipient “smooth travels” or “smooth sailing.”

The governor said he’s not superstitious, but the red envelope resonated with him.

“You pick up stuff on a campaign that sort of reflect some of the moments of the race,” said Baker. “There are plenty of moments that are tough and negative, but there are also a whole bunch of moments that are nice and positive. For me, it was a real nice positive moment.”

With his “lucky money” always on him, Baker has become a regular visitor to Chinatown and has more events scheduled in the next few months, including attending a Chinese New Year banquet.

And of course, the governor has not forgotten Uncle Frank. Chin has Baker’s cellphone number, and they continue to talk about issues facing the Chinese community.

Chin said he likes the governor’s “down-to-earth” nature, and Baker said he likes Chin because he is “the most unassuming sort of low-key, aw-shucks kind of person you’d ever meet.”

The Chinatown leader not only got to attend the governor’s inauguration ceremony at the State House and his State of the State address in January but scored some good seats.

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“We were sitting in the third row!” exclaimed Chin. “I said, ‘Wow, what a nice feeling. The governor treated us so nicely.’ ”

Perhaps he has to. He doesn’t want to push his luck.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.