“You cannot give time”
In Chinese culture, you cannot give someone a clock, watch, or any other time-keeping device as it is seen as giving the person time or highlighting how much time they have left on earth. It is especially insulting if given to someone older than you. So instead of giving someone a clock or other time-keeping device, you sell it to them. The person you are “gifting” the clock to will then give you a penny (or the lowest form of currency of that region) so that they are instead purchasing it from you.
Death is terrifying for most people and thus their culture will reflect that fear of the uncertainty. This practice shows the desire to ignore the passing time, or at least not acknowledge that there time may be coming to close. It also showcases a level of respect shown to ones elders in Asian culture that is not seen in American culture.
Scholar Annamma Joy writes about this in Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties where on page 250, she reports on a field study where a participant said, “I did buy a clock for a friend, but in Chinese culture clocks are never given as gifts because they are associated with death. But before I gave the gift, I asked her for a small amount of money, so that it appeared as if she had bought it for herself.”
Joy, Annamma. “Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 239–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322900. Accessed 1 May 2020.
Penny for a Clock