Not just another festive family portrait

For as long as I can remember, my family has had the tradition of taking family portraits during Chinese New Year.

The photo-taking sessions are usually fraught with tension.

I would get impatient with my father because he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with his camera, trying to figure out the best way to frame the shot.

My mother, who has always taken great pride in decorating the house for festive occasions, would annoy my younger brother and me by cajoling us to strike different poses in front of the various decorations.

It is tiresome posing with the Mandarin oranges, floral baskets and fake firecrackers - all props for the annual Sim family portrait.

We would heave loud sighs and roll our eyes. All this is pointless, I remember thinking to myself.

But this year, I see a different picture as I gear up for the annual ritual.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I dig out family portraits from previous years and see beyond the kitschy decorations: The different homes we lived in through financial highs and lows, the pieces of furniture we inherited from deceased loved ones that we could not bear to part with and the changes in our physical appearance over the years.

I am struck by how the passing years have left their mark on my parents in the form of wrinkles, age spots, larger eyebags, greying hair and visibly thinner frames.

Yet ageing has not made their personalities grey.

My mother's flamboyance continues to shine through with her colourful outfits and matching accessories, while my father would be in brightly coloured shirts with a wide grin on his face.

Some photos evoke deeper emotions. One fills me with tenderness as it captures me hugging my baby brother tightly around his chubby waist, while another makes me ashamed because it harks back to a time of personal failure. Yet another makes me wistful, because it reminds me of the death of my maternal grandmother and her subsequent absence from the photos.

But the sadness of that subtraction is balanced by the joy of seeing additions: My brother's girlfriend and my then boyfriend (now husband). They are always invited to be a part of the photos.

There is so much more beyond what is visible.

To us in the know, each frame whispers of family secrets, unseen shared struggles, sacrifice, loyalty and the constant choosing of love and forgiveness over hurts and mistakes made.

The photos showcase decades of togetherness. The process of taking each photo may be annoying, but even that is something unique to our family and, hence, something to remember.

Our family portrait this year is especially significant because it is our first image of a family within a family - my husband and I became proud parents of a baby girl last September.

As I carry her into my family home and am surrounded by the family portraits from years past, a surge of emotions overcomes me.

I feel the need for my husband and me to take our own family portrait.

My daughter's birth heralds the beginning of a new generation and I want to keep alive my family's tradition of taking a family portrait. Not just for myself, but also for her.

Because my parents kept at the ritual in spite of my lackadaisical attitude, I now have the photos as treasured mementos. If I persevere at this, some day, I trust she will come to grasp all that I now value about these images.

Each family portrait is a milestone in itself. And when put together, the portraits weave a powerful tapestry of moments captured, timeless memories and our shared history as a family.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Not just another festive family portrait'. Print Edition | Subscribe