What we do on Chinese New Year

Photo-taking and columbarium visits

Four families and an individual share their yearly traditions, from dressing up for a photo shoot to cooking a special dish to watching a Jack Neo movie

Every year, on the first day of Chinese New Year, before visiting any relatives, the Cheongs take part in a family ritual.

The first part involves taking a picture in the living room of their terrace house in Telok Kurau. Using a camera on a tripod, the family of five take a dozen family portraits in formal and wacky poses.

The father, Mr Jeff Cheong, 40, who is the president of advertising agency Tribal Worldwide Asia, says this is to "track how fast our children have grown".

He and his accountant wife, Ms Faith Koh, 40, have been taking such family shots since their son Seth was born 12 years ago. They have two daughters, Beth, 10, and Janneth, seven.

Ms Koh says she enjoys seeing how her children have changed year on year.

"Janneth has lost her baby fat while Seth now wears glasses and is almost a teenager," she says.

The second part of their family ritual is to pay respects to their dead grandparents.

The first stop of their itinerary is a temple in Tanah Merah to pay respects to Ms Koh's mother, whose ashes are kept there. She died 11 years ago of pneumonia.

"For us, Chinese New Year is a time for family reunion, even with those who have died," says Mr Cheong, who is also a council member at Families For Life, which promotes resilient families.

During the 15 minutes or so that the family spends in front of the niche storing her mother's ashes, Ms Koh would regale the children with tales of a grandmother they have few memories of.

She says: "I would make an effort to tell them a different story each time. But one story I like to repeat, to Seth especially, is how even though my mum's right leg was amputated at the knee due to a tumour, she was able to take care of him with the help of a helper, and even bathed him independently, in the early months of his life."

Seth was 10 months old when his grandmother died.

After Mr Cheong's father suddenly died after suffering a stroke-induced fall in 2012, the family has added a trip to Mandai Columbarium where the older Mr Cheong's ashes are kept, as part of their Chinese New Year itinerary.

The children, who were close to their grandfather, used to visit him every week when he was alive.

Mr Cheong says: "He doted on them and always prepared their favourite treats when they visited. Seth also enjoyed playing chess with him."

At the columbarium, it would be Mr Cheong's turn to tell his children stories about his father.

"I like to tell them about his childhood, how he gave up his studies and started working when he was 15 to help his parents support his four younger siblings. The children show interest and would ask questions."

He and his wife feel that it is important for their children to remember their loved ones who have died.

He says: "It's a way for them to know their roots."

After his father's death, Mr Cheong, the only son in a family of three children, has also taken over hosting the extended family dinner, a family tradition that takes place on the second day of Chinese New Year for as long as he can remember.

In recent years, he has been taking family portraits for the smaller family units who attend the gathering and sending them the photos for keepsakes.

He says: "I hope that like us, they can also have their own family portraits to see how much their children have grown over the years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Photo-taking and columbarium visits'. Print Edition | Subscribe