The other people splashing around in your gene pool are often the only ones who can inspire tears of both joy and frustration, pangs of pride and guilt. Your family can be a wellspring of strength and solace, or a battleground for a particularly nasty brand of warfare. Sometimes it can be both. If you're lucky, the people in your family give you a sense of who you are and where you belong. If you ever get time to talk to them, that is. With a bewildering array of economic and social pressures pulling children, parents and spouses in different directions in this most intense of cities, it's an increasingly hard task to spend any time together at all. 'Hong Kong has been through two economic downturns in the recent past and I think desperation sets in, parents don't know how to deal with this and so they substitute what kids need, which is time and attention, with material things,' says family advocate and banker Manny Ayala, who, with a group of other working parents, set up the Family First Foundation last year to promote better parenting. He freely admits he is no expert; just another parent wondering if he's doing the right thing by his two boys. 'I think a lot of parents have abdicated their position by saying, 'It's okay, the school is there, the maid is there, the kid is going to do all right,' ' he says. 'This is why I don't think our nuclear families work,' says Matilda Child Development Centre committee member Virginia Wilson, 33. She is an enthusiastic advocate of tribal societies, where children constantly learn from youngsters who are not their siblings and adults who are not their parents. But this is simply not possible for many people in Hong Kong, whose extended families may live on the mainland, in North America, Europe or elsewhere. Wilson, a single mother, says she relies instead on a close circle of friends. In Hong Kong, she says, 'Your friends become your family.' Families are changed not just by distance, but by divorce, remarriage, adoption, sexuality. For many, the nuclear family has become the unclear family. Yet, mostly, they are making it work. So as families of all backgrounds prepare to gather around trees, tables and altars to celebrate the holiday season, we took snapshots to find out how some of Hong Kong's families tick. Phil and Wendy Smith and their adopted children Victor, 12, Nina, nine, Benjamin, seven, and Rosie, six. Australians Phil and Wendy Smith tried to conceive their own child for 15 years before adopting their four Hong Kong Chinese children - all of whom are special-needs children suffering from autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or learning disorders. They began the adoption process after moving to Hong Kong in 1989, when Wendy was 35 and Phil 45. They had to wait an excruciating 16 months for their first child, Victor, four times longer than the average at the time. The pattern was repeated before the adoption of each child, with Phil struggling to get his weight down every time on the orders of government bureaucrats. 'You can smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish and swear like a trooper but if you're overweight you don't get to be a dad,' Phil says. Their compact Sha Tin flat could politely be described as a riot of activity: the shouts of the three excited youngest children compete with the blaring television, which is not going to be turned down by 12-year-old Victor for anyone. 'It's like having triplets. The youngest three are all about the same mental age,' says Phil, laughing. 'People say, these children are so lucky, you are so kind!' Wendy says. 'And it makes us cringe. These are our kids and we don't think of them as being different from other children. For us to be congratulated is ridiculous.' Luk King-tin, 44, and Jennie Ma Yuk-king, 41, with their children Ray Luk Chun-yue, 14, Roy Luk Hun-chung, 10, and Jocelyn Luk Wing-yi, four. 'My husband is a strange man,' says Ma, laughing. The marketing manager's strangeness - in a city in which violin and maths lessons are common for four-year-olds - is to encourage his 14-year-old son's love of sport. It's a form of rebellion against Luk's own strict father, Ma says. 'His parents made him study all the time. They prohibited him from riding a bike because they said cycling was very dangerous.' Ray trains every day as a competitive cyclist. 'He enjoys it very much, rather than studying,' Ma says. 'That's a little bit of a problem for me because I want him to study hard but my husband says children should be allowed to be children.' Luk taught himself to ride a bike four years ago, at 40, so he could keep up with his sons. The couple's two youngest - including, incredibly, their four-year-old daughter - are even keen unicycle riders. But these days the sport which once kept the family together on cycling expeditions through southern China, now keeps them on opposite sides of the SAR as the parents ferry their children to various training and competition exercises. In fact, the only time we could photograph them together was at 7am on a Sunday. Shriram Chaubal (right), 34, Rani Bharwani, 32, and Dhruv, five months. If family begins with childbirth, then Shriram Chaubal, 34, and Rani Bharwani, 32, are among Hong Kong's most enthusiastic proponents of new family life. The tech-savvy couple (Shri says he is an 'information addict') have turned a website they set up to share pictures of their baby, Dhruv, into a consumer-resource website for new parents in Hong Kong which rates everything from paediatricians to prams ( www.geobaby.com ). 'I feel like I've been promoted,' Rani laughs when she realises the word 'mother' refers to her. Shri concurs in a grappling-for-words, awestruck-father way: 'It was just a humbling experience, it's been mind-blowing seeing him smiling back and pretending to recognise me.' Thivhilaeli Makatu, 33, and his wife Nthabiseng, 32, with Tshilidzi, 10, Tiisetso, four, and Makatu, two (hiding behind his mother). The South African acting consul-general and his wife sorely miss their families in Limpopo province. 'Both of us come from extended family systems and you tend to miss that when you go abroad. That's where you get your natural support network from,' he says. 'If I have a personal problem, maybe I don't feel I can talk to someone in the office or someone I've met in Hong Kong. But I can always pick up the phone and speak to someone at home.' As he speaks, his daughter Tiisetso dashes around the family's Mid-Levels apartment pretending to host a party and speaking in a mixture of her first language Tshivenda, English, Norwegian (thanks to the family's previous posting) and a recently learned smattering of Cantonese. The Makatus say they were shocked by their first encounter with Hong Kong's family-unfriendly environment when they struggled to cross a busy street with a three-wheeled pram. 'People were pushing the stroller out of their way, and you'd just look at them and shake your head,' Thivhilaeli recalls. But as long as they sit down to their favourite comfort food of maize meal at least once a week, he says, 'we can retain our sanity'. Michael Leung Kai-cheung, 46, and his wife, Athena Chong Yin-nam, 25. RTHK Radio 2 DJ Leung married a woman 21 years his junior amid a storm of protest from her family. Chong's family appeared to support the marriage until the last minute; then they waged an unrelenting campaign to talk her out of it before boycotting the wedding. 'I never thought anything like this would happen to me - it was like a plot from a sitcom,' Chong exclaims. But a year after the wedding, the frosty situation finally began to thaw. Leung started going to Chong's family functions, and slowly, visit by visit, the awkwardness melted. 'I can't change that [age difference],' says Leung. 'It's a fact. Even though society thinks we're weird, like the Addams Family! It's a pity, because in our wedding photos there's not a single one of her family in the group. My wife is pregnant now, she gives birth in January, so maybe we should wait for that and get together for photos of the whole family then.' Hari Harilela, 80, his wife Padma, 70, and members of their extended family. Hong Kong's uber-family - at least in terms of the number of people living under one roof - is the Harilela dynasty. Its 24,000-square-foot Kowloon Tong mansion, built in 1970, has eight apartments built for the six Harilela sons and their two sisters; it can accommodate about 50 people. Another 38 people - the sons of the six brothers, their wives and families - live in the 10,500-sq-ft 'annex' next door. The hotel, banking and real estate tycoons have placed the house at the hub of a revolving universe of family gatherings, the most important of which is held around a buffet table every Sunday evening. Hari Harilela resisted suggestions 25 years ago that the six brothers should spread around the globe to diversify the group's business interests. 'I said no, in poverty we were together, why should we separate now we are rich?' he says. 'I think the greatest wealth I have is my family together, we were together in hardship and should not spread to different parts of the world and become strangers to each other.' Salvador 'Buddy' Fegarido, 43, his wife Nancy, 41, and their children Aniana, 15, Aaron, 11, and Abbey, 10. Catholicism sits squarely at the centre of the Fegaridos' family life. Salvador and Nancy believe they were called to do God's work in Hong Kong. 'Here our heart and soul and mind as a family is concerned with helping other people, that Jesus may do his important work through us,' Nancy says. Buddy, a civil engineer, Nancy, who runs a small service business, and the children take a statue of the Virgin Mary called the fatima into people's homes and offices to help them pray the rosary. 'Hong Kong is very materialistic and busy and sometimes people forget to pray,' Nancy says. Kate and Richard Wiseman, both 45, and Caitlin, 13, Sophia, eight, Jacob, 10, and Benjamin, six. Kate Wiseman was brought up a Catholic and is now Baha'i. Richard was born Jewish and still identifies with his heritage as well as his Baha'i faith. Every year, they display both Christmas and Hanukkah cards. Later, Sophia and Jacob sing a Baha'i song that includes every religious prophet from Jesus to Zoroasta to Buddha and says they are 'lamps of the one light'. The family also celebrates Chinese festivals for Caitlin and Jacob, Hong Kong Chinese children who were adopted after the Wisemans' five-year struggle with infertility. 'Candidly, I don't even see two Chinese and two Caucasian children, they are just my children,' Richard says. 'I also don't read a lot into the fact we adopted two and then had two biological children. I just see them as our family.' Virginia Wilson with James, three, and Samantha, two. Wilson, an executive committee member of the Matilda Child Development Centre, has seen plenty of single mothers coping alone with a special-needs child. She does not blame her own recent divorce on 'the special-needs issue'; but it certainly didn't help. James, who has high-functioning autism, appears intelligent but unruly as he rolls around the couch and his huge, pink, dog-shaped cushion. She anticipates he will have problems growing up with what is essentially a 'social communication disorder'. 'But do I worry about James? No,' she says, 'because James has a loving family and he has a sister who adores him and I have seen his ability to make friends at school now. But other kids, yes, if their families are not supportive and they don't try to make the play dates and they don't understand why social relationships are important, then they will become hermits. They will be the people who go online and stay online.' Eman Chiu, 25, and Abdul Rehman, 27. Chiu converted to Islam a year and a half ago; six months ago she married her Pakistani husband, Rehman, and their first child is due in April. Chiu's Hong Kong Chinese parents still call by her the name they gave her, Ching-yin, and don't cook pork in her presence, but otherwise her conversion didn't worry them. 'Yes, there are some cultural differences between us,' Chiu says of life with Rehman, 'but for anything we cannot resolve we go back to our religion for a solution.' Most of their clashes are culinary, she says, especially when she feels ill and wants a special Chinese soup but can't find any way to describe it to him. The English graduate mounts an energetic defence of her faith when it comes to women's roles in society. 'The father is the head of the family and the financial supporter, but it doesn't mean we can't go out to work,' she says. 'But the priority should be family. Being a mother is a great job and we should try to make the next generation a better one. I don't think it's a kind of dependence or an inferior kind of work. It's just a division of labour.' Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah (second right), 36, and Nelson Ng Chin-pang (far right), 31, with some of their 'kids', student gay and lesbian activists. Long-term gay couple Shaw, a former human-rights campaigner turned student, and Ng, a physiotherapist, married in a civil union in Vermont last year as both a symbol of their commitment and part of a political campaign to pressure the Hong Kong government to recognise their legal relationship, specifically for tax purposes. Not that finances appear to be at the forefront of the couple's minds as an amah prepares a Thai feast for the six students in their teens and early 20s - all gay and lesbian activists - whom Shaw calls 'my kids'. They drop in to Shaw's Homantin flat several times a week for dinner. It is momentarily surreal when the students refer to the couple as 'Roddy-Pa and Nel-Pa' and as their 'daddies'. Several of the young activists' mothers have visited the house over the years; but so far none of their fathers, in the rare cases in which they are around. 'To me,' Shaw says, 'a family is a place where it is safe to be who you are. I think everyone needs that place.' Nirav and Priti Gandhi, both 32, with Ansh, two, and Shaivi, six months. Nirav and Priti Gandhi had an arranged marriage, as they always imagined they would. Unusually, their parents all agreed they could could have an 'out clause' if they didn't get on after a six-month engagement. But they fell in love. 'I thought [an arranged marriage] was the sensible thing to do,' Nirav says.'It was better to go ahead with the blessing of our parents rather than have a confrontation with them. I think an arranged marriage is less volatile. Both partners go in expecting to compromise and so they will work very hard to make the marriage work. We find people who have love matches are more reluctant to compromise. They expect everything to always be as rosy as when they first got married, and when it's not, they fight.' Peter Inglis, 48, Megan Davies, 43, step-brothers Sam, 11, and James, eight, and their half-sisters, twins Imogen and Rosie, two. British photographer Inglis brought his son, Sam, into his marriage to New Zealander Davies, and she brought hers, James. The couple have since had twins. 'In two years, we went from having one child each to four,' recalls Davies. Each son, previously an only child, suddenly gained a step-brother then two half-sisters. The homeware importer and exporter points out that Sam also inherited a whole new extended family in New Zealand and James a British one. Both of their former partners are still involved in their children's lives - which means four parents might turn up to cheer at the boys' rugby games. During the week, the boys stay at the Inglis/Davies home in the New Territories, where they have jobs such as feeding the chickens, while weekends and holidays are usually spent with their other parents. 'It's not always smooth sailing and sometimes it becomes very complicated with four adults pulling in four different directions,' Inglis, 48, concedes. 'I get called Mr Pickford [stepson James' surname] all the time, we both get mis-named. But I think if I answer the question, 'Are you James' dad?', with 'Yes', then the kids don't get fazed by titles and the boxes you put people in. You have to set an example you expect them to follow.' Tam Che-fee, 52, and her foster children. Three years ago, Tam and her husband, Chan Man-man, 55, opened their Tseung Kwan O home to eight children from social-welfare charity Po Leung Kuk who needed temporary care. Their own grown-up child lives with her grandmother in Aberdeen. 'It's turned out to be the best decision I've ever made,' Tam says. 'We are closer than many other families because we go through everything together. Many families don't talk much and go home and watch TV, surf the net and don't interact. Things are totally different here, we have so many people, there's always someone around who will talk to you, play with you and help you with your homework. The key is communication,' she says. '[One boy's] mother came to thank me because I changed the boy. I taught him values that I thought would be useful to him and now he has become a responsible young man,' she says, beaming with pride. Vijay Bhat, 41, and his wife Nilima, 36, with Shravan, 12, and Shambhavi, nine. A brush with cancer proved a wake-up call for advertising executive Vijay. After the removal of his colon a year ago, he has a new appreciation for relationships both inside and outside the family. 'It was hard to imagine a family could get any closer than we thought we were,' he recalls. 'What this did was add another level of depth and richness I didn't expect. I think now I've come to believe there is no limit to the closeness that is possible if we open ourselves up to each other. Before my illness, when I thought about the family it was pretty much about planning for the future. Now I think equally about the past and the present and the future, so that's a new perspective I feel. Before it was all about going somewhere,' he says. His wife, Nilima, finishes his sentence for him: 'And now it's all about enjoying what you have.'