“Kit Fong, you’re late again!”
Was it the insidious cultural influence of having been born in the days of the Empire when names like Archibald, Horatio and Montgomery sounded easier on the ear than Ching Chong, King Kong or Ping Pong?
Whatever the cause, the effect was psychologically debilitating. I secretly dropped the Fong. In my mind I was Kit Lee. I had no problem with the name “Kit” which means “outstanding hero” in Chinese [傑]. That I could relate to. But the way the “Fong” was written suggested “fragrant” rather than “magnanimous” – and the idea of being a “fragrant hero” sounded namby-pamby and sissy. At eight I was understandably defensive of my masculinity.
It took about 12 years to grow my third ‘E’ – but we’ll discuss that later.
Meanwhile, having been impressed by Christopher Lee’s performance as Count Dracula and as an Egyptian priest in The Mummy, I was thrilled to learn that “Kit” was also the pet form of “Christopher” – which entitled me to see myself as a hologram aspect of that highly distinguished horror-film actor.
Of course, nobody had heard of holograms yet. But already I had a vivid sense of the micro-macro, “as above, so below” fractal universe that constitutes the cosmic context of our beings.
Soon enough, I dropped the “Christopher Lee” nonsense. Anyway, I was feeling a bit uncomfortable with the meaning of “Christopher” – bearer of the Christ child.
Then I came across a book on numerology and spent weeks working out the values and attributes of everybody’s name I could think of. I decided that my name vibration had to correspond with the mystical 7, and the easiest way to manage that without radically altering my given name was to attach an extra ‘E’ to the Lee.
Furthermore, “Kit Leee” added up to a 7 numerologically as well as typographically. And so the long tedious task began of persuading people to accept my third ‘E.’
At the same time I started feeling uneasy about wearing a name that could identify me with any specific ethnic group on this planet. I didn’t feel particularly Chinese, since the language was no less exotic to me than Greek or Hebrew or Serbo-Croatian. My only acquaintance with Chinese philosophy, primarily Taoist, was filtered through the minds of westerners like Alan Watts, Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung.
Was I a cultural banana, yellow outside and white inside? Appealing as that metaphor sounded, I sought the broadest human perspective rather than wave flags, shake rattles and shout slogans proclaiming my loyalty to any football club or genetic lineage.
I toyed around with anagrams and read everything backwards. Having stumbled upon the Latin word “resurgam” and discovering that its meaning resonated with my own obsession with resurgence or resurrection, I playfully began to call myself Magruser Eeel or M. Eeel for short (inspired partly by an obscure French musician named M. Frog and partly by an inexplicable fascination with the name “Melchizedek” which contains three ‘E’s, an ‘L’ and an ‘M’).
Magruser, apart from being Resurgam spelt backwards, had the dubious benefit of sounding vaguely Scottish. As a teenager I’d had recurring reincarnational dreams of being a drummer boy at the head of a kilt-wearing highland regiment. These dreams invariably ended with my getting a musket ball in my belly, collapsing on the meadow, and feeling my spirit evaporate into a cloudless blue sky.
Then I found out that “Tricky Dick” Nixon had a White House staffer named Jeb Magruder (pictured right) – which kind of soured the name “Magruser” for me. I finally realized nobody could take a name like Magruser Eeel seriously, though I must admit it bears a certain spiritual kinship with Forrest Gump.
Now this probably comes across as the eccentric preoccupations of a totally self-absorbed young person. Indeed I was in danger of becoming a solipsist – someone who believes that “all real entities are modifications and states of the self.” In other words, a victim of “artistic egoism” for whom the universe exists only as a private playground. After all, I was very much an adherent of the Socratic dictum: “Know thyself.” And how else does one go about “knowing” oneself if not through experimenting with the process of naming and renaming?
The act of naming underlies all epistemological workings. Epistemology is just a fancy word for studying the basis of knowledge. For instance: by describing a person as “hero” or “villain” or “astronaut” or “junkie,” we are in effect defining how others will perceive or receive him or her. A “very determined” chap is worthy of public admiration; however, a “mulishly obstinate” fellow tends to elicit sighs of psychic fatigue from those around him. It’s the classic case of having to choose between a cup half-empty or half-full.
At any rate “Kit Leee” gradually got accepted because people kept seeing it in print over a period of years when I was active in theater, music and journalism. Most people were addressing letters to “Kit Leee” – except my mother, who found it hard to acknowledge the validity of my surname “Leee.” Finally I had my first book published – and when she saw my name in all its glory on the cover, she capitulated.
How did my father feel about it?
I explained to him that the Lee clan consisted of hundreds of thousands of individuals who weren’t remotely related – including a whole bunch of Lees that weren’t even Chinese. By becoming a Leee I was merely extending the line and marking a departure from tradition. My father took it quietly without argument. He has never been prone to intellectual discourse, being a practical man who prefers to deal with the nuts-and-bolts of existence. As far as he was concerned, I would always be his son, no matter what I called myself.
I began making enquiries about officially changing my name to Kit Leee. Lawyers informed me the deed poll process was fairly complicated and costly – AND the rub was, Malaysian laws require that one’s birthname be retained on the identity card as an alias. No way. I didn’t want to sound like a gangster: Yong Tow Foo @ Ah Foo @ Fooyong Hai @ Towfoo Pok.
This is bullshit, I thought. Surely we have the right to choose whatever form of identification feels comfortable to us. How dare the State try to keep our personalities from evolving!
At the bank I was unable to get an ATM card issued with the name Kit Leee. “Kit Lee” was permitted but “Kit Leee” tak boleh. My very sensible argument that, in terms of security, “Leee” was far more effective than “Lee” – because I was probably the only one on Earth with such a surname – was answered by blank looks and firm shakes of the head. Not even a smile.
Later I was delighted to learn I wasn’t the only Leee on Earth. While reading a biography of David Bowie, the ultimate chameleon of pop iconology, I came across the name Leee Black Childers, who was at one time executive vice-president of Bowie’s MainMan label. Aha! There are at least two of us, I thought, elated. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there are actually THREE of us, including Leee John, the soul singer (left).
So… why couldn’t I leave well enough alone?
Why did I have to embark on a whole new campaign to persuade people to address me as ANTARES? What on earth does “Antares” mean, anyway? Is it Greek? Spanish? Sanskrit? Did I find it in a book? Who gave it to me? Anyway, who gives a fuck…
I’m by no means the only one who has periodically felt the compulsion to alter the course of my destiny by changing my name.
Amunhotep IV turned his reign into a far-reaching navigational beacon by becoming Pharaoh Akhnaton. Samuel Langhorne Clemens achieved literary immortality as Mark Twain, in the same way that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a quiet mathematician, insinuated his imaginative genius into the public realm by posing as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
Marion Morrison fared much better as John Wayne; and Robert Allen Zimmerman may well have remained a gas-pump attendant in Hibbings, Minnesota, had he not decided to strike out for New York and seek his fortune as Bob Dylan. What about Issur Danielovitch? Even Michael Douglas would have had difficulty spelling his famous father Kirk’s birthname!
Andy Warhol would probably not have bothered creating iconographic posters of Norma Jean Mortenson had she not agreed to be billed as Marilyn Monroe. Would you be as interested in Luisa Ciccone’s sex life as you might be in Madonna’s? Do you think somebody born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta can possibly make it in show business - unless she has the gumption to change her name to something catchy like Lady Gaga?
How about Ramli bin Puteh? Ramli who? You mean P. Ramlee (left) – the chap who successfully integrated Indian (Ram), Chinese (Lee) and Orang Puteh (P) elements into his own embodiment of the post-colonial Malay artistic genius? And if Prince Siddhartha hadn’t undergone his vision quest and transformed himself into Gautama Buddha, our spiritual legacy would have certainly been far poorer.
It isn’t only individuals with exaggerated ego insecurities who habitually drop names. Entire countries have been known to do it too. In 1939 Thailand dropped its ancient monker of Siam, perhaps in protest against that Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, The King and I. Myanmar lost no time shedding its Burma tag when SLORC oozed into power. The USSR was dropped for CIS or Gorby-knows-what in 1991. Yugoslavia is now referred to as “the former Yugoslavia” or “the Balkan States” (though the area remains a hopeless mess of hostile ethnicities). Then Czechoslovakia dropped its name - and the country broke in two.
Bangladesh was once… does anyone recall? And we’ll not mention the African nations at all except to note that names there have been dropped so feverishly the mapmakers can’t keep up. This name-dropping malaise caused Malaysia to lose its Malaya (which means “hills” in Tamil and “freedom” in Tagalog).
But coming back to this ANTARES business: it wasn’t an easy decision, I’ll have you know that. Especially since years of effort had already been invested in establishing a third-E trademark for my work as that weird “Kit Leee” personality. And to now go through the exercise of dropping yet another name felt like a petty exercise in triviality, with no relevance to the larger issues of existence.
Yet I believe it had to be done. I can provide an absolutely sound rationale for my idiosyncratic proclivity to drop names that no longer serve. Let’s put it this way: whether you describe yourself as a Batu Arangite, a Penangite, a Muarian, a Kampung Buayanese, a Malaysian, an Asian, an Earthian, a Milky Wayfarer, or simply as I AM THAT I AM pretty much determines the parameters of your thoughts and deeds. A caterpillar can’t easily proceed to butterflyhood if it insists on and persists in calling itself a grub.
Names carry very specific vibrations. Notice how Americans prefer the informality of being called Bob instead of Robert, Jack instead of John, Ted instead of Theodore, Dick instead of Richard; whereas Canadians and Brits generally prefer that you address them by their “proper” names. Notice, too, how dignitaries tend to be extremely offended should one omit their lengthy titular appendages in official correspondence.
Imagine how peeved the Germans initially felt when American advertising wizards suggested they call their Volkswagen the Beetle… or, even worse, the Bug. Well, the admen’s advice was perfect for the freewheeling zeitgeist of the booming postwar automobile market. Even a pop music combo named after this particular insect proved phenomenally successful! I wonder if I might sell more CDs if I renamed myself "Nyamok" ("mosquito" in Malay)...
Recently I met a couple of women who introduced themselves to me as Chong, their family name. Chong & Chong. Tan & Tan. Cheech & Chong. Johnson & Johnson. Fraser & Neave. Fang & Claw. Proctor & Gamble. Hem & Haw. Bumwiggle & Himmelfucker. Long live the Lees! Down with the Leighs! You’re a disgrace to the D’Cruz name! Such blind loyalty to the clan trademark is incomprehensible to me. It suggests that one has only one essential function, that is, to propagate one’s bloodline.
Some say God has 9,000 names (or is it 999,000?). Maybe his favorite pastime is name-dropping too? With his nearly infinite hoard of names, God could well be the biggest Name-Dropper of all time. Hi, how’s it going, Al?
Let me assure you, the name “Antares” perfectly describes my present function in the human as well as the cosmological context. “Antares” came to me during a star-alignment ritual – a meditation on connecting vertically with the stellar realms, rather than just horizontally with mundane aspirations. Subsequently I did a little research and found that Antares is a binary stargate located in the heart of the Scorpio constellation, visible as the brightest star in the southern skies. In Greek the name means “counterforce to Mars” (Anti-Ares). Mars or Ares is the symbol of War or Division; it is also the symbol of the Masculine Force. Mars rules the field in battle as a sword, in farming as a plowshare, in medicine as a scalpel. So the counterforce to Mars would be Love, Venus, the Feminine Force, the Goddess Principle, the harmonizer, integrator and unifier. Which is exactly how I perceive my contribution to the greater community and the universe. No longer the combative hero, the David who vanquishes Goliath with a well-aimed slingshot – but as the reconciliator, the interlink between divergent realities and values.
Remarkably the word antara in Sanskrit means “connection” – and in Malay it is used as the preposition “between” as in antarabangsa (international). Indonesia’s national news agency is called Antara. Deeper research indicates that antara is related to antahkarana – the rainbow bridge linking heaven to earth, celestial to terrestrial experience, the transpersonal to the personal.
I like that. I’m tired of being regarded as the renegade, the bad boy, the enfant terrible, the critic, the dissident. I would much rather be viewed as the Zone of Overlap between Spirit and Matter, between the sublime and the ridiculous. The traditional antagonism between polar opposites can be transmuted by a focused, intentional act of renaming. No need for US versus THEM. Inevitably it's US plus THEM equals WE. Today’s “working class” becomes tomorrow’s “ruling elite” and vice versa.
The Wheel of Fortune or Karma or Dynamic Evolution forever spins. Behind, beyond and above the din of cash registers and children’s excited squeals, and the loud laments of parents whose pockets have just been picked, one can hear the spontaneous cackle of the Trickster, Hermes or Thoth, the Cosmic Clown – who laughs not so much in cruelty but in the playful spirit of one who has known joy and sorrow and no longer plays the game of Snakes and Ladders. It is the lighthearted laughter of one who suddenly notices the projector beam and remembers he’s at the cinema watching the latest boxoffice spectacular… phew, no need to crap your pants, folks! It’s called “special effects” – but, boy, is it scary!
So call me Antares. If it’s a formal encounter, you may include my ceremonial titles of Avalokiteshvara (a name I picked up in Tibet many lifetimes ago) and Maitreya (a spiritual rank conferred upon me on 9 November 2009). In any case, Kit Leee the Fragrant and Outstanding Hero will live on in old friends’ and relatives’ memories – or as a cheque-receiving device.
As long as we inhabit a competitive holographic world fueled by money, driven by paranoia, suspicion and fear – instead of life-affirming acceptance, love and perfect trust – I must accept the blank uncomprehending looks of bank clerks and bureaucrats as part of the outgoing reality. Not everyone can respond to freeform jazz improvisations. Many feel safer within the Euclidean framework of the Status Quo – just as members of the Flat Earth Society continue to fear falling off into Deep Space if they venture too close to the edge.
However, there’s room for everyone and everything under the Sun (if not ours, some other distant Sun). Those who keep saying “There’s no room for this, no room for that in our society” are control-freaks possessed by archaic demons in their own brain circuitry. The Master Yeshua assured us: “My father’s house has many mansions.” Which is a poetic way of revealing that there are worlds within worlds, dimensions within dimensions; everyone has a seat reserved at the heavenly feast, so don’t worry, be happy.
And the day will surely dawn when the only form we have to fill is the one that pleases us most.
Then I can revert to signing off as ANON – which happens to be an anagram for ONAN. Well, I think it’s better to be Onan the Masturbator than Conan the Barbarian, no?
[First published in Journal One, 1996. Updated 7 May 2011]