Same name, different lives: The search for 'Lee Kuan Yew'

Same name, different lives: The search for 'Lee Kuan Yew'
Mr Lee Kuang Yeo, a former fish farmer, has the same Chinese name as Singapore’s founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Pronounced guang yao in Mandarin, the name means “light and brightness”. The search for others with either the same Chinese or English name as the famous Mr Lee is ongoing.

One man raised fish, and the other a nation. But they have one thing in common.

Mr Lee Kuang Yeo, 70, is the only Singaporean with the same Chinese name as Singapore's founding prime minister that a three-month search has thrown up.

The search is being undertaken by photographers Samuel He, 31, and Sam Chin, 28, as part of a book project to mark Singapore's golden jubilee next year.

They are looking for people with the same name as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, to see how similar or different their lives have turned out from that of the country's best-known leader.

Their book is part of the initiative, which will see 20 photographers produce a book of 15 images each from now till next year.

Their goal is to find 14 Mr Lees, of different ages and backgrounds and, hopefully, convince the famous Mr Lee to be their 15th subject by their April deadline.

Mr Lee's Chinese name, which is pronounced guang yao in Mandarin, means "light and brightness".

Mr He and Mr Chin's first and only subject so far, a former fish farmer two decades younger than the former prime minister, may have lived in the shadow of his famous counterpart.

But he seems content, said Mr Chin, adding that the younger Mr Lee's life is filled by conversations with his wife and playtime with his 11 grandchildren.

"I don't think the age gap between both Mr Lees was big enough to influence the younger Mr Lee's parents in naming him after the older one," he said.

Mr Lee recalled "some teasing directed at both him and, later, his four children", said Mr He, sharing his interview experience. The Straits Times was unable to reach the younger Mr Lee for this article.

But other than that, having the same name as the famous Mr Lee made no dramatic difference to his life, Mr He added.

The duo have found it more difficult than expected to find other Mr Lees, who must share either the same Chinese or English name. They were inspired by American photographer Patrick Witty, who tracked down an accountant named Abraham Lincoln and other modern-day Americans with the same names as former presidents.

But an extensive search by book producer Khee Shihui, 32, through the Yellow Pages, and appeals to clans and every new person she meets have only turned up this Mr Lee.

She found him through the Singapore Teochew Lee Association, which has proven helpful as she does not have access to national databases.

"I guess Singaporeans are a bit paiseh (embarrassed in Hokkien) to name their children after someone so successful," said Mr He. "Some friends suggested finding people with the same names as the ministers in the Cabinet, but that's not interesting.

"Mr Lee has more impact. His name stirs up equal amounts of pride and anger among Singaporeans." founder and publisher Tay Kay Chin acknowledged that some "have complained that we must be bored to do this project" as "they can't understand why we're fascinated with a name".

"But does your name stir up the urban myth that it's illegal to name your child 'Lee Kuan Yew'?" Mr Tay asked. "So no, it's not just a name. It's Lee Kuan Yew."

This article was first published on July 29, 2014.
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