Change Your Name to Change Your Luck?
James Hookway and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt once predicted that in the future people around the world will change their names to escape all the embarrassing things they did online in the past. In Thailand, people already are doing it—for good luck.
Baramee Thammabandan, 46 years old, had a run of misfortune a decade ago when he was still known as Teerapol Lilitjirawat. His business trading garments in Bangkok's mazelike markets slumped, his eyesight began to fail and he could no longer properly manage his affairs. Worse, he says his former wife left him.
So, Mr. Baramee did what many Thais do when faced with a patch of bad luck: He changed his name. "I wanted to become a new person," says the slim, clean-shaven Mr. Baramee, whose new name means "Charisma" and which he chose to bring him wealth and fame.
It seems to have worked.
Though almost entirely blind, Mr. Baramee now is at the forefront of a booming new industry advising other Thais how to choose new names for themselves. A long list of Thai celebrities and business tycoons parade into his office in one of Bangkok's busiest shopping malls, asking for advice on new monikers, while his team fields more than 250 calls from anxious others wanting a consultation.
In just five years, he says, his business has doubled, enough for him to create four new websites, and prompting a horde of competitors with names like thaigoodname.com and fortunename.com to jump into the peculiar niche.
"People are like cars, and changing names is like changing a flat tire. It can take you further, and give you a smoother ride," Mr. Baramee says, as a pair of old Nokia cellphones chirp on a desk in front of him and incense sticks burn before a collection of Buddha images.
Changing names might seem like an extreme remedy for bad luck, but in Thailand, it is sometimes the first thing people do to improve their prospects. Thai parents have long exercised great care in choosing names for their children. Often they consult fortune tellers to help select names that complement the day and time at which their children were born. Mr. Baramee charges people around 500 baht, or around $17, to provide several suitable names.
If that doesn't work, many people are willing to change their names if they think it will give them a competitive edge now that the country's economy is quickly swinging from its old rice-farming origins toward the urban, globalized world of iPhones, shopping malls and mass manufacturing. "Thailand is changing very quickly and it is natural to look for ways to help you prosper," said Suchada Jarernsritrakul, a 34-year-old real-estate consultant who changed her name two years ago.
The process is quick and straightforward. Thais simply register their new names at local government offices and can get new identification cards printed on the spot. In the U.S., name changes often involve court procedures to be fully recognized, while many European countries require government approval for proposed name changes.
How often all this is happening isn't known, but there is enough name-switching to give the police fits tracking criminals. In one case, police say they have launched a manhunt for a 35-year-old man originally named Sahachat Kasemthang, who allegedly changed his name several times as he opened new bank accounts and used bounced checks to buy $167,000 worth of gold from jewelry stores across the nation. Partly because of problems like this, the authorities now fingerprint not only to identify criminal suspects but also to handle all sorts of routine processes, including visa extensions.
"We can't rely on names and ID cards to accurately identify people any more," said Lt. Gen. Panu Kerdlarbpol of the Thai Police.
Still, you won't hear a certain Olympic athlete questioning the powers of name changing. At 28, Junpim Kuntatean had won a silver medal in the world weightlifting championships but then suffered an elbow injury a year before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hoping to change her luck, she visited a fortune teller who suggested a name makeover. The new one, Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon, which roughly translates as "Sparkling River-flow of Brilliant Prosperity," was a challenge to TV commentators, but she did win a gold medal. She wasn't reachable for comment now, but told reporters after winning that "some people believe in fortune tellers and I am one of them."
Businesswoman Benyapa Sujirapat went to a fortune teller too when, at age 50, she decided to quit her job and start her own advertising business. She was told her old name, Sutheera Visetsung, had too many letters which brought bad luck, so Ms. Benyapa, decided to select a new one, which means "Flourish with Wisdom." That gave her confidence to go ahead, said Ms. Benyapa, who not long afterward met the man she married—which she also partly attributes to her new identity.
There are all sorts of methods for choosing new names, and the process is growing more sophisticated. Mathematicians at Naresuan University, about 200 miles north of Bangkok, came up with a novel algorithm for selecting auspicious names in 2009 to make the process even simpler. Based on old beliefs about how different letters of the alphabet can influence a person's fate, the formula looks at the statistical auspiciousness of a name, as calculated by its perceived attributes such as wisdom and strength, along with the number of letters in a name.
Since then, a plethora of Internet sites have emerged to help people change their names online without going through the hassle of seeing an actual fortune teller or numerologists. Users simply type in their names and their birth dates and the sites will crunch several factors, and provide some alternative, luckier names for a fee. At fortunename.com, five suggestions cost 299 baht, or just under $10, with additional charges for more names and advice on how to sign your new moniker best. There are even "name-changer" smartphone applications allowing Thais to ponder a name-change while stuck in Bangkok's chronic traffic jams.
Not surprisingly, not everything about all this all name-changing goes well for people. Ms. Benyapa, the businesswoman, has to walk around with a battered cardboard folder of documents to prove she is who she says she is. In some cases, she complains, she has had to rebuild business relationships from scratch after changing her name. Other people carry laminated, notarized copies of their old identification cards.
Then there is the matter of her recent wedding. "I sent out the invitation cards, but nobody knew it was me because I was using my new name," she says. Many of her guests only agreed to attend after she visited them in person. "If you change your name, you should be ready to face all sorts of problems," Ms. Benyapa says.
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