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When I first meet Lee Chee Tong, I am struck by how reserved and deliberate he is for all of his age: 24 years.
Having been acquainted with him through his TikTok account, Quan Zhen Taoist, I was expecting a hyperactive, fast-talking, almost-irreverent young man, like the persona that he often adopts in his short educational videos on Taoism.
Like this one, captioned “See yall in hell👋🏻👋🏻”:
His approach to content creation has garnered him fans, but also critics who find his conduct unbecoming:
“They say, as a Taoist, you must be calm. You cannot be so agitated. Then I have to explain to them that this is just for dramatic purposes, if you’re really calm, you cannot catch people’s attention.”
Chee Tong’s account is just a little over a month old, but has already amassed more than 3,900 followers and 45,000 likes.
It’s not a big name by any measure, but still pretty impressive for a page dedicated to a religion whose followers only make up 8.8% of the population in Singapore, his home country.
Chee Tong explains to me that he set up the TikTok account to raise awareness of his religion and demystify some of the misconceptions surround Taoism.
“Taoism is not a religion of superstition… [There] is very profound philosophy and meaning behind things… I think that all these misconceptions, and the very mystical part has actually bounded a lot of the Taoist believers in fear.
So they are very scared to act… and this is not what Taoism is about.”
A typical day
Aside from being a full-time student studying social work in the National University of Singapore (NUS), Chee Tong is also a Taoist priest.
When he’s not at school, he teaches private tuition and helps out with religious rituals, such as funerals, which he documents on the account.
Participation in these rituals are unpaid, Chee Tong shares, and he does so out of goodwill.
I ask him if anything spooky or supernatural has ever happened at these events, and he answers in the affirmative.
For example, at a recent funeral, a possession occurred.
He declines to go too much into it to respect the privacy of the bereaved family, but admits that such occurrences still scare him.
However, Chee Tong takes comfort in the fact that he is surrounded by mentors and seniors much more experienced than him, who are able to resolve the situation.
” I think that’s the good thing about being the most junior [person]. Like, if you get scared, at least there are people that will know how to handle [the situation].”
How he found Taoism
But how does a young man like Chee Tong find himself drawn to Taoism, and going as far as to become ordained?
It’s a story that goes back to his childhood, where he would often dream of an old man who would take him to “beautiful and nice” places, dispense life advice, and even give him warnings.
Later on, as he became interested in philosophy, the old man began to appear in his dreams again, urging him to look up Taoism on the internet.
It was this push that led him to the Facebook page of the Quan Zhen Cultural Society, a Singapore-based Taoist group, in 2021.
And while he had zero intentions of becoming a priest at that time, the administrator of the page invited him to attend a class meant for aspiring priests since they were opening a new intake.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But joining Quan Zhen also came with a unique challenge: The organisation does their chants in Cantonese, which Chee Tong does not speak.
To get around this, he notes down romanised pronunciations of each word in the scripture.
Support from family and friends
Chee Tong considers himself lucky to have supportive parents who take an interest in his religion and often ask questions about what he’s doing, even though they are free-thinkers.
But they did have some reservations when he first started out, expressing concerns that he may have accidentally joined a cult.
Fortunately for him, his master (who coincidentally turned out to be the Facebook administrator that invited him) appears on the news quite a bit, and he was able to convince them of the organisation’s legitimacy by referring them to news articles.
On his TikTok account, Chee Tong also shared that he used to be Christian, but left the faith after finding Taoism.
Which then led to an outpouring of less-than-supportive comments.
He even responded to a particularly rude one accusing him of leaving the faith for “some statue”, calling for tolerance and mutual respect.
While also taking it as an opportunity to educate his followers on why Taoists pray to statues:
Luckily, his friends from church, whom he still meets up with, are generally respectful and supportive of his decisions.
“But… whenever we meet up, and we talk about the issue of faith, what I sense from them is still that general sadness that I left. But they are very mindful of it, so they will tone it down.”
On going to hell
One of the reasons why he stayed in the Christian faith, Chee Tong revealed, was the fear that he might go to hell.
Curious, I ask him how this has changed ever since embracing Taoism.
He explains that Christianity emphasises on “good versus evil”, while Taoism believes that the two cannot exist without one another.
“It’s not about creating that tension between each other, but to see the common things that they have and try to look at a different perspective of these things,” Chee Tong elaborates.
And while Taoists similarly believe in the concept of an underworld, Chee Tong says that there is less of a focus on it, and more on what can be done in the present.
“If hell really exists according to them… I don’t think it’s a place of suffering. I think it’s a place of sadness, because I think all these are the other people that actually need help the most.”
He then likens hell to a prison, where he interned at as a social work major.
“A lot of people always think that the offenders are very bad people. But when you really understand their story, I realised that there are actually no bad people, everybody is just acting like this because of the circumstances.”
“So where do you think you’re going after you die then?” I ask.
“Honestly, I don’t know. Yeah, I think we never know. We will never know,” Chee Tong answers serenely.
Going with the flow
Before Taoism, Chee Tong admits that he was quite a different person.
“I expect a lot of things on myself. I have goals that I want to do. And when I don’t achieve those goals, I get very agitated. I get very sad. And I easily get depressed.”
He credits the teaching of 无为 (wú wéi), or non-action, for shifting his perspective.
To put it simply, Wuwei is the practice of not taking any action, that is not in accordance with the natural course of the universe. It is believed that if left to take its natural course, all things in the universe, including humans, would flourish.
“I [learnt] to take things more lightly… If it’s meant to come, it’s meant to come. If not, then there might be other opportunities. There’s always a way somewhere.”
Top image via Natalie Teo and Lee Chee Tong.
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