Singapore Between Past and Future
Boey Kim Cheng's Between Stations salvages memory and lost ground
By Shirley Geok-lin Lim
In 1996, I happened to be in Singapore as a Distinguished Fulbright Professor, during which time I read (and thought) as much as I could of contemporary Anglophone Singapore writing. In the tiny section devoted to such publications in an Orchard Road bookstore was Boey Kim Cheng's slim collection of poems, Days of No Name. As it had just appeared, I reviewed it for The Straits Times, titling the essay, Singapore and Its Absence. The editors in their wisdom re-titled the review Singapore and Its Too Much Presence, and 13 years later, reviewing Boey's first prose publication, it seems to me that both observations are correct when it comes to the place of Singapore in Boey's imagination and even more urgently in his structure of feelings.
One comes away from reading Boey's remembrances of places past with a sense of total immersion in the many intricately folded complexities of the nation-state of Singapore (Singapore, after all, is a small territory) and its voracious claims on citizens' bodies, loyalties and imaginations – the "shades of the prison-house [that] begin to close upon the growing boy" that Wordsworth spoke of in Intimations of Immortality – as well as with the related, reactive psychic scramble to escape that prison-house, to be "somewhere-bound", in "another place" (titles of Boey's first two books of poetry); to seek, as if to save one's own life, a place where one can breathe outside of the claustrophobic socio-natal state.
In some ways, Between Stations may be regarded as simply another way station among a host of earlier Singapore books devoted to travel writing, whether as personal forms of journal or life writing (see Simon Tay's Alien Asian, 1997) or disguised as novels or poems (see Arthur Yap's selected poems, The Space of City Trees, 2000). But Boey's book offers a different kind of text in which travel is not for pleasure, nor even for adventure. Instead, travel is a condition, the condition of an afflicted spirit, as well as its hoped-for salvation, through which the spirit, inflicting a stern ascetic inwardness on body and mind, reaches towards some enlightenment that may yet bring ease to a childhood whose losses continue to shadow the adult.
That childhood, as the essays repeat over and over again, is intrinsically, finely, inter-rooted, like a sapling with its genealogical tree. That tree is mother, grandmother and, above all, a feckless abandoning father who is mourned as the unattainable object of a son's desire. This father, unlike the only son he so seldom met, once possessed a passport. But it was an unused document, unlike the author's, whose journal entries plot visas to West and East, North and South, and into mysterious interiors for which no visas exist.
In this particular noir-ish existential position, the subject travels, therefore "I am" (growing / learning / surviving / avoiding / living / meditating / becoming) the human I can be. In its metaphysical broodiness, its firm collected waiving of the "normal" Singapore pragmatism, its rejection of the state ideology of chasing the dragon of success in order to wander through countries, books and societies, always inner-directed and devoted to soul-growing, the book is profoundly anti-conformist, in the original religious use of the term. Between Stations, although not fiction or poetry, offers one of the most imaginative contributions to the evolving, deepening and darkening corpus of Singapore literature today.
When I wrote that 1996 review, I was informed that Boey had left Singapore. The 20 essays in the volume in fact begin with his travels post-1997. In 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting Boey, now a professor teaching creative writing at the University of Newcastle in Australia, where he has finally settled down, a family man presently pondering the consequences of his migratory ways on his two young children.
Although Between Stations is catalogued as essays and biography, and although Boey is an entire generation younger than me, I find similar autobiographical experiences struck in his essays that my 1996 memoir, Among the White Moon Faces, had thematised. Which is to make three points, that in colonial/postcolonial, Anglophone, Southeast Asian life writing, perhaps in all life writing, certain commonalities rule: the primacy of parents; the role of class, capital, and other forms of collective power in the interpellation of subjectivity; and the capacity, no matter how threatened or diminished, of an individual to resist social violence and ideology.
The opening essay states the book's major quest: "to find a permanent solution to the restlessness in me, to my quarrel with Singapore and with myself" (page 4). This quarrel persists as the essays' driving dynamic, reminding us of the major motif that runs through much of Irish (expatriate) writing – the quarrel with Ireland out of which authors such a Edna O'Brien wrote their most memorable stories about the country they loved and criticised.
Similarly, Boey's essays shift unstably between acknowledging a self that is irredeemably country-bounded, shaped by past sentiments, images, relationships and desires that can no more be erased than the self can be erased despite its yearning for nirvana, and a self that forswears a Singapore attachment (collective, state, institutions such as national service) experienced in the soul's bones as overbearing, intolerant, oppressive and, paradoxically, also as light-weight, shallow, cavalier and destructive of what can give solidity, meaning and substance to individuals already suffering from anomie, emptied through series upon series of losses.
"All that is solid melts into air," Karl Marx had said of the affect of modern capitalism on the individual dizzied by the changes that make a vacuum of a world once known and loved. Part of Boey's quarrel with the Singapore state lies in his rage at its cavalier destruction of all that was solid about his childhood landscape, a childhood-scape already marked by fragile transitoriness and now starkly vanquished.
Boey is self-conscious of the contradictions that structure his texts and his quest: "a mine of contradictions, the East and West all muddled up. He would give up his life for the Western ideals of democracy and freedom but values too much the oriental values he has been brought up to respect: the strong bonds of the extended family, the values of communal living, the rituals, the reduced role of the individual" (25).
For anyone reading these lines and between the lines written by the post-1965 (when Singapore was ejected from Malaysia and became perforce a nation-state) generation of writers, Boey's self-quarrel, struggling between Westernised and Confuciantist/Hindu/Islamic ethos, is familiar and representative. And his final choice to leave Singapore for a new home elsewhere is painfully also becoming all too familiar.
There is therefore much to be learned from a close reading of this émigré text. For that is what all the essays are – never fully immigrant, and constantly attentive to the ghosts of Singapore, like the pasts of family, sights, smells, sensations: "photographs that I have to reconstruct, restore in memory" (126).
The visual is a preeminent trigger in flooding the page with scenes more colourful than sepia, and every Singaporean should be grateful for Boey's poet's sensibility that powerfully raises as in life rapidly passing scenes that may be now only preserved in the fading black and white British Pathé cinematic shots of a colonial outpost. It is this insular outpost of the immigrant Chinese, a community both Sino and Anglo, and more – the more of a Malay/Southeast Asian-inflected taste-world – that serves as the original subject of Boey's essays.
A Peranakan, I found myself tearing, choking back recognitions despite the generational difference between Boey and myself. Homelessness, Boey reminds us, the darker nuance of traveling, is perhaps more common to humanity than a hundred percent home ownership, and memory of dispossession goes deeper than enjoyment of possession. He writes vividly of his separated parents' equal experiences of homelessness, "those years of virtual homelessness, towing her belongings from place to place" (220), against which contemporary Singaporeans may measure their current class complacencies.
Like Boey who writes of his own memories of Change Alley in the sixties, I also was brought there by an abandoning parent. Like Boey, the crammed, narrow, stuffy, vulgar, crowded surprising alley of junk and treasures captured my imagination, and as with Boey, nostalgia stalks me whenever that brilliant place name is evoked. But Boey writes of his memory of change and father, betrayal and what vanishes, with such sharp specificity that there is no mistaking his memory for mine.
When I heard him read this essay at a conference a couple of years ago, I had to hide my face to conceal my tears. It is the voice of the man gradually pulling the tangled strings of memorialised father and country into some pattern figuring both love and loss that fills the listener's head with a meaningful feeling beyond the story itself.
This review cannot therefore function as a proper review. I should talk about the essays' literariness, Boey's rich allusive style and all that is owed in the essays' many memorably phrased sententiae to travel authors like Bruce Chatwin and writers as diverse as Coleridge, Du Fu, Sima Qian and Cavafy. The review should note the poet's efficacy in tapping the mnemonic resources of smell and sound for stories embedded in ground no longer standing. It should, it must discuss the variety of sentence shapes, the syntactical versatility and nimbleness of grammatical tense, that give the prose an excitement and glamour essential to its play of drama and sense. Every paragraph is marked by such lively language, the English not only polished but active, acting nervily on our nerves, to push metaphysically and metacritically our understanding of traveling identities, as in:
You get my drift. This is prose that bears you along, full of sense and sensibility, full of self and mind, and the country and people they hold and are leaving behind. Between Stations is a classic, the essays to be read and studied for the pleasures of their elegance of language, for their intellectual and literary shine, for the invaluable poignancy of a cultural, familial identity retrieved in imagination, and for their power in deepening our understanding of a past and present Singapore whose presence is so precisely evoked so as to make it worth the quarrelling.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009