Of Walking and Naming
On reading Boey Kim Cheng's Between Stations
By Y.S. Pek
For a city where living and literature do not come cheaply, Boey Kim Cheng's Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009) is an anthology of meditative essays that even feels antithetical to the place that has motivated this writing. Boey creates images especially poignant for those who have grown up in a Singapore where all but vestigial traces of these spaces, buildings, scents and walks have disappeared, replaced by newer architectures and commercially-minded restorations.
Just as the country's newfound wealth has seen the attendant birth of surreal biomorphic structures (on land reclaimed from the sea, no less), equally oneiric images from the past emerge with Boey's telling. The back lanes around Little India are "festooned with laundry strung out on bamboo poles, whole streets lined with stalls on wooden trestles, carts, or tarpaulin laid out on the tarmac." In the days where one could still see the ebb of the tide from Elizabeth Walk, the bay sheltered "the flotilla of sampans, bumboats, tongkangs and junks that would be swept away in two decades." And in the falling night the nearby Clifford Pier would have theatrically "transformed into Ang Teng or Red Light jetty, a congregation point for prostitutes to ready themselves for the sailors as they unloaded from their lighters."
Boey's manner of walking in Singapore is decidedly a lost activity today – a forgotten art that is not only lost on a pragmatic people, but also made effectively impossible by a transformed city that can no longer be navigated in the same way. The tropical city-state has become the air-conditioned nation – borrowing the term from Cherian George's essay anthology, Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation (2000) – peopled with individualists who prefer the chill of creature comforts, giving rise to a situation in which "the politics of control" can be easily exercised. And if one navigates the colonial district around the Singapore River and its estuary, it is through subterranean passages cooled with blasts of frigid air that link yet another mall to subway to mall. They are the veritable, if paltry, heirs of Change Alley, the centrepiece of Boey's architecture of memory. A Far Eastern incarnate of the Parisian arcades that Walter Benjamin took as the emblem for his encyclopaedic allegory of the 19th century, this passageway cum marketplace crammed with bodies and bric-a-brac was the primal site of Boey's meanderings as a child, led by his oft-absent father. These collected essays, many of which circulate around the theme of walking and journeying, can be read as an episodic series that roughly chart the general arc of Boey's life: the author's frequent walks in Singapore, which foretell his ultimate journey of self-imposed exile by immigration.
Boey's strolls through Singapore constitute acts of disinterested flâneurie, taking on the Baudelairean model of the poet, with his keen eye as the organ of detached observation, a seismographic consciousness of the modernising and changing city. Additionally, he sees traces of Singapore in both poignant and ironic ways when undertaking similar walks in cities abroad. Returning to India repeatedly, Boey observes how an unchanging Calcutta is uncannily like the Singapore of the 1970s that he knew, while the colonial district of Alexandria brings him back to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building at Singapore's Fullerton waterfront.
Oddly, then, the Singapore he confronts decades after his childhood reminds him the least of its own past. Home is easy to forget in a country which never looks the same from year to year, where structures are "razed for the sake of the future" without attending to the emotional consequences of these upheavals: "I felt a portion of the map was torn, a part of my life erased." Demolition and rebuilding abet forgetting, yet nostalgia in the face of development is often derided, as was the case with the traditional shophouses around Bras Basah.
Boey the walker-and-writer registers absence corporeally, with an acute sensitivity and appurtenant dark humour: "I monitored the evacuation and cordoning of the area, and then the disappearance of the shophouses. My legs were disconnected from terra firma. Like amputees who are haunted by the ghostly visitation of their departed limbs, I feel the press of memory on my feet the uneven pavement of the five-foot way, the worn cement floor on which one could feel the passage of the past…" And from the nation-state with no country, no geographical terra to offer a commensurate cultural terra firma, Boey's emigration to Australia sees him paradoxically thrust into the vastness of the land. This is both frightening and liberating. He encounters unbridled nature that can take on all manner of destruction, whether it be bushfire or storm.
In Boey's account, flâneurie is additionally laden with the gravity of the pilgrim's progress: "(s)olvitur ambulando… an act of catharsis, lightening, being away from it all." These walks in and out of Singapore are flights of the mind and spirit for the young writer who had "fled to the Black Forest to read Heidegger", who undoubtedly has at the back of his mind the walks of Robert Walser and W.G. Sebald, in whose lives and works the sacrality and therapy of perambulation are entwined. In fact, Boey's walks draw from multiple wells of spiritual and cultural antecedents.
In consecutive paragraphs in the essay "Rambling On My Mind", Boey concatenates a tour de force of examples from medieval pilgrimages to the sadhus and sannyasins of India, the Hindu kavadi carriers in Singapore, right through to Werner Herzog's walk from Munich to Paris to see a dying Lotte Eisner, and Lamb and Coleridge's hallowed friendship played out in hikes through Grasmere.
Only through ambulation can one negotiate the question of self and its relationship to the home. While home is most often associated with the fixity of a country, the imagined site of origin for the nation and its people – young, postcolonial and on precarious foundations in the case of Boey's native Singapore – it may more abstractly be thought of as a place where, in every sense of the term, one can take abode; the former is often taken as the basis of the latter. Boey renounces the notion of home that conflates both notions. Instead, he comes to a place of rest through perpetual mobility: "To walk into homelessness in the quest for home… Walking is a way of disconnecting from the terrestrial to find the real home, the path towards self-renunciation and union with something transcendental." Throughout his essays in Between Stations, Boey's negotiation of the ideas of home and belonging can be situated alongside 20th century literature in which the themes of exile and loss feature, mirrored particularly in the writerly and biographical models of aforementioned authors like Benjamin, Walser and Sebald, although Boey also grounds his own roving within the historical displaced-ness of his ethnic people. Reminding us of the greater cultural and historical context to which the familiar adage of Singapore as a "city of immigrants" can be situated, he observes:
The liminal, the mobile, and the amorphous are appurtenances of a sort of cultural DNA, historic and social predilections that recur across time and place. Uncertainty is made reassuring and familiar in Boey's writing; it can give rise to resolution. We are even made to reconcile with the irony and hopelessness of finding a "home" when he asks: "Now that I have reached the furthest point on my journey away from home, and prepare to take up a new life in a new country, I am able to confess my love for the country I have lost. Maybe never had. Would it be home for me, if things were to revert to the way they were?"
This is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is a disquietude that remains raw and agape throughout the process of its reconciliation in Boey's essays, one that is so often misconstrued when accounted for in reported speech. A 2013 Straits Times article occasioned a new publication of Boey's poems with the opening line: "A decade after taking Australian citizenship, award-winning poet Boey Kim Cheng continues to write about Singapore as home."
Throughout his writings, Boey posits and seeks role models for himself, and yet his life narrative makes for a paradigm of its own, at once particular and universal, bearing testament to the extraordinary passage of time and distance that has transpired for it to be spoken "into being". His anecdotes speak to the amorphousness of Singaporean identity, to how a small nation encourages errant sojourners and animates the chameleonic abilities of its people to adapt themselves to foreign stations, often categorised under more familiar identities.
The name lies at the heart of adaptability and change, a malleable entity in the face of novel asymmetries of knowledge and power. Boey blunders through the contingencies of role-play and the myriad identities that arise when his name travels. In a remarkable passage that delineates the comedy of errors that can arise from the southern Chinese naming system, which features both the East Asian inversion of the order of first and last names and the compound first name comprising a generational character:
And it is in writing that Boey ultimately translates. With his densely-sedimented, lyrical prose, he doesn't offer Singaporean readers the salve of bitter criticism that sometimes anoints alternative accounts of his former country's past. Yet, in spite of its elegiac overtones, Boey's writing is incisively pertinent, ruminant and remedial in its naming of loss.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 3 Jul 2015