Cyril Wong reviews Between Stations by Boey Kim Cheng
by Kim Cheng Boey
Essays, Paperback, 320pp
ISBN 978 192088 2501
Giramondo (September 2009)
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
Kim Cheng Boey is a writer and poet who migrated to Sydney with his family from Singapore in 1997. One could call him a migrant writer. Between Stations, according to one book-description that I read online, is “his first collection of travel writing.” But such a description says very little about a book that is all about the personal and existential crisis of a writer trying to reconcile disparate cultural worlds, as well as one trying to come to terms with his past.
Beginning in India, then passing through the evocative worlds of Egypt and Morocco, Boey’s accounts of sojourns in far-flung places in the world are full of gritty anecdotes about fellow-travellers and impassioned references to famous works of art, music and literature used to magnify and universalise the writer’s constant wanderlust. As a Singaporean, I feel a connection to this ex-Singaporean’s desire to disappear into foreign spaces that resist the vicissitudes of change which are still essential to our tiny country’s survival today—as a Singaporean tells Boey at one point, “Changes are necessary. Singapore is too small. We have to move forward.”
It is easy to see why this desire prevails. The places that Boey escapes into are imbued with an imagined sense of timelessness; they are full of history, art and spirituality. What can Singapore boast of except that it has managed to succeed as a viable and prosperous nation state in just a few decades? Using photographs of long-gone locations and recounting memories about spending time in now-demolished buildings such as the Stamford Road Library, the author reveals how he is rendered distraught by change. Yet he is also quick to remember that a longing for things to be still and for the past to remain the past can be a pointless, self-indulgent exercise. In a chapter about Change Alley, a centre for corporate culture in Singapore, the writer feels “chastened” when he notes how retirees have adapted “so easily to the new Singapore.” He wonders if “the problem is me…I have never been able to be at home in the present; the only place I can feel at peace in is the past.”
A fear of the past disappearing is tied to memories of a father’s abandonment of his responsibilities. A chapter can set off from an exotic location, rich with historical significance and framed within celebrated philosophical perspectives—think Walter Benjamin on memory or Susan Sontag on the photographic image—or aligned with quotations from influential works of literature by the likes of Cavafy or Du Fu. Then the writing segues repeatedly into a memory from the poet’s childhood, full of authentic smells and sounds, in which a grandmother is cooking for the family, or in which a father is taking a walk, or a smoke, with his son. The essays turn increasingly philosophical and poetic during such shifts. They are particularly heartbreaking during moments when Boey sees himself in his own son; in such instances, the poet also sees himself as his own departed father through his child’s eyes. Past, present and future collapse, which was what the author had hoped for all along—to unify what is lost with new memories forming in the midst of the present.
Boey’s fans in Singapore would be glad to learn of the psychological and emotional back-story behind his poems, a few of which are quoted in the chapters. I was personally gripped by the author’s experiences as a counsellor in a local prison, as well as the time when he followed in the footsteps of Mother Theresa’s nuns in helping the poor. The poet-as-restless-traveller has become more three-dimensional to a reader like me who has followed his work since my junior college days. A sense of urgency grips the eponymous last chapter (“Between Stations”) when the writer tell us that as both emigrant and immigrant, he has become “adept at switching between codes:” “You become Kim Cheng Boey instead of Boey Kim Cheng…Kim Boey is accommodating…while Boey Kim Cheng has begun to try to find a way back to the old world…He is still searching for a language to utter himself into being.” Such urgency emphasises the schizophrenic state that the writer has been struggling to resolve throughout this book, particularly when this collection of essays is aching to a close.
The book ends on a plane in which the writer’s daughter is poking him awake while his son announces “Singapore” over and over. On this aircraft that is hovering symbolically and literally between stations, “between home and home,” the author longs to “dwell in an autonomous state, a resting place between memory and imagination.” In this same instant, we as readers, regardless of whether we are Australian, Singaporean, or something in between, cannot help but long for such a place too.