Vanished Selves, Times and Places: Between Stations by Kim Cheng Boey

Between Stations

Between Stations
BY Kim Cheng Boey
(Giramondo Publishing, 2009)

From the publisher:

Between Stations is a collection of personal essays exploring notions of home and belonging, and where they may lie for a migrant writer, shuttling between the stations of the old and adopted country, the past and present, the memory and the imagination.

The essays attempt to recover a vanished Singapore and reconcile with the lost landscapes of a childhood and the ghost of a distant father, as they follow the narrator through a year of international wandering, en route to relocation in the new world of Australia.”

In his 1946 memoir, A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin writes “past and present become each other’s faces; I am back where I began” — an expressive phrase that could also describe Between Stations, a candid inquiry of topics that includes translocation, a bibliophile’s wanderings (from the discovery of Keats to sojourns in the British Council Library), and the quest for home, as well as the painful allure of memory. The collection begins after Boey has left his native Singapore and embarked upon a year-long journey before settling in Australia. Like Kazin’s Brownsville, the cities he encounters comprise a sensory catalogue of street scenes and boyhood recollections.

Travel inspires him to reconsider his family’s ruptures, as though the meaning of home could only be truly appreciated “…in transit, between places, or in the wilderness, a no-place which is different from a placeless place” (“Homeless at Taba,” p. 225). Whether he volunteers in India, recites Cavafy in Egypt, or walks through bazaars, alleys, and crowded neighborhoods, memories of Singapore are frequently kindled. One moment Boey may be surveying a skyline at dusk. The next moment he’s launched to an earlier time. Sites which no longer exist accrue a nearly talismanic power. About photographs, he remarks:

“… mnemonic tokens, they record the spots of time, providing irrefutable testament to what has been […] offering a key to the past, memorialising vanished selves, times and places, their images like relics, pieces of the cross we have pocketed…”

— “Passing Snapshots,” p. 120

These twenty essays similarly capture formative moments with a bittersweet sense of ancestry’s pull on the present. The act of “memorialising” is most evident when he portrays his father — an absent, mercurial yet charismatic figure who is burdened by alcoholism and debt — as well as their walks through Singapore’s streets. In “Rambling on My Mind” he recalls “I am in step with my father. I am walking in his shoes … am in him, as he walks” (p. 43), an instant that could easily serve as a double exposure, allowing the reader to picture the child, who is walking in his father’s shadow, overlaid with an image of the adult who has “inhabited” his father to better understand him from a writer’s perspective. “Change Alley” also employs the walk as a narrative strategy. It is exemplary for its exploration of a child’s wonder, an adult’s hindsight, a son’s desire for “ritual,” and a father’s unreliability. Their relationship is further complicated by the knowledge that these outings are momentary convergences.

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