Change Alley : a poem


Singapore Memory
Boey, Kim Cheng

Boey Kim Cheng (born 1965) emigrated from Singapore in 1997 and is now an Australian citizen living in Berowra, a suburb north of Sydney – teaching Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. He received the NAC’s Young Artist Award in 1996 and is regarded as one of the best poetic voices to have emerged from the post-independence republic. His four poetry collections — three of which have won national awards — address his own disquiet about Singapore’s rapid change, and the sense of displacement and dislocation that have arisen from that. He has published five collections of poetry - _Somewhere-Bound_ (1989), _Another Place_ (1992), _Days of No Name_ (1996), _After the Fire_ (2006), _Clear Brightness_ (2012) - and a travel memoir entitled _Between Stations_ (2009). 

Intro: "Change Alley" was written back in the early 1990s, a few years after the Alley had disappeared in a tide of makeover that was sweeping through the Raffles Places district. I felt a profound sense of loss, as the Alley meant a great deal to me. Back in the early 70s, my father used to take me out for walks around the area, and I loved it when we entered the shaded length of the Alley. Something about the spirit of the place, the complex weave of smells and sounds, the amazing variety of goods and people packed into a the narrow space between two buildings, spoke very strongly to me even then, as though to disclose some ineffable secret about the place, my father and perhaps the country. It has become a pivotal place in my memory and work, and I have written about it over and over, in several poems and an essay called "Change Alley" in Between Stations. For me it seems to be a source, an omphalos, of what I have done, who I have become, and I am still the child held captive before it, wanting to enter the dim passage lit with voices, faces and memories that will never fade. “Ahead My Father Moves” is another poem that draws on the same memories.

Change Alley has become a pivotal and central place to my work and life. It’s like a sort of what Seamus Heaney calls ‘omphalos’. It’s like the centre of the world, the Greek word for the naval of the world and it informs all that I’ve done and it recurs again and again in my poems and in the travel memoir between stations. So I’ve written about the place again and again come back to it involuntary, almost. For me it’s much more than a symbol or metaphor. The spirit of the place though it’s gone it’s still very much with me and I guess a lot of what I’ve written even though it may not be centred on Change Alley, is an attempt to recapture some sense of meaning that is associated with that place. It secretes from me almost like the sense of coherence, a sense of meaning that has eluded me, perhaps has kept me writing. 

My memories of Change Alley go far back in to the early 70s. My dad loved the place and we used to go for walks through the Change Alley and the arcade and the neighbouring arcade, around Raffles Place and for me the whole place has become intertwined with the memories of my father as well. And so perhaps, part of my attempt to resurrect the place is also an attempt to reconnect with my father. So this excerpt between stations, my travel memoir, gives a kind of introduction to the Change Alley as it was then.

Change alley was a microcosm of the multi ethnicity that is the DNA for what Singapore has become. Not only the clientele but the stall owners were cosmopolitans set – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab, Jewish, Eurasian. There were many first generation migrants from Armenia, Iraq, Swatar, Madras, Bombay and other far flung parts of Asia. I remember few of the names like Alley photo and Oriental. But Dinky whose house of Russian goods is the only survivor reels off the store names, Albert store, Poh Seng, Hwa Hwa, Ji Seng, Fairyshoes, ideal silk shop, Muhammad Thambi and Kok Heng. There was competition for customers but the atmosphere was largely convivial. The inhabitants trailing jokes, gossips and friendly taunts in mixture of Bahasa, Chinese and English. 

If shoppers couldn’t find what they wanted, they would always be directed to an adjourning store. As the alley crawled to its glaring exit at the Raffles Place end, there was a toy store Tan Yi Chang, hanging clowns that would admit a raucous laugh when passed them. There were toy planes, trucks, soldiers and kites but I coveted the clowns. Their laughter was sinister but mesmerising and echoes down the years to me. My father could never afford displayed toys and I never cried because longed since not to expect anything from him. We reached the last shops and glimpsed the twin fountains and trimmed lawns in the heart of Raffles Place. I loved the covet paths and old buildings around it. Many of them were owned by Arabs notably the al kaffs and the Ahmadis which explains the Arab and Morich arches. 

Most distinguished of this was the commanding white façade of Robinsons with what looks like a bronze mercury balanced on one foot crowning the corners. My father must loved wondering in this luxurious store even though he couldn’t afford the prices. There were three levels connected by a grill door lift with an attendant on a stool. It was a treat for me to ride it watching the floors change through the iron gate. In the 1972 conflagration which turned Robinsons into guttered space in a nation’s memory and story. The lift attendant was one of the nine who perished, trapped probably in this lift. A few days after the fire, I came with my mother to look at the charred corpse of the building before it was cleared. The scene resembled one of the pictures of the district after raids by Japanese bombers. Vaguely the scene spoke to me about the future. Betokening a sense of loss which has become more now that the entire district the granite buildings the covet walks, the confluence of alleys and arcades and the comfortable sense of scale and proportion that the old buildings imparted has vanished without a trace and my father is now debtless and dead.

Change Alley
by Boey Kim Cheng – written in the early 90s

Alley of change utterly changed. 
The name of the place names
the lost decades, the places and times
gone with our belongings, migrated 
along the routes buried or closed
to the country of changelessness.

Many dark tunnels ago, a child rode
on his father’s back through the trades of tongues,
the bazaar of puzzling scents and smells,
an underwater world of sailors
stale from the sea and travellers
drowned in dreams of home,

floating through its length skeined
with striplights and bare bulbs, the stalls
spilling over with imitation wares
for the unwary, watches, bags, gadgets and tapes;
in each recess he heard the conspiracies
of currencies, the marriage of foreign tongues
holding a key to worlds opening on worlds
for the wakening senses of the child.

And then the laughing clowns
in the toy shop at the end of the Alley,
secreting peals of ghostly glee, derisive
and disembodied, keeping the child
enthralled and fathoming through the years
as if the future was then foretold
before the Alley’s enchantment broke
in the dazzle of a weekend afternoon.

Later the grown man in loneliness
would return as evening snuffed out
the life of trade and the Sikh nightwatch
hauled from its silent depths a worn string bed.
Standing at its mouth the man cast his stones
of questions to plumb the depths, to fetch
the echoes of consequence and distance
off all the alleys he had wandered.

It seemed he had come through the changes
unchanged, searching still the place
for signs leading home, or out of the streets
emptying into loss, whichever turn he took.
And while he waited the country flipped
the book of changes; streets lost their names,
the river forgot its source, soaring towers
policed the skies and before the answer
could come like the laugh heard changes ago

the Alley packed its stalls and followed
the route to exile, its nomadic spirit
inhabiting now the country of the mind.
All is utterly changed, the map useless
for navigation in the lost city. Only an echo
remains, the man haunting and sniffing
where the Alley had been, measuring
its absence till the spirit of place returns,
till a door yields at the end and he walks
out free, changed beyond all changes.