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Pave the bazaar, put up a Han santing

January 10, 2009

25/11/08 Kuqa, Xinjiang, China

       We are now in the third town on our journey around Xinjiang, and the only thing that seems to differentiate these various urban centres is the degree of Han Chinese encroachment on and domination of public space.

       I regret that I used the word ’sprawling’ to describe Alamty; for it would have been much more accurate had I used it to describe modern Chinese urban planning. Having been to China before and having experienced the enormity of all the features of Chinese cities (shopping malls, roads, train and bus stations, parks…), I didn’t expect that my most recent arrival in China would yield any surprises on that front. Maybe my memory was not up to par; or perhaps it is that I expect such magnitude from the provincial capitals but not from remote towns;   more probably, it could be something to do with the contrast between the Han sides of town and the Uighur quarters: whatever the reason, I have been truly gob-smacked by the size and newness of the cities in north western Xinjiang.

       To the untrained eye, these cities could have sprouted up randomly out of the virgin desert sands like mushrooms after an autumn rain; brand spanking new cities purpose-built to accompany the largely oil-related industrial developments in the region, reminiscent of those icons of economic-growth architecture in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Indeed, there is not much left between the 3-story KFC’s, 5-story KTV’s (karaoke bars), Colosseum-sized Bank of China’s and gaudy apartment complexes to remind the visitor that, five hundred years ago, these used to be proud Silk Road towns. There is not even much to remind the onlooker that  a mere 10 or 15 years ago, these used to be Uighur towns.

        As I mentioned in my previous piece, the Chinese government has been encouraging Han migration to and settlement in Xinjiang  as a key element in their strategy for controlling the region. This has been accompanied by the construction of massive metropolises, which are being built on the sites of already-existing Uighur towns. The differences between the two are glaring: the single-story, brick Uighur houses with brightly painted doors, sometimes left slightly ajar through which one can glimpse the courtyards with their wood piles and outdoor stoves, stand in stark contrast to the high-rise apartment blocks, multi-story strip malls and 50 metre-wide avenues.  The modern parts of town house all sort of Han businesses, including restaurants, shops and banks. Uighur businesses, for the most part, seem not to be present in these ultra-new, ultra-modern complexes.  

       From the architecture and layout of the new towns, it appears that little to no effort is being made to integrate the styles of housing and traditional livelihoods of the original inhabitants. From what we have seen so far, one of two things is happening: either the Han settlement is built adjacent to the Uighur town, thus creating clear dichotomy between the old and the new and reaping the connotations of that division (backward vs. modern, primitive vs. civilised); or the Uighur town is, quite simply, bulldozed over, flattened out, made an empty lot upon which a ‘civilised’ centre can be built.

 *     *     * 

       The town of Gulja (Yining to the Chinese), in northwester Xinjiang near the Kazakh border, is an example of the first model of appropriation of space.   The Uighur part of town winds itself along quite narrow streets, where at many junctures two cars cannot pass abreast of each other, surfaced with paving stones upon which the click-clack of donkey carts echoes off the houses. Light blue seemed to be the colour of the moment in Gulja, and the azure panes of windows and doors beamed out from behind the willow trees lining the street. We wandered through this residential area, getting odd looks from the people we passed; as it is probable that not many foreigners venture into Gulja itself, let alone the old town (not marked on the Lonely Planet map!).

         We eventually came to the bazaar, where, like in many other towns of Central Asia, all senses are tickled by the vibrant stimuli of the bustling surroundings. The air was smokey, laden with the scent of cumin-infused meat grilling on charcoal, and through the fragrant clouds bursts of colour rose up before you, taking shape as we approached, becoming basket after basket of apples, mandarins, pomegranates, pears, and then further on piles of raisins, dates, apricots, roasted sunflower seeds. After that, hundreds of just-baked breads piled up like full moons next to a still-smoking clay oven, and then rows of soft, second-hand leather and fur lined coats…           

          Heading north through the bazaar, the landscape began to change from outdoor market stalls to the epitomization of Chinese modernity: the concrete and neon jungle in which over-sized bright red Chinese characters glare down from billboards and shop fronts, advertising all consumer products under the sun, or indicating the presence of staple source of Chinese gastronomy, the Han santing (Han canteen). One part of town ends starkly where the other begins. There is hardly any overlap between the two, and when it does occur, it is lopsided: the Uighur part of town is notably devoid of Han Chinese, while Uighurs are seen in the odd Muslim restaurant or as a bus driver in the Han part of town. Like the compulsory teaching of Mandarin in Uighur schools compared to Han ignorance of Uighur, it is apparent that one group is obliged to assimilate into the other, while the latter is perfectly willing and able to live in a constructed cultural bubble.

                                *     *     *            

             In Korla, south of the Tian Shan mountain range from Gulja, the Uighurs have not been so lucky. The heart of their own town, pleasantly and strategically placed on the banks of the Kongque river, is all but standing. While the modern town, which exhibits the same characteristics as those already mentioned, is less than 20 years old, amongst the remnants of the old town we stumbled upon a mosque which had a plaque on the inside stating that it had been built in 1892. I say ‘old town’, but this is an overstatement: it is only really the skeleton of a town, in which vacant, rubbish-littered lots outnumber the brick houses that are still standing. Sandy-coloured walls and dirt roads fade into crumbled piles of stone and accumulated filth.        

            Gazing down these dilapidated streets, our vision would be accosted by a crane towering above a giant, solid blue- and peach-coloured apartment blocks: a single image portraying all too clearly the destruction of tradition upon which the construction of modernity is being carried out.  And if there was any doubt left as to the drive of the government towards an ideal model of modernity, the remaining walls of the town have been covered in red characters spouting government propaganda phrases such as ”Strengthen civilisation throughout the whole country by striving to build civilised cities”.       

           The remnants of the Uighur town, which I imagine would have once stretched over both banks of the river, is being flattened to make space for luxury apartment complexes. One of the promotional awnings of these building sites had a photograph of a Han man and woman in track-suits, jogging through emerald-green parks, with a text underneath reading: ”Lives in the park, lives in the nature. 300 Chinese acre peacock parks: My private back garden”. A private back garden built on the ashes of a hundred-year old Uighur town.

        Where did the people who used to live in that part of town go? Have they been moved into the more modern accommodation that has replaced their original homes? Or have they been relocated completely, either as a strategy of the Chinese government’s self-styled civilising mission, or of the Uighur people’s own rejection of that project? 

                               *     *     *       

            In the town of Kuqa, some 300 km southwest of Korla, we came across some tentative answers to these questions. Kuqa is on a similar path to Korla, albeit at a lesser stage of advancement, in that the old parts of town, with their low housing sitting on either side of long, straight roads lined by tall poplar trees, are being demolished in order to make place for apartment blocks. It is on one such street that we befriended a young Uighur who cooks up some exceptionally scrumptious grilled mushrooms and tofu. For two days in a row, we warmed ourselves on the charcoals of his mobile restaurant, savouring his wares and chatting about this and that.        

          When we felt comfortable in our exchange, J pointed to the pastel-coloured monstrosities emerging over the roofs of the Uighur shops, and asked how long they had been there. Two years, the young man said. J went on: ”Before, what was there?”. ”It was like here”, he replied, indicating the street on which we found ourselves. He continued, saying that in two more years, this street and the ones adjacent would also befall the same fate. J asked about the price of the new apartments, and he said they were very expensive.        

             And then he made the most interesting comment of the conversation; he said that when they knocked down his street, he was going to move further out of town. With the new buildings usurping the space of his home and business, he did not want to stay, so he would leave town, implying he would set himself up in a similar place somewhere beyond the claws of the expansionists.       

           I wonder how many other Uighur feel the same way, preferring to leave the cities  and thereby maintaining both their traditional livelihoods and their dignity by not partaking in the Chinese government’s hegemonic project of modernity…


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