Posts Tagged ‘China’

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A Whiter Shade of Red

January 10, 2009

19/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

Last Tuesday, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers won their eighth consecutive match, playing against Shanxi Zhongyu, and they continue to top the tables of the Chinese Basketball League. The stadium in their home-town of Urumqi, the boom-town city built on the back of Xinjiang’s oil profits, was packed with fiery supporters who eager to see their team continue its winning streak and consolidate their lead.

As I walked up the steps into the stadium, thankful to be out of the sub-zero temperatures that plaster Xinjiang in the winter, I was intrigued by the combination of the sickly-sweet smell of fresh popcorn being sold by the bucket and the opening chords of The Final Countdown that echoed out from the court: everything was so Americanised. This impression only grew as the game started, for were it not for the east Asian facial features of the cheerleaders who bounced around like poodles in heat in their skimpy outfits to Justin Timberlake tunes, I could have been watching any basketball match in any American city.

Indeed, the first time I visited China over a year ago, I was struck by the extent to which so many aspects of modern China emulated and amplified that global behemoth of rampant consumer capitalism. It was not only the popular culture, the imitation of the blinged-up, sexualised and slave-to-image superstar ideals exported by the West; this sort of imagery is generically regurgitated all over the world. It was much, much more.

 

It was city after city of dizzying skyscrapers, intersected by flyovers and billboards and neon signs boasting all the perks of a ultra-modern metropolis: mobile phone companies, investment banks, luxury apartment blocks, flashy SUVs. It was the clusters of shopping malls, four, seven, ten floors each, in department store layout with pretty, made-up salespeople and shiny, slippery tiles; many of which were often empty. It was the groups of middle-aged tourists who flooded the alleys and paths of UNESCO heritage sights, wearing matching orange hats and behaving more loudly and patronisingly towards the objects of their travel (often minority groups, quaintly decked out in their traditional costumes) than the worst stereotype of the brash, uncouth American in a foreign place. It was the Xinhua bookshop and the Dico’s fastfood joint in every town, even in rural areas. It was the ideals of profit and materialism on a grand scale, the stuff of nightmares for those of us who cringe at the thought of a totalising, homogenising globalisation based on an idea of modernity as the proliferation of technology and unfettered consumption.

 

* * *

 

This month, China celebrates the 30th anniversary of what it calls its ‘Opening up and reform’ policy. The policy was, in effect, a loosening of the tight controls of the Communist planned economy and a shift towards free-market competition, and it designated the end of the two year-long power struggle that occurred after Mao’s death in 1976 in which Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious. It has been credited with enabling China to achieve record annual growth rates of some 10% over the past three decades, and is the engine for the sky-rocketing development that has swept through the country in that time.

 

Since the beginning of December, the national televised media has been airing special reports, documentaries and interviews to mark the occasion. Local museums and galleries around the country have set up exhibitions geared towards highlighting the positive effects of the Opening Up and Reform policies on particular regions and cities. A couple days ago, I visited two in Urumqi. One was your standard montage of statistics regarding increases in literacy rates, access to healthcare, the length of roads built to connect remote villages to larger urban centres, etc. The other was a photo exhibition which contrasted grainy photographs of Urumqi from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s to digitally enhances ones of recent years. The black-and-white snapshots of a ramshackle yet thriving bazaar, a patch of desolate, snow-kissed countryside a lone cyclist on a tree-lined avenue were juxtaposed with gaudy technicolour images of glass and steel high-rise buildings and geometric public parks with artificial lakes. The set-up clearly demonstrated the Chinese vision of modernity.

 

All the fanfare culminated yesterday morning when the Chinese president Hu Jintao made a speech in which he praised the virtues of “the dynamic socialist market economy”. Reading an English translation of his speech on the Xinhua website, it was unsurprising to note that a predominant lexical set throughout was one linked to the official party line, socialism. However, it did seem odd that the virtues of socialism were being proclaimed so strongly in a context that seemed to stand in sharp contrast to it, namely, the rapid capitalist development that has resulted from the Opening Up Policy.

 

Looking closer at the extensive use the word “socialist” in the speech, one comes to feel that, rather than actually being used to articulate and reinforce substantive socialist principles, such as developing a universal welfare system or reducing the ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor and urban and rural populations, it is attached to a series abstract noun in order to appropriate the concepts. Instead of tangible proposals geared towards remedying China’s existing ills or alleviating the negative impact of the global financial meltdown on China ’s export-based economy, our ears are filled with the virtues of “socialist democratic politics”, “advanced socialist spirits and culture” and “socialist modernization”.

 

The use of the word in this way makes it come across as an empty signifier, a vacuous adjective that can be used to stamp the authority of the Chinese Communist Party on the series of blatantly un-communist policies being followed by the government, which have allowed a distinctively un-socialist society to come int being. Therefore, when Hu speaks of the “socialist market economy”, something that appears to be a contradiction in terms, it is apparent that he is discursively constructing the capitalist policies which are pursued by the Chinese Communist Party as legitimate.

 

 

This is significant because, free market economics aside, there is very little substantive socialism left in China’s domestic policies. Aspects of the welfare state that are taken for granted in many western European countries, including providing universal healthcare and education, are strikingly absent in China. For example, even though the state does adhere to a policy of nine years compulsory education for its young citizens, the content and quality of this varies depending on ethnic group. As I have noted in a previous piece on this blog, most schools in Xinjiang are segregated into schools for Uighur children and schools for Han children. In the Han schools, English is taught as a second language, whereas in the Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese is taught instead of English. Though this approach offers Uighurs the possibility of accessing higher education, which is all in Mandarin, it also means that they are much less disposed towards education or jobs outside of China.

The lack of a viable egalitarian politics in comtemporary China means that, like so many ideologically charged cousins before it, including “freedom”, “liberty” and “democracy”, “socialism” is condemned to the death of rhetorical redundancy. Nevertheless, it is a purposeful death, a meaninglessness which perpetuates the raison d’etre of the CCP.

 

It was obviously tough for the architects of the Opening Up and Reform Policy to forge an image of continuation between the radical new measures and the founding principles of the Party. One of the mechanisms they used to do this was to officially conclude that Mao Zedong was “70% right, 30%”, through which they granted themselves a margin for effectuating change without rejecting the legendary image of the Chairman.

 

Still today, explicit links are made between a romansicised version of China’s communist past and its recent economic boom. CCTV 9, the English-language international channel of China’s central broadcasting agency, has been airing adverts for its series of shows commemorating the 30 year anniversary under the headline “China’s New Long March”. Interestingly, that slogan is being used for programs that interview farmers who are allowed to voice the hardships that they endured under Mao’s rule, such as being forced to eat leaves and bark in order to fend off starvation.

 

While initially this may appear to be a contradiction, on one hand eulogising an era while on the other revealing some of the horrors that took place within it, it actually serves as a dual-pronged way to congratulate the actions of the current government while maintaining their ideological putiry. Firstly, the articulating of the difficulties of the past is only allowed because it enables a point of comparison for the the ways in which peasants are relatively better off now then back then. The woman who spoke of feeding her family on soup made from the leaves of oak trees was then shown in her kitchen, cooking a meal with a variety of ingredients and modern appliances, even a microwave.

 

Secondly, the over-arching image of “the New Long March” links the present accomplishments with a grandiose, mythical past. Together, they encourage people to be both grateful for their embetterment (despite the persistence and aggravation of social inequalities), and to rally around the current policies with the same fervour that they alledgedly granted to the Red Army along its 2-year long retreat from the Guomindang in the 1930’s. Though the authenticity of the interviews with the peasants and their apparent wealth could be questioned, and while I am assuming that similar programmes are also broadcast on the other CCTV channels targeting a Chinese audience, I feel that, on the whole, the consolidation of the legitimacy of the CCP in the face of its capitalist policies is a message which is being conveyed loudly and clearly throughout this vast nation.

* * *

 

As the photographs in the Urumqi gallery illustrated, China is a vastly different place today than it was thirty years ago. But the same can be said of many other places in the world, so what makes China special? A variety of factors, doubtlessly among them the scale of its geography, the immensity of its population, its expansive history and its contemporary dogmatic commitment to a Machiavellian view of progress.

However, one thing seems to rise above the rest, namely the fact that the Chinese government remains able to walk the tightrope between a Westernised modernity and a sinified Marxism. It is impressive that the CCP, once demonised as an international pariah regime and now both coveted as an invaluable ally and feared as the looming impending superpower, has been so successful at surviving the rise and fall of the various tides that have been the ebb and flow of its history. It will be interesting to see for how much longer it can proudly, and, perhaps, justifiably, celebrate its increasingly White policies without completely renouncing its Red credentials.

(It will be more interesting to see if the CCP can appropriate another noun with deeply entrenched connotations, and shift the popular view of the colour Pink from one suggesting femininity to one representing its ideological limbo… Pink, methinks, is the new Red).

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Uighur Festivities: From the Dinner Table to the Dancefloor

January 10, 2009

11/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

For the past week we have been travelling along the Southern Silk Road, the route that runs along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the last bit of flat terrain before, further south, the Himalayas start jutting up out of the sand dunes. We took an overnight bus from Kashgar to Hotan, skipping the towns of Yengisar, Yarkand and Karghlik because we visited them on our trip to Xinjiang last year. From Hotan, we continued along the road towards Cherchen, stopping off in Keriya and Niya, both interesting examples of Hanifications of small Uighur oasis towns.

 

The Han devlopment in Cherchen is at an earlier stage than most of the other towns we have visited so far: parts of the main arterial road is still framed by Uighur houses and poplar trees, while the obligatory ”People’s Square” is still under construction next to the brand new museum. Though small, we decided to stay in Cherchen for a few days, mainly because we had met a girl on the bus, a student at Kashgar university, who invited us to her house for the Uighur festival that was held on Tuesday 9 December. It seems to coincide with the broader Muslim Eid al Adha, but it was explained to us as a day for ancestor worship, something which is not practiced by Arab Muslims but which we discovered occurred in Kazakhstan, and therefore perhaps other Central Asian countries.

 

The use of the word ‘festival’ by our hostess, Harmony, had inevitably led us to have some expectations about the occasion. We had learned that group dancing in front of the main mosque was something that only happened in Kashgar (similar to that which we had the pleasure of witnessing last year for the end of Ramadan festivities), so we knew we would not see any public celebration of that sort. To us, the word ‘festival’ connoted large gatherings of family and friends, seated around a table to share a meal. We were therefore flattered when Harmony invited us to her house on the festival day.

 

We arrived in the afternoon, about 4 o’clock Xinjiang time. Harmony had been out all morning visiting her family in the area, a grandmother who lived out in the countryside some 15 minutes drive away, and her elder brother and sisters who lived in the newer apartment complexed across town. Her father was still out visiting friends, while her mother was at home, both attending to visiting guests and resting because she was recovering from an operation. After greeting her mother, Harmony escorted us into the dining room, in which stood a large table coved with a rainbow of delights. The most eye-arresting of all were the large bowls piled high with tangerines, pears, grapes and pomegranates. Dotted around in small imitation crystal bowls were dates, apricots, raisins, dried persimmons, almonds and jellybeans. High on a platter towered a triple-layer spiral of thin threads of fried dough, all intertwined to form a vortex of crispy scrumpiousness. The only thing that was odd about the scene was that the rest of the room was empty, not a soul was there to enjoy the feast.

 

Despite our disappointment at not being able to witness a large family gathering, we were happy to taste a variety of the delicacies on offer, while Harmony just nibbled, claiming she was full from all the food at her relatives’ houses. We chatted about her family and school, and asked questions about how the Uighurs celebrated other festivals. At one point, we were broached the topic of Ramadan, which we had previously heard was subject to tight controls by government and university authorities. Harmony said that university students were not allowed to fast during Ramadan. In fact, they were forced to eat during the day: their teacher accompanied them to the canteen at lunch and made sure that each of them ate. To refuse to eat was to invite punishment.

 

We knew about other repressive measures taken by the Chinese authorities to quell Muslim practices, such as forbidding the headscarf. However, considering that that is a controversial measure that is also taken by other countries, namely France and Turkey, to know that it was enforced in Xinjiang did not come as a surprise. But forcing Muslim students to eat during Ramadan! What an incendiary policy. when you hear things like that, you realise that the government is not doing itself any favours in terms of winning over support from the ethnic populations that it controls.

 

After we had done eating, we thanked Harmony’s mother and went for a walk to her friend Amina’s house. When we arrived, we had to wait outside for the guests that were already there to leave. As we waited, her older brother came down the road herding a flock of sheep. When they saw us standing in front of the entrance to the courtyard, they veered off into a cluster of poplar trees, and Amina and her brother started hissing and clapping, eventually succeeding in maneuvering the unruly herd into the courtyard. The banal event was enough to keep us distracted from the cold that had set in with the evening, and not too long after the guests who had been inside came out, and we were invited in. The set up was almost identical to what it was at harmony’s house: a table in an empty room piled high with mouth-watering treats, and we were repeatedly encouraged to eat, which we did despite our full tummies, while Amina played hostess, serving us tea and passing round the heavy dishes laden with food.

 

* * *

 

Both girls were happy to use the excuse offered by the festival to visit other friends in order to get their parent’s consent to go out after dark. The previous night we had been out with them, and 18-year-old Harmony was given a 9 o’clock curfew, while 22-year-old Amina had to sneak out because her father was not happy with her going out. So, now that they were allowed to be out, we headed for the disco, and this time we didn’t have to hide Amina with out bodies every time a car passed!

 

The neon sign above the entrance cast an eerie orange light over the large crowd that had gathered outside to watch a brewing fight. Us three girls keep a distance, while J, in appropriate male machoness, got up close to have a look. But it was your usual drunken pub antics, with a couple fiery blokes being pushed apart by five or six others. J stipulated that they were probably rowing over a girl, which, as we entered the disco, seemed to be a plausible explanation: men seemed to outnumber women by about 10 to 1.

 

Inside, small round tables and chairs were set out on graded levels on three sides of the room, looking down on the dancefloor in the middle. It stank of stale beer and cigarettes, and was the sort of place that made me not want to touch anything for fear of contracting an alcohol-borne infection: The floor was slippery with spilt beer and caked a muddy brow-grey with the combination of shoe-dirt and booze, while I’m sure there was more nicotine than oxygen floating in the air. We took a table to the side, attempting to be as discrete as possible, in the knowledge that our foreignness inevitably drew much attention in the small Silk Road town. The lighting was dim and there was a group of men on the dancefloor playing some sort of drinking game to loud music. Before we had even been sitting for a minute, there was a crash behind us as one party-goer tumbled backwards off his chair, smashing his head and his beer bottle, but being inebriated enough to get right up again without seeming too phased by either the bash to his head or the loss of his beverage (another arrived shortly afterwards to compensate).

 

J and I orderer beers, while the girls ordered ice tea. I began to think that it was inappropriate to be drinking alcohol when my companions were not, but a quick glimpse round me revealed that almost every table was cluttered with bottles of beer, whisky, and vodka. Even if they did not partake in it, alcohol consumption was obviously not a novelty for them.

 

It was interesting to note how much alcohol was being consumed by the crowd, because it displayed a discrepancy in the image that the Uighurs like to give of themselves as ”good Muslims”. On one hand, the Uighurs take certain Islamic practices such as halal food, very seriously (to the point where they are reluctant to even set foot in Han Chinese restaurants), whereas they are obviously more lenient about drinking. This was also exemplified by th fact that some Muslim restaurants that don’t sell beer will allow customers to bring their own from outside.

 

After the drinking games ceased and the beat of the dancing music reigned again, the girls dragged me onto the dancefloor. I had been to a Xinjiang disco before, last year in Karghlik, so I had a vague idea of the way that things happened. The style was very formal, following closely along the lines of traditional Uighur dancing. For women, forearms are raised up at right angles to elbows, hands at eye level performing a twisting acrobatics, some shoulder movement, hardly any hips, and stoic, rhythmic steps back, forth, and then rotating 180 degrees with your parter. For men, the arm movements are broader, branching out to the right and left sides of the body, and then folding back at the waist, one arm to the front and the other to the back. At some points the hands are also raised to the head, and then the body is launched into a spiral, rotating a full circle. Slow dances were done even more ‘by the book’: one hand wrapped round your partner’s waist and the other clasped in their hand, you rock back and forth in at a lullaby pace, following the steps of the leader (during these tunes, men dance with women but also women dance with women, one of them adopting the male role).

 

Despite my perpetual itching for nonconformity, I did make a certain attempt to adhere to the predominant style, admittedly with a few more hip gyrations added in here and there… But both on and off the dancefloor, I observed the crowd and was perplexed by the uniformity of the whole scene. I wondered what was the appeal of going out to dance, if it was only to repeat the same set of moves for every song. But I suppose that attraction lay more in the social interaction enabled by the lax environment than in actually getting out to let your hair down and have a good boogey.

 

During the hour that I spent at the disco, my thoughts and emotions swung from one extreme to the other. On one hand, I felt intimidated by the rowdiness, paranoid by the griminess and uncomfortable at the attention I received on the dancefloor. I admit that I danced less subtly than I could have chosen to, perhaps sub-consciously seeking to push the boundaries of the normal moves by inserting a bit of hopping and head-shaking, in a drum n’ bass sort of way. Nothing sexually provocative or anything like that, just more energetic, less composed, unleashing the surface of the dancing demon inside us all that disregards convention and is a slave to the beat… Ok, perhaps a bit risqué given my surroundings, but you know, gotta push the envelope…

 

During one jive, a red-haired bloke who had been dancing behind me grabbed my arm and twisted it round so that my face was in line with his. He held me there, just staring into my face, gazing over my hair and clothes (long skirt and hooded jumper) but not uttering a word, for a good few seconds before I managed to pry myself from his grip and merge back into the circle that I had been dancing in. Noticing my flusteredness at the encounter, Harmony came up to me, brought her mouth up to my ear and shouted: ”He wants to dance with you”. I replied that he would significantly increase his chances if he asked in a more gentlemanly manner… Obviously, my strange dancing provoked some bizarre, but, given the context, probably understandable, reactions. But even when I was not the object of such attention, I saw it happening to others, and came to feel that overall, the venue allowed more for sexually-driven pursuits and alcohol induced debauchery than relaxed, good-natured enjoyment.

 

On the other hand, when I could make myself as invisible as the darkness allowed, there were times when I found the dynamics of the disco to be less threatening, even verging on pleasant. One such moment was when there was an all-male dance. As soon as the music started, only males came onto the dancefloor, forming a circle, and beginning the broad, arm-sweeping movements accompanied by short hops and turns, as the circle rotated slowly. They all danced in unison: a synchronic tide of black leather flatcaps and square, green skullcaps. I found the mingling of tradition and popular culture to be endearing, in the sense that it tore down the pretenses of a gilted disco culture and replaced them by a short-but-sweet return to community ethics.

 

* * *

 

As we exited back on the the psychedelic orange street, we had J take some photos of us girls posing in a Charlie’s Angels sort of formation. It was amusing, and we giggled as we started walking down the road back towards our hotel and their homes. But then Amina’s phone rang: it was her boyfriend, at another disco in town, begging her to come back out. Feigning tiredness even though it was only 9:30 pm, and using our bub to Korla which departed at 8am as an excuse, we managed to wriggle out of having to go along with them.

 

”Won’t your mother be worried about you?” I asked Harmony, perhaps slightly apprehensive that us foreigners would get blamed for her night out on the town.

 

”No”, she replied, ”because it’s the festival, I can stay out a little late”. Ok, I said, but take care of yourselves in there!

 

We said our goodbyes, exchanging the usual promises to stay in touch. They hurried off back towards the town, obviously eager to make the most of their one night of freedom, while I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of indefinitely postponing the my next visit to a Xinjiang disco.

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Beyond the ghost towns

January 10, 2009

3/12/08 Cherchen, Xinjiang, China

The main roads which lead into the oasis towns that lie on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert are but thirsty veins creeping to the surface of an otherwise healthy body. They run shallowly along the surfaces of the towns, offering an unsubstantive glimpse of the lives that are led there.

 

In most cases, when we arrived in public buses, we would be puzzled by the desertedness of the wide arterial avenues. There would be shops, restaurants, with signs in both Uighur and oversized Chinese characters, but so few people. Where is everybody? I would wonder.

 

And time and time again, it would only be when we would lose ourselves down the unpaved streets or behind the imposing government buildings that we would find evidence of livelihood, social and commercial hubs. The new Han towns, comprising the bus station and various retail shops, are artificial centres. The combination of their grandeur and fakeness renders them both farcical and defunct, while the real pulse of life can be felt in the old Uighur parts of town.

 

In Hotan, a city famed for its jade, the newly arrived visitor is tempted towards Hantown by a massive statue of Mao greeting an Uighur peasant, which can be seen from half a kilometre away approaching from three different main roads. Below the statue, a series of images tell the story of the majestic encounter: the peasant, having suffered under the harsh hands of warlords and the Guomindang, was so enthralled by the arrival of Communist forces upon their ‘liberation’ of Xinjiang and the justice that they brought to the region that he decided to travel, by donkey, to Beijing in order to thank the Chairman himself. The statue is a replica of that meeting, with the meek peasant expressing his gratitude and Mao commending him for his revolutionary steadfastness in the face of so many years of hardship.

 

Whether or not the story is true (I seriously doubt it) is insignificant compared to the fact that it is a massive piece of propaganda which is being used to mark the new centre of Hotan. But this new ‘downtown’, with its multi-story banks, fast-food chains and tasteless fluorescent streetlights in the shape of palm trees pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the Uighur bazaar, which lies about a kilometre to the south east of the Mao statue. The roads surrounding the bazaar are, literally, crammed with people. There are countless food stalls, bakeries, fruit stands, cobblers and carpet shops, and hundreds of people milling around between, either customers or merchants themselves. This is where the heart of Hotan lies, even though its head has been decapitated and moved uptown in the government’s policy of urban fragmentation.

 

When we arrived on a bus in Keriya, we encountered similar scenes: wide, lifeless avenues. Wandering aimlessly down the one outside the bus station, we saw a small covered bazaar off to one side, where things were definitely in fuller swing. Further on, we saw the towering facade of a mosque, and walked towards it. As we go closer, we saw that a string of stalls ran from the entrance along the sidewalk both to the right and left, creating another little beehive of life, that was really really buzzing. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, later we realised thousands. And as we got close to the mosques entrance, we realised why: floods of men were leaving the mosque, and amongst them a coffin was being carried high on the shoulders of one group. It was a funeral.

 

We sat outside the mosque watching the men exit. It is only men who are allowed in Uighur mosques; women have to pray at home. As they left the building, some stopped to chat to eachother, while others ventured towards the merchants who displayed their wares on the pavement or on small tables: thermal underwear for men, women and children; leather coats on sale for 50 yuan (about five quid); sticky slabs of walnuts and honey; baked sweet potatoes and steaming slices of bright orange pumpkin.

 

When the stream of mourners started to thin, we walked along the market, which faded into women peddling sad-looking cabbage on the street, after which we turned off on a dirt path to find a street of restaurants, now brimming with customers after the funeral, enjoying lamb kebabs or steaming meat pies. Back on the road, we passed an alley of tinkers, hammering away on metal furnaces, pipes and cooking pans, and some children playing in a coal depot. The street was still lively, but as we made our way back to the bus station, it progressively quieted down, until we once again found ourselves on the large, quiet avenues. Up ahead, we saw a statue, and decided to take a look before we caught our ongoing bus to Niya. There, in a deserted, burgundy-tiled square just off the main road out of the town, was the towering statue of Mao and the peasant.

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The Politics of ma la dofu

January 10, 2009

30/11/08 Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

During my first visit to China a year ago, I developed quite a taste for Chinese food. But to say this to people who have never visited China is misleading, because often their only exposure to Chinese cuisine has been the greasy, MSG-saturated stuff that gets ordered for take-out in those quaint little white cardboard containers. And although Chinese food in China is, admittedly, both greasy and coated in a fine layer of MSG crystals, it is worlds away from the stereotypical, bright orange sweet and sour dishes with a side of egg fried rice.

The majority of Chinese restaurants in the West are Cantonese, which is only one of the many types of cuisine present in this vast country that encompasses over 50 different ethnic minorities and with each region boasting its own unique speciality. From the classics including Peking duck and steamed dumplings, to more obscure dishes such as Nanning dog; from fiery Chonqing hotpot and spicy Sichuanese dishes laced with taste bud-tingling Chinese prickly ash (’ma’), to the fresh fish fare of the Bai and the goat cheese of the Naxi in Yunan; from the barley- and yak product-based staples of the agriculturally-poor Tibetan plateau, to the laghman (pulled noodles) and pollo (similar to central Asian plov) of the Uighur in Xinjiang; the diversity of the Chinese empire is reflected in the proliferation of palates of which those who have not visited the Middle Kingdom are seldom aware.

When I visited China last year, I had not yet deviated from my 6-year-long stint as a vegetarian (which has since been forfeited with the introduction of lamb into my diet during my travels through central Asia: see here). Being a vegetarian in eastern China was a real thrill: with an abundance of vegetable- and tofu-based dishes almost always on offer, there was always something to satisfy my backpacker’s hunger. Even in the cities of Xinjiang, where the central Asian influence renders the local food heavily meat-based, there was always a Sichuanese restaurant to which we could flock in order to get our fill of our veggie favourites , including ‘fish-like aubergine’ and ma la dofu (hot and spicy tofu). It was only occasionally, when we ventured from the beaten-track, such as when we travelled into the more remote mountain areas of Xinjiang and stayed with both Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in yurts and went hiking southern Xishuanbanna near the Burmese border, that our dietary particularities were more difficult to abide by. But, like I believe every good traveller should, our sense of gratefulness in response to hospitality outweighed our principles, and we politely stomached the yak, lamb and wild boar that appeared on our plates.

This time round in Xinjiang, however, in the context of our desire to observe the various means by which the Han Chinese-dominated government maintains a tight control of the region and the implications of this on the livelihoods and culture of the Uighur people, we have found some ethical problems with our penchant for ma la dofu. More precisely, if we are morally opposed to Han Chinese control of and migration to Xinjiang, on the grounds that it represents an act of cultural imperialism that systematically disempowers the Uighur and seeks to undermine their culture in the name of national assimilation, then is it not morally objectionable for us to support Han businesses in the region?

By posing the polemic in this way, I am not implying that my personal choice to not support certain patrons will in any way threaten their business, or, for that matter, have any significant impact on them whatsoever. However, I do feel that consumption is an inherently political act, seeing as it has as its corollary production, and that those two together constitute a whole system in which undeniable power relations are present. Along these lines, the theory of ethical consumption goes that not only is hitting someone in their pocket is where it hurts most, but that it is an opportunity to use one’s economic power to draw attention to objectionable practices. To purchase something is to partake in that system, to have a degree of agency in its perpetuation. Conversely, to choose to not to place one’s purchasing power in a given system because one opposes certain methods used within it (in terms of production, advertising, transportation etc) is a means of expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The ethics of consumption have come to the forefront of popular discourse and debate in many ways over the past twenty years. These have taken various forms, most prominently academic boycotts as a means of criticising repressive regimes, such as in the cases of apartheid South Africa and Israel; divestment from certain banks or companies that have shares in arms companies and hence have vested interests in the continuation of certain conflicts, for example Sudan; and trends discouraging the purchase of goods produced using unsound methods (including those which use child or sweatshop labour, destroy ecosystems, or monopolise certain retail areas of geographic spaces) while encouraging alternative, more ethical products (organic, fair trade, low carbon-footprint etc).

Taking these sorts of arguments seriously, during these past couple weeks in Xinjiang, we have made concerted efforts to purchase from Uighurs, whether at in small shops or market stalls. In some places it has been easier than others: in the Han-dominated city of Gulja, outside the bazaar, it was nearly impossible to find shops owned/run by Uighur people to buy groceries from, whereas here in Kashgar, there are many more centres of Uighur commercial activity.

Nevertheless, there are some realms where we have no choice but to buy into Han business because there are no other options, most notably in terms of accommodation: all the hotels are run by Han Chinese. We got our hopes up yesterday when we heard about a guesthouse in the old Uighur quarter of Kasghar, thinking that we could finally stay with and economically support an Uighur family, only to be disappointed by learning that it was run by a Han Chinese. When questioned about why there were no Uighur guesthouses in the charming old town, with its obvious appeal to travellers, our interlocutor said that it was very difficult for Uighurs to get permits to house foreigners.

When it comes to eating a hot meal, we try to go to Uighur restaurants as often as possible. The problem is that even with our newly-nurtured lamb tolerance, neither J nor I find a bowl of lakhman noodles, or even the occasional shwar (kebab), to be as gastronomically pleasing as a Sichuanese spread, encompassing salads, stir fried veggies, the obligatory ma la dofu and some steamed rice. Compared to the explosion of colours and flavours offered by the latter, the appeal of the former fades. But every time we chose to eat in a Sichuan restaurant, are we not savouring a cuisine whose very presence in every town of Xinjiang betrays the extent of the Han conquest, and therefore implicitly condoning it? Isn’t eating in a Han restaurant in Xinjiang antithetical to our opinions about the region? Isn’t it hypocritical?

I suppose, on one hand, that Kashgar, being a key city on Silk Road, has a past of ethnic and cultural plurality. Its history as a cosmopolitan centre where different peoples met and merged has existed for a much longer period of time than its more recent statute of ‘traditional’ Uighur town. Therefore, to reject that history of diversity in favour of positing the Uighur as being in some way the most ‘authentic’ inhabitants of the region is inaccurate and misplaced. Consequently, my reservations about eating in Han restaurants could be accused of romanticising the position of the Uighur in Kashgar.

However, on the other hand, this analysis does not hold so true for some other cities that we have visited in Xinjiang, which really do fit the term ‘Uighur towns’, and that are being transformed into Han super cities. In those places, and within the broader context of Han migration and the unequal distribution of employment amongst the ethnic groups of the region, I think it is pertinent to be critically aware of where we place our purchasing power.

* * *

As the sun sets and we begin to contemplate what to have for dinner, I really do feel like I shouldn’t give in to that little voice inside me that proclaims its desire for ma la dofu. But today, I think I may have less of an internal debate with myself: I have a chest infection and have been moping around coughing up phlegm all day. In this condition, I don’t particularly feel like eating spicy stir fry, but nor does a steaming bowl of laghman seem appealing as that was my breakfast… So tonight, I think I’ll take the middle road and mosey on down to the Pakistan Cafe round the corner for some dahl and saag aloo… Kashgar must have the best South Asian food in all of China, and as long as it isn’t annexed by Pakistan anytime soon, I have no moral dilemmas in enjoying it!

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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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A brief, if biased, snapshot of Xinjiang’s past and present

January 10, 2009

21/11/08 Korla, Xinjiang, China

NB: The purpose of this piece is not to give a comprehensive understanding of Xinjiang’s long and complicated history. Obviously, all history is inherently political, as the events that are highlighted versus those which are omitted expose the partiality of the author. With this in mind, the purpose of this short piece is for the benefit of readership, to present a basic outline of what I consider to be some significant developments in Xinjiang’s history and their present manifestations in order to provide a context for my commentary pieces which will follow. For those who are interested in learning more, I would recommend Christan Tyler’s Wild West China.  *     *     * 

       Known as ‘Xinjiang’ (pronounced ‘shin-ji-ang‘), meaning ‘new frontier’ by the Chinese,  and ‘Eastern Turkestan’ by its other inhabitants, the most north-westernly province of China is a multi-ethnic region situated on the historical crossroads of the Silk Road trading route. (For a pertinent analysis of the politics of naming, seehttp://uighurstan.blogspot.com/2008/11/whats-in-name.html) It has been home to the Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz, Xibo and Uighur people, which are the majority, for centuries.

       The Chinese have been attempting to control Xinjiang  for well over 1,000 years, and have succeeded in doing so on-and-off since the 1700s. Not surprisingly, these imperial ambitions have not gone down well with the majority Uighur, who share little cultural, linguistic or religious links with the Han Chinese, being, like many of the peoples of Central Asia, of Turkic descent. The frictions of identity politics resulting from the interplay between distinct ethnic groups vying for control over a single land, as well as the tactics of coercion and resistance on both sides, has often erupted in conflict. Indeed, the history of Xinjiang is a very bloody one.

       Originally, Xinjiang was important for the Chinese empires because of its geographic location: a buffer from the powerful Khanates of Central Asia, and, after that, from Tsarist and eventually Soviet Russia.  Further, Chinese empires have always seen the peoples from the region as ‘barbaric’ and dangerous, and hence in need of control and civilisation.

       Nowadays, Xinjiang is not only coveted by Beijing for its wealth of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and minerals, but also for the sheer immensity of its landmass (one-sixth of the total area of China), which proves immensely valuable to a nation constantly pressed for space by an increasing population.

       The methods of Chinese control have varied according to the ages, from military outposts and garrisons in the 18th and 19th century, to forced migration tactics in the 20th century. During the height of Mao’s Communist endeavors, Xinjiang was the location of many work camps, the Chinese equivalent to Soviet Gulags. Hundreds of thousand of people were sent out to this region in order to be ‘re-educated’. Today, you can still see the contemporary manifestation of these: so-called ‘work-teams’ in matching uniforms, flanked by shuttle buses and armed soldiers, digging trenches or planting trees in the middle of the desert. (In fact, we passed one on the bus just yesterday.)

       More recently, in the past 20 years, the Chinese government has given Han Chinese from the easterly provinces incentives to migrate out to Xinjiang, such as job opportunities or promotions and living-cost subsidies. Such policies have been aimed not only at alleviating the burden from China’s overpopulated eastern coast, but also as a means of shifting the demographics of the region so that the Uighur become a minority. The settlement of Han in Xinjiang is not only a means of undermining Uighur claims to national autonomy; it is also a way of preventing dissent.

       Recent Uighur uprisings, including riots in the town of Yining in the late nineties, a series of explosions in early 2000s and alleged attacks on Chinese police in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have been heavily crushed. The Chinese government’s approach to Uighur dissent is two-pronged: punishment and construction. On one hand, they refer to any sort of anti-government activity with the convenient label ‘terrorist’, in order to legitimise arbitrary detentions, questioning, torture and even execution of individuals. On the other hand, they continue to invest heavily in the region, developing industries and urban infrastructure, the benefactors of which are largely Han Chinese. In the majority of cases, neither the Uighur nor other minorities of the region are granted access to these new wealth-generating enterprises, save in low-level maintenance posts such as gardening or rubbish collection. At the same time, their businesses are notably absent from the newly constructed city centres, in which large Chinese characters drown out the Arabic script of the Uighur language. 

       The extent to which the social or economic activities of the Uighur are pushed to the margins of contemporary development is also present in the education system: Uighur and Han children are obliged to attend different schools. In Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese (in Chinese ‘hanyu‘, ‘Han language’, or ‘putonghua‘, ‘common language’) is a compulsory subject, which must be passed in order for the student to obtain a high-school diploma. In most Uighur schools, English is not taught.  In Han schools, English is taught as a compulsory subject, and Uighur is not taught at all. This segregation not only reinforces ethnic differences of Han vs. non-Han, which forces the Uighur to assimilate into the dominant culture; it also produces generations of Chinese citizens with inherently different levels of education, and hence perpetuates a systematic imbalance in terms of access to the job market, whether nationally or internationally. 

     The methods of Han coercion exceed languange, and come to infringe on all sorts of cultural practices. From fostering a social stigma against beards and forcing Muslims working in or attending public institutions (including universities) to eat during the day in Ramadan, to covering the walls of Uighur parts of town with propaganda proclaiming the need for “civilisation” and insisting that businesses and official services run on ”Beijing Time” when Xinjiang’s longitude should have it running two time zones earlier, there are many examples of the Chinese government’s drive to to stamp its authority on the region and undermine Uighur ethnic identity.

      Though in-depth analysis of all these factors exceeds the scope of this blog, my commentaries aim to bear testimony to the ways in which the livelihoods and identities of the Uighur are being compromised by the imperialist projects of the contemporary Chinese government.

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Back in the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region)

January 10, 2009

19/11/08 Yining/Gulja, Xinjiang, China 

A year has passed, and I find myself back in the most westernly province of China, known to the Chinese as Xinjiang, or ‘western frontier’, but referred to as ‘Eastern Turkistan’ by the Uighurs, the historical ethnic inhabitants of the area. My return to the region has to do precisely with this distinction, as J is fascinated by the Han Chinese expansion, control, and veritable colonialism in this region, and the corollary movement for Uighur national independence. Consequently, he has decided to return here to learn more about it, and I, for the second time, have chosen to follow him.

 I suppose that at this point, it is necessary to mention that our three friends with whom we began our journey from Beirut across the Asian continent have all left us, following their own paths. Di and Caro said their goodbyes in Tashkent, both returning to jobs and loves back in Lebanon, while Jeevs decided to brave the harsh winter climate and discover Kyrgyzstan.  I admire his drive for discovery, as I myself decided not to venture there because of my fear of sub-zero temperatures (which I am encountering here in Yining anyways and are no doubt unavoidable from here on out), and hope that the harsh conditions do not hinder his path and engagement with the place.

 I ask myself to what extent their absence has changed our travelling experience. On hone hand, it does change the way that we do things, in many ways. Now that we are only two people with largely the same direction (I really am tagging along to wherever/whatever J feels he needs to go/see) and desires, which reduces the decision-making processes and the conflicts. But despite these conflicts, there was a sense of comfort and security in the group which, perhaps, at times, made us more insular, but, at others, definitely gave us more strength to confront difficult situations. The prime example of this was when Di fell very ill in Yazd, Iran, and was place on an IV drip. Our combined efforts managed to get her the medical attention she needed, and also make sure that there was always someone by her bedside to help her get to the toilet or hold up a plastic bag when she felt a wave of nausea. I believe, therefore, that their absence, both in terms of a lack of bickering and a lack of companionship, is akin to a separation of siblings. 

 On the other hand, more than the presence or absence of our friends, I think the biggest factor that will alter the way that we will travel in Xinjiang is that we are no longer on a ‘voyage of discovery’ in the same sense as we were in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in that those were all countries that we were visiting for the first time. We were there on a much more touristic basis, in which we sought out the iconic attractions of those places, be they ancient desert cities, magnificent mosques and madrassas or the self-congratulatory monuments of megalomaniac dictators. Our previous visit to Xinjiang followed a similar pattern, in that we visited many touristic locations: Turpan, Tian Shi Lake, Kasghar and other southern Silk Road cities including Yarkan and Karglik. This time, however, we are explicitly seeking out those places off the beaten track, and, perhaps most importantly, hose not contained in the traveller’s bible, the Lonely Planet Guide.

 * * *

 Out of the seven land borders that we have so far crossed during this journey, the Kazakhstan-China one unexpectedly proved to be the most eventful. We had had some preliminary worries about whether or not our crossing into Xinjiang would be problematic, due to the travel restrictions placed on the area in the wake of the attacks here in the run-up to the Olympics in August, but our concerns proved unfounded. In fact, the reality proved completely the opposite.

 On the Kazakh side of the border, the customs and immigration offices were housed in  simple, clean buildings with effective but unassuming facilities, namely computers. Even upon entering Kazakhstan, I remembered being impressed at the presence of computers in the control booths; the first appearance of such advanced machinery in all our travels. But these could not compare with the set-up on the Chinese side of the border: a brand spanking new building, with automatic doors, shiny floors in which the neon ceiling lights glowed and a host of smiling, uniformed Han Chinese to welcome you to the motherland. My jaw probably dropped upon entry, to stark was the contrast between this office and all of the others that I have ever encountered in my life. Obviously revamped for the Olympics, the building completely resembled the most modern airport, complete with wide, multi-lingual signs hanging from the ceilings, designating the various queues and counters in the style of airline check-in desks.

 And the personnel were so pleasant as well! Their behaviour was in complete accordance with supposed traditional Chinese docility and compliance, which seems to be a stereotype that the government is keen on fostering. Apart from one brief inquiry as to our eventual destination (Beijing, we duly replied), we were not given a second (overt) thought.

 Upon exiting he building, we were faced by a more daunting sight: about 100 metres away stood a black metal gate with two soldiers on one side checking visa stamps, and a huge mass of people on the other side, clinging to the iron bars, staring in. Past experiences told us that these blokes would consist of taxi drivers, money exchangers and hotel touts, waiting to pounce upon us and reap the affluence assumed by virtue of our white skin and (fake) North Face jackets.

 We stood in line, waiting for our turn for our passports to be checked for the last time before leaving the border compound. The two officials were young, perhaps not even 20 yet, but their personas were inflated by the prestige of their uniforms, khaki green jacked and trousers with bright red trimmings, topped off by a high, broad hat. They had a slight build, and their bodies seemed to shrink beneath the magnitude and significance of their attire.  Even though we were last in line, we had been identified by the men beyond the gate, and they proceeded to voice their offerings to us: ‘Taxi! Taxi Yining! Taxi Wulumuqi (Urumqi)!’

 Eventually, the person in front of me was waved through, and I stepped up to the young man and, with an emphatic ‘Ni hao’ and a broad smile, I handed him my passport. From the black gate that now stood only a few metres away, the shouts were increasing in frequency and volume, so I put on my best bored, disinterested face, in the hope that obviously ignoring them would encourage the furor to subside.

 And then, before I realised what was happening, two of the young men from the crowd had run through the gate and slapped me on the arm, the way you do if you’re tagging someone in a game. My immediate reaction was to grab my handbag, in the fear that that was their target. But no, they were laughing as they pulled back as quickly as they had came, snickering and satisfied at their meagre accomplishment. After the initial surprise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought: a bit of cheekiness for shits and giggles, one round of ‘tag the foreigner’ to pass the time…

 But the young soldier beside me was not so passive, and he immediately jumped forward at the perpetrators, who huddled back into the crowd. The soldier took a few swift, intimidating steps past the gate, threatening those assembled with both sharp words and steely body-language. The men in the crowd all stepped back, creating a semi-circle of pavement around the soldier. It was only then that I realised how physically small he was: in the space that had opened up around him, he looked like a little child about to be bullied by a group of  burly adolescents; although in the current scene, the roles of domination had been inversed. He took an extra few seconds to give them all am icy look as if to say ‘Don’t try me, I’m not messing around here’, and then calmly came back to where we were waiting, slightly disorientated at everything that was unraveling so quickly before us. The soldier flipped through my passport, then handed it back to me, and I walked over towards the gate.

 The following scene happened so quickly that i don’t remember exactly how it begun. I do remember some sort of tussle as I got beyond the gate, someone grabbed me and the shouting was amplified. But I didn’t even have time to think about what I would do to evade the crowd when the young soldier had, once again, leaped out beyond the gate and begun to hit one of the man who had moved forward. My body stiffened, and I was afraid to move because I didn’t want to get caught up in the fight if others joined in. So I just stood there, feet stuck to the ground, hiding my face in my hands like an ostrich hides its head in the sand. 

 The next time I looked up I saw that the soldier was now kicking the same man over and over again in the ass. The  soldier was holding the man by the arm as he repeatedly and roughly shoved the tip of his polished black boot up the man’s backside. Again, like some dumb animal stuck in headlights, I just stood there and stared. And then I realised that everybody else in the crowd and in the line behind the gate was doing the exact same thing. There was no movement on the behalf of any of the other men to come to the aid of their colleague, nor did any other soldiers attempt to restrain the one who was kicking. And just as the soldier dished out the end of his beating, I realised again how small he was compared to his victim: the man was at least a whole head taller than him, not to mention well-built. I have no doubt that he could have knocked the adolescent soldier unconscious with a single blow. but he did nothing, just stood there and took it without a single utterance piercing his lips.

 After the soldier had finished delivering the punishment, he returned to his initial post and handed J back to passport which he had been holding. J immediately came up to me and asked if I was ok, which of course I was, and we hastened our pace to escape to harassers, but to no avail: perhaps 10 metres away from the gate they descended upon us again. But at this point I was so eager to get the hell out of there that i shouted ‘Piss off! Piss off!’ over and over again, as J and I  moved with linked arms farther from the crowd. My shouting seemed to take effect, and after about 50 metres, there were only 3 highly persistent touts surrounding us anymore, and they too eventually dissipated.

* * *

 Since the incident, J and I have been replaying it over and over again in our heads, trying to dissect the motivations behind the actions of the persons involved and attempting to identify the power relations therein.

 Was this a random incident, in which the taxi drivers’ reactions to our presence was impulsive, misplaced and confronted with disproportionate aggression? Or was it a deliberate act of provocation, in which we were merely provided an opportunity for the threshold to be crossed and the soldier’s authority to be challenged? Does that sort of thing happen often? Was it an isolated event, or can it be seen as part of a larger, more systematic challenge to imperial forces? Those are questions that we can only deliberate and pontificate, without yet having enough experience to arrive at any definitive conclusions.

 I found it particularly intriguing to attempt to analyse the significance of the soldier’s show of force: was his aggressive reaction an attempt to set an example, a form of public punishment that would serve as a deterrent? Or did his use of violence betray an underlying lack of control, in the sense that the necessity of resorting to violence may mean that the other mechanisms of instilling obedience and fear are not functioning properly?

 Alongside the quest for answers, I think it’s also important to be aware of how loaded  the questions themselves are, and how they betray our own agendas. It is imperative that we acknowledge the extent to which what we are looking for will strongly influence what we come to see. We have come here with much curiosity and with many questions, and therefore we must be wary to not let those permeate every single experience we have, lest we lead ourselves to read too much into every situation…