Memetjan Abla, a painter, teacher, husband and father, known for his subtle use of color in his elegant portraits of Uyghur urban life, was lost on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. He was 35.
In the wake of the horrific violence in Kunming, Uyghurs around the country have taken to Chinese-language social media to create distance between themselves and the killing of the innocent. The celebrity of Uyghur-Han ethnic friendship, the Guizhou kebab-seller-turned-philanthropist Alimjan (A-li-mu-jiang), put it best. Echoing the massively popular Indian-American film My Name is Khan, Alimjan said, “My name is Jiang and I am not a terrorist.” Many people also expressed empathy with those who experienced personal loss and pain on March 1 by writing on their WeChat accounts, “We are all Kunming people today.”
I’ve asked many people why Abdulla “Aka” (Older Brother) Abdurehim is the undisputed King of Uyghur music. It’s not that he has the gravitas of a young Elvis Presley, the steely resolve of Johnny Cash, the working-class poetics of Bruce Springsteen, or the song and dance routine of the trickster Bob Dylan. People talk about the catchiness of his melodies, the way the best song writers flock to him like pigeons to a master, and women flutter around him like moths to a flame. Yet these explanations always leave me unsatisfied. Abdulla is, after all, an average-looking middle-aged man from Kashgar. He’s average height. He has a moustache.
Within the marriage market of the urban Uyghur community it has almost become a cliché to discuss the moral aptitude of young men in terms of their frequency of prayer. When introducing a potential boyfriend, the line given is “he prays five times a day." Although this description often overlooks other moral failures such as drinking, smoking, and general carousing, the overall connotation conveyed is “this is a good, responsible guy.” In the short film With Me, Hezriti Ali, another self-made migrant actor-muscian from the southwest edge of the Taklamakan Desert, tackles this problem in an unusually subtle and implicit way.
Music envelops the tight confines of nightclubs in Xinjiang's urban centers, where the pageantry of movement brings friends and strangers to life. Uyghurs can dance. And since his very first cassette tape released in 1999, the singer Möminjan has been popular with Xinjiang's youth precisely because his songs are eminently danceable.
Of all the performers in the upper echelon of Uyghur pop music, Möminjan is perhaps the most widely traveled independent artist. Möminjan and his brother, the famous composer Ablet Ablikim, grew up in the shadow of their famous uncle Abdulla, the King of Uyghur pop. He and his brother have been following in their uncle’s footsteps for more than a decade; they even recorded a song together called “We Brothers” (Qerindash Biz), which sounds a bit like a Uyghur version of the Everly Brothers.
Ablajan Awut Ayup, the Uyghur Justin Bieber, is trending again in Uyghur cyberspace. Uyghur Weixin and popular social media sites like Misranim have amped up Ablajan’s meteoric rise in Uyghur pop culture, but this time it’s not just his highly orchestrated K-pop-style dance-ensemble performances, his catchy rhymes and bad-boy persona. Ablajan is crossing over. China, meet A-bo-la-jiang.
Xu Xin’s monumental 2010 film, Karamay (below, with English subtitles), is a meditation on the relationship humans have to failures within Modernist political projects in our current historical moment. Using long-takes and repetitive framing, Xu Xin draws out the long duration of trauma and feelings of injustice following a horrific fire that killed hundreds of children in 1994. With the exception of a minority of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, the majority of Mandarin speakers featured in this award-winning 356-minute film came from elsewhere.
The short film Battle (above, with English subtitles) offers viewers a perspective of Uyghur life in major Chinese cities outside of Xinjiang. Having lived in Northwest China for extended periods, it was striking to see how evocative it is of life for Uyghurs outside of their homeland.