The Uyghur rock star Perhat has a lot of fans in Ürümchi. Walking around college campuses, it's not unusual to hear Han students humming from the chorus of “How Can You Let Me Be So Sad” – the song Perhat popularized on The Voice of China back in August. And Uyghur students are in awe of how he has become so famous so quickly. They say things like, “Wow, now Perhat is hanging out with rock stars like Wang Feng who sold out the Bird’s Nest in Beijing; just a few months ago I said hello to him when I saw him buying stuff at the corner store.”
Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in a national English-speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in China. This year was no exception. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country.
It was a busy week in Ürümchi: musicals, archeology exhibits, art shows, a ComiCon festival, and thousands of visitors from outside the “autonomous” region. Special bus lines were put in place; millions of potted flowers were carefully arranged in sculpted dune patterns; and street corners were plastered with giant red billboards that featured -- a la the Shanghai Expo 2010 -- a dancing cartoon named Heavenly Horse Star (Tianma Xingqi), the slogan “Opening-up and Cooperating for the Building of the Silk Road Economic Belt,” and the logo for the fourth China-Eurasia Trade Expo.
The new documentary film Diamond in the Dunes, directed by Christopher Rufo, tells the coming-of-age story of a Uyghur man named Parhat as he finds his way through college. It shows us how he and his Uyghur and Han classmates at Xinjiang University develop a passion for a game, for abilities and skills that don’t rely on ethnicity or Chinese business connections. It shows us how the citywide riots of 2009 shaped their life-paths and how they found ways to move forward despite the difficulties of their circumstances.
It's been two weeks since the Uyghur rock star Perhat Khaliq took on The Voice of China, and the Uyghur Internet is still buzzing about the way he delivered his songs of loss and longing to a national audience.
Perhat surprised everyone with the painful tension in his voice. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he started his song in a low, almost spoken-word register that slowly evolved into a full roar.
On Friday, the first of August, we woke up to the sound of an explosion in the alley. It was a deep resonate boom: not a firecracker, not a gunshot. It was a window-rattling explosion. We knew immediately what it meant: mangled bodies, screaming women, terrified children, a suicide bomber. But when I leaned out the window, I saw a young man with a fire extinguisher putting out a few small fires next to a mangled three-wheel cart.
The giant 41-meter Buddha faces due west. It seems to embrace the construction on the other side of Bright Red Mountain on the northeast periphery of Ürümchi. Behind him, the constant ring of hammers and the roar of Bingtuan Construction Engineering Company trucks rise from the still-unfinished wing of the new Hilton hotel and the alien-looking international expo center. Every few minutes the low industrial roar is punctuated by the “dong” of a giant bell. Chants of A-mi-tuo-fo are carried intermittently on the breeze.
A lot of people turned out for the final day of the Xinjiang Art Biennale on July 20 at the International Expo Center. The massive complex, situated next to a giant Buddha and Hilton Hotel in the city's northeast, echoed with the sounds of an original score by Philip Glass called “Encounter on the Silk Road.” Indeed, exhibition was heavy on spectacle. Giant video screens, paintings, and sculptures drew the largely Han crowd into massive spaces lit by natural light. Smartphone cameras were often raised at the mesmerizing objects, which called the viewer to contemplate Xinjiang as “a land of many colors.”
A rifle and sword tied with a red flag over a meter of Gobi sand welcomes visitors to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Museum in the city of Shihezi, 136 kilometers northwest of Ürümchi. This museum, filled with patched and dented artifacts and hundreds of large-scale historical photos, is the premier monument to the Han experience of the recent past in Xinjiang. It shows us the narrative of experience necessary to understand the history of the people who self-identify as “constructors” (jianshezhe) of Xinjiang.
In 2012 Liu Xiaodong was named the “most socially aware figure of the year” by Art Gallery magazine. He had just completed his Hotan Project in the deep south of Xinjiang. Utilizing his famously “plein air” method, Liu set up his giant life-sized canvases in the middle of a Hotan river floodplain and lived with Uyghur jade pickers. He spent the summer with them in the dust and the heat; in shelters made of stones and earth. In Art Gallery’s assessment of his project, he attempted to capture “the rhythms of people’s lives and the status of their survival.”