All posts filed under: Music

Hong Qi, the Uyghur Folksinger who grew up Han

The Uyghur Chinese musician and poet Hong Qi celebrated his forty-first birthday last May 6. He doesn’t know if that day was really his birthday. He said his mother just guessed. There is a lot that Hong Qi doesn’t know about his origins. He is one of those rare Uyghurs who grew up thinking he was Han. Hong Qi was born into a situation of extreme poverty. Hotan—the prefecture in the south of Xinjiang where he lived until age three—is the poorest prefecture in the nation. According to government statistics, in 2012 the average per capita income for the 2 million Uyghurs in Hotan was $183. Although he was born in a prefecture where the population was more than 90 percent Uyghur, Hong Qi didn’t realize he was Uyghur until he was 16. That was when his Han parents told him he was adopted. Like many military families in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Hong Qi moved a lot as a kid. He spent significant portions of his childhood in Ürümchi. He read a …

The Fog of Drugs

Although the use of hashish has been a part of the Uyghur pharmacopoeia for centuries, drugs appear to have become a widespread problem for Uyghurs only in the early 1990s. It was only then that young men in their twenties began dying of overdoses and needle-borne disease. As Ilham Tohti mentioned in 2011, in the intervening decades drugs along with theft, pickpocketing, trafficking and prostitution “have gotten so bad that our entire ethnic group is suddenly perceived as a crime-prone community.” These are issues which Uyghurs discuss among themselves and feel embarrassed about when they are raised among outsiders. Rumors are a major part of this discussion. Many people point out that the drugs come from the Golden Triangle and tell tales about the way they are trafficked by Hui middleman. They suggest that there is a general conspiracy operating among non-Uyghurs—with the tacit support of the government—to poison young Uyghur men and thus curtail their futures. These stories are supported by popular media. A famous Uyghur writer, Jalalidin Behram, vividly describes the life paths …

Traffic Lights and Uyghur Black Humor

On April 13, 2014 Abdulbasit Ablimit a 17-year-old from a small town near Aqsu was shot twice. It appears as though he had run a red light on his electric motor-scooter and, rather than stop and pay a fine, he had fled. According to his friends, three kilometers later he was shot. The official state narrative, posted a few days after the incident, says he attacked the police with stones, tried to grab their guns and so on. Abdulbasit died within hours. His body was given to his family for burial. But he was not buried. Instead his body was carried, wrapped in a white shroud with a procession of hundreds of his friends and family on a march toward the town center. They demanded that the officers who had killed Abdulbasit be arrested. As you can hear in the video above, they chanted “God is Great” – one of the few Arabic phrases that everyone knows and understands. Realizing their mistake, security officials seized Abdulbasit’s body again and arrested many of the grieving protesters …

The Legacy of the Uyghur Rock Icon Exmetjan

People still remember where they were the day Exmetjan[1] died. It was Thursday, June 13, 1991. He was only 22 years old. As is common with the death of an icon, many people refused to believe he was gone. Instead rumors spread that thugs from a rival disco had knifed him in a back alley or that he had faked his death and gone abroad to marry a princess. Exmetjan had been in Ürümchi preparing for a concert across the then (relatively) open border with Kazakhstan when he died. Back in those days before the train reached Kashgar and the highway stretched across the desert to Hotan, it was difficult to carry bodies home for burial. There were no freezer trucks. After a long and bumpy ride around the desert Exmetjan arrived in his hometown of Qarakash (near Hotan) covered in celery and ice against the smell of rot. People remember when he arrived. As his official biography puts it, Exmetjan died of “an illness.” Although everyone knows he died of a heroin overdose, no …