Ali K.’s “Burial Ground” Photo Series

Lovely photos of a very interesting place – there’s also a major Sufi shrine in the cemetery and the power station looms over it all.

the art of life in chinese central asia

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Last weekend I went to Gulsay Cemetery at the south end of Ürümchi, back behind the power plants right next to lowest foothill of the eastern section of Heavenly Mountains. Many Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui heroes are buried in this cemetery; people often just refer to it as “the Muslim cemetery.” Looking at the markings around you, it feels as though you are in a completely Muslim world. In the Uyghur section of the cemetery all of the signs are in the Arabic script of modern Uyghur. There is little sign in this community of the dead that this cemetery is in the largest Chinese city in Central Asia. But if you look a few hundred meters away you immediately recognize that the city is now even here: the last stop on 308 bus line. Giant earth moving machines prowl the nearby city landfill; sunlight reflects off of the CITIC…

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The Edge of the Bazaar, A Documentary About Uyghur Rural Life

the art of life in chinese central asia

One of the emerging trends among young Uyghur film directors is a new attention to documentary filmmaking. This approach has long been a part of Uyghur cinema, but previously it was often part of a larger public relations presentation sponsored by the Chinese Culture Ministry. These new documentary short films are independently produced on limited budgets by young filmmakers who have an intimate knowledge of their subjects.

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Why are Uyghurs so Good at English?

Another really insightful piece from this excellent blog.

the art of life in chinese central asia

Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in the national English speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in the nation. This year was no exception. The main difference is that now Uyghurs are learning how to be confident in their English ability at a younger age. It is because of people like Kasim and dozens of other award winning role models that kids like 14 year-old Tughluk Tursunjan feel confident on a national stage. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they still consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country.

Tughluk, who was this year’s winner of the Junior High School division of the “Outlook of Hope” contest on CCTV was taught by an English instructor named Nemo

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Blind Dating in Bishkek

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The autumn issue of The Dublin Review has a long tale of the joys and sorrows (more of those) of trying to do internet dating in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Suffice to say, no weddings are currently planned.

It begins thus:

September is the perfect month for dating in Bishkek. The intense heat of the Kyrgyz summer has passed, but the days are still bright and warm. In the evening you can eat outside, then stroll through the park, without feeling the slightest chill.

Before I travelled to Bishkek, I’d been living in London for six months, and despite the many possibilities of the place I was in a dating rut. We went to the British Film Institute or the Hackney Picturehouse. We spoke sometimes of Mad Men, sometimes of Breaking Bad, always of Game of Thrones. We were witty and cutting and sometimes we kissed but even after three drinks, with our eyes shut, our tongues entwined, we remained urbane. We were youngish, smart professionals. We were polished stones.

My initial reasons for visiting Kyrgyzstan’s capital had nothing to do with dating. I wanted to do a report on a clinic that treated drug addiction by putting its patients into comas. I had nothing else planned, and knew no one in Bishkek. Three days before I was due to leave, I was checking OkCupid – not with any real conviction, more out of pathetic habit – and saw I had a message from a fifty-six-year-old woman in Uzbekistan. ‘Good face!’ she wrote, which was nice of her, but alas I had no plans to visit Tashkent. It did, however, make me wonder if OkCupid had any English-speaking women in Bishkek on its site.

 

The Story of the Production and Construction Corps

the art of life in chinese central asia

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A rifle and sword tied together 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 premiere 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.

The Bingtuan, as the Corps is referred to by locals, is a state-sponsored farm system that is spread across the territory of Xinjiang – an area as large as California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico combined. Hundreds of regiments are still in operation 60 years after their founding. Out of this population of around 3 million military farmers…

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How to fix China’s gridlock problem

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When I was in Guangzhou recently I had an interesting conversation with Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, who try to promote green transport solutions for cities. He had a lot of useful things to say about how China’s fast expanding cities might reduce car use so as to make decent urban spaces. For more, see my piece at china dialogue.

New story in The Southern Review

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‘Octet’ is the title of my new story in the spring issue of The Southern Review. It’s an odd one, for sure. I don’t have much memory of writing it. I know I was listening to a track from ‘The Tree of Life’ soundtrack on repeat when I was working on it. I also remember walking up and down Montgomery Street, in Edinburgh, Scotland, when I saw something that made me briefly question the physical laws of our universe. But only for a moment, of course.

It starts like this:

The procedure is always the same. He fills in forms. He waits. After twenty or thirty minutes the first of the books arrives. Usually singly, sometimes on a trolley, until they form a tower. All morning his eyes pull in their words like a stove feeding itself. At one o’clock he goes to the canteen; by quarter past he’s back. He remains in his chair until he hears the voice of a man who is never tired, does not age, who may already be dead. It is a voice he hates. The library will be closing in fifteen minutes, says the man. Please return your books to the desk. With this the tower is destroyed. He must return to the present.

He leaves the library and walks down the hill until he reaches his street. At home he eats then tries to read but usually his eyes hurt. All he can do is walk the several blocks of the street, slowly back and forth. He goes over the day’s reading. He waits for the Thought.

Winner!

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I’m amazed and delighted to have won this year’s Willesden Herald Short Story Prize.

My story, ‘Ward’, is about a young girl who gets very ill and how it changes her.

You can read it and the other nominated stories by buying the anthology which is a bargain at £5.99 (incl. postage)- the best place to buy it is here.

An extract:

She’d never had so many presents. Flowers, magazines, teddy bears and balloons, a poster of two puppies wedged in a boot. Sandra was the only visitor who didn’t bring a gift. Her presence was confusing, because she and Emily weren’t friends. Emily wondered if Sandra liked her the way she liked her classmate Maxine: quietly, from an awed distance, content to sit two rows behind. After ten minutes she noticed the way Sandra’s eyes returned to the needle in her arm, the IV line, the slowly shrinking bag. She asked if Emily was in pain, if she was going to have an operation. She wanted to tell everyone about her dying classmate.

 

 

Keywords: Zombies, Pynchon

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In what will probably be my only publication as a literary scholar (i.e. I wrote it ages ago, when I was still doing my PhD) I have a chapter in a beautifully designed book: Thomas Pynchon & the (de)vices of global (post)modernity.

My chapter is ‘You can’t always blame zombies for their condition’: Utopian escapes in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice‘.

Also see my piece on attending the conference that the book is based on….

Children’s Music, Uyghur Memories and Berna a seven-year-old pop star from Ürümchi

the art of life in chinese central asia

 (Part 1 of 2)

As has been well documented in discussions of the cultural situation in Xinjiang, many minority people in Xinjiang feel the future of their language and culture is insecure. Efforts to replace Uyghur-medium education begun in 2004 have intensified as the capillary spread of Chinese capitalism embeds its network and ideology deeper and deeper into southern Xinjiang. Although the first site of conflict was urban Uyghur schools, the extension of the railroad to Hotan has brought with it the “leap-frog development” of brand-new schools staffed by Mandarin-speaking teachers; in some cases the signs which accompany this “opening up of the West” were written in Chinese rather than the legally-required Uyghur script of the Uyghur Autonomous Region. These schools are popping up in the desert towns of Southern Xinjiang as tokens of the “sister-city” relationships established around conference tables in Ürümchi following the trauma of the…

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Aspiration, Masculinity and the City

Very insightful look at the tensions within contemporary Uyghur masculinity

the art of life in chinese central asia

Hezriti Ali’s film short and music video “With Me”

Within the marriage market of the urban Uyghur community it has become almost 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” (Uy: u besh namazni jayida üteydu). Although this description often overlooks other moral failures such as drinking, smoking and general carousing, the overall connotation conveyed is “this guy 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.

In the ten minute narrative film which proceeds his performance of the song, Hezriti lays out the context which migrant young men face in the city. Since, as for all Chinese men…

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