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May 11, 2009
Remembering Old Kashgar


What an outrage! That is what I felt last week when a friend sent me an email with this disturbing news from China.
China razes the cradle of a culture

Paul Mooney, Foreign Corresponden

* Last Updated: May 03. 2009 8:27PM UAE / May 3. 2009 4:27PM GMT

An Uighur man sits on the pavement in the Old Town of Kashgar, under threat of demolition from the Chinese.Paul Mooney for The National

KASHGAR, CHINA // An old way of life is coming to a crashing end in north-western China with two-thirds of Kashgar’s Old City being bulldozed over the past few weeks under a government plan to “modernise” the area.

The few remaining houses still standing are marked with an ominous-looking Chinese character written in red with a circle drawn around it. The character, pronounced “chai” in Chinese, means demolish.

A government plan worth US$440 million (Dh1.6 billion) calls for the relocation of 65,000 Uighur households, about 220,000 people, whose families have lived in the Old City for centuries. Until a few weeks ago, the area housed 40 per cent of the city’s residents in its labyrinth-like alleyways, where the naturalness of the life made it a popular tourist destination and one that was not ruined by tourism.

For centuries, children played on the cobblestone streets of the Old City, mothers standing in the doorways of their mud-brick dwellings chatting with neighbours, their faces covered by scarves. Bearded men wearing embroidered doppas (skullcaps) have walked daily to the many small neighbourhood mosques that pepper the area for prayers, passing by coppersmiths hammering pieces of metal into shiny pots, butchers cutting lamb in the open air and bakers slapping traditional flatbreads on to the sides of a tandoor, a makeshift clay oven.

Irritated residents claim the government made no attempt to discuss the demolition plan with them or to consider other ways of dealing with the problems.

The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, have long resented Chinese rule of Xinjiang, which they call East Turkestan. Wang Lequan, the Xinjiang party secretary, announced in March during a visit to Kashgar and Hotan that the two cities were at the “forefront of the fight against the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism”.

Some Uighurs argue the demolition is part of an orchestrated campaign by the Chinese government to destroy Uighur culture.

“The Old City in Kashgar represents the very essence of Uighur civilisation for thousands of years,” said Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the Uyghur American Association. “The Uighurs consider Kashgar the cradle of Uighur civilisation.

“By destroying Kashgar, the Chinese government will make all East Turkestan cities and towns look just like all other Chinese cities and towns along the east coast. Once Kashgar is destroyed, the unique Uighur and Central Asian character of East Turkestan will become history.”
Kashgar rooftops
Kashgar is on the old silk road that connected East to West and was one of the major trading routes of the world at one time. I first arrived there in May of 2006 as we scouted locations for filming The Kite Runner. We were looking for someplace to stand in for Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1970's, and since we could not film in the actual city of Kabul for security reasons at that time, our line producer Bennett Walsh, who had produced "Kill Bill" for Quentin Tarantino in China, had lead us to explore this ancient city with its small alley ways and mud homes and old mosques in this uniquely Muslim area in the Xinjaing Autonomous Region which is home to the Uighur ethnic minority.Kashgar scout
The Uighurs were at one time the majority population of this remote corner of northwest China. But long simmering tensions with the dominant Han Chinese after demands of autonomy and threats of secession over the years, have resulted in a conflict that has seen a massive resettlement of Han to the region, making the Uighurs a minority in their own homeland.Now this latest act, which is characterized by the Chinese government as a kind of urban renewal project to clean up a leaky old slum, has demolished this unique and beautiful old city, and displaced the resident population. But more than that, it has cut the heart out of the culture.It was impossible to imagine when we were filming The Kite Runner that the movie would become any kind of historical record of a place on the verge of eradication. Now, among all the other reasons that I am glad it exists in the world, it is also a way to remember and honor Old Kashgar, not as a stand-in for Kabul, but for the special place that it was.Here are some images of Uighurs in old town Kashgar I took on the scout.Sweeping Up
Kashi Man descending Stairs
Uighur man
Little boy
Boys playing chess
How sad. How shameful that we continue to plow under traditional cultures in the name of security or development around the world. What an outrage!

Posted at 01:23 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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I can't imagine the sense of loss this is for countless people. What kind of person does it take to be able to edict this horrible assault on history with complete disregard for humankind? And for what? Modernization? As if that's better. I too, am outraged!

Posted by: dutchbaby | May 11, 2009 at 05:31 AM

This story is enough to make one want to fall to their knees and cry. Truly a shameful act inflicted under the guise of progress and modernization.

Posted by: Patricia Garn | May 11, 2009 at 09:05 AM

What a sad story and an outrage. It is tempting to draw a parallel with other stories of government interference (which are ubiquitous), but each case is unique and tragic for those involved. Thanks for drawing some attention to this situation.

Posted by: Janet M | May 11, 2009 at 09:06 AM

This is really sad news Billy.
And it is even more sad that nobody with the power to do it will stop what's going on.
This is the prefect example of how human race destroys important things while the rest of the world ignores what's happening.