Tag Archives: ethnic minorities

Hanzu in a Headscarf: Travels in Xinjiang

Xinjiang شىنجاڭ‎‎ 新疆 is a mountainous, oil-rich region that forms the bulbous bump of northwest China. Bordering Tibet to the south, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, Xinjiang (lit. new frontier) has long been a vital trading hub and cultural melting pot at the heart of the Central Asian Silk Road.

Buddhism came and went; Islam came and stayed. Eurasian peoples have migrated around the region’s basins and deserts for centuries. It has been ruled by powers spanning the Mongol Empire, the Ming Dynasty, the Soviets, a blink as the Eastern Turkestan Republic, and since the 1949, the People’s Republic of China.

The Uighur ئۇيغۇر 维族 (Wéizú) are the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim, Central Asian ethnic majority of Xinjiang. However, it appears the Government are working towards diluting the Uighur majority by bringing more and more Han Chinese  汉族 (Hànzú) to the region and imposing restrictions on traditional Uighur culture, alongside efforts to  ‘现代化’ (modernise) the area in line with the rest of the country.

As one can imagine, gnarly shit has gone down.

With this backdrop in mind, I covered my head with a scarf and tried with as much Uighur language as I could during our trip through the largest province in China, and perhaps even the most captivating place I’ve visited to date. 

(All photos by Kiwese, unless stated otherwise.)

Jamming with the homies at a vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.
Jamming with the homies on a traditional Uighur three-stringed lute at a streetside vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.

“What are you doing here?” he asked with an authoritative bark of Putonghua. His AK-47 wielding comrade stood by, surveying the local bazaar as three-wheeled motor carts spluttered past with fresh kill goat carcasses piled high on the back. I’d blatantly taken a photo of the armoured tank trucking through Kuche’s Old Town 老城.

“We are just travelling,” I replied sheepishly, lowering my head which was meekly covered by a blue and gold pashmina.

“Delete those photographs.” I complied with a machine gun Mandarin stutter of “sorrysorrysorry.”

Shenfenzheng 身份证,” he commanded, the trisyllabic staccato that has conditioned locals into producing their ID cards with the swiftness of a cat’s paw.

“I’m a foreigner,” I conceded, as he took the black New Zealand passport from my sweaty palms, fearing for a moment that he might be able to feel my racing heartbeat through the paper like osmosis.

Perplexed for a second, taking in a Han face, a foreign passport, a DSLR camera and a headscarf, he asked again, this time with a sense of curiosity intermingled with duty, “what are you doing here?

One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town. Image by Kiwese.
One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town.

Western reports on events in Xinjiang almost religiously include the phrase ‘ethnic tensions,’ while Chinese state media tend to opt for the more jihadi militant-packed signifier ‘暴力恐怖分子‘ (terrorist), a loanword for Islamic extremism inspired by the U.S. response to 9/11. While variations on the word ‘terror’ including ‘反恐英雄‘ (counter-terrorist hero) and ‘恐怖训练营‘ (terrorist training camps) have been adopted by the likes of Xinhua and Sina, their usage has been quarantined to inverted commas in Anglophone news reports, in a Dr. Evil style rumination on laser weapons.

Professor James A. Millward, author of the extensive touchstone text Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, has suggested in an essay for the L.A. Review of Books that the recent Government crackdown on the defining characteristics of Uighur culture are the real reasons behind unrest in Xinjiang and the spate of attacks on innocent civilians, as opposed to a militant Islamic threat.

Needless to say, foreign reportage on Xinjiang is almost exclusively about ethnic tensions between the Uighur and Han. State media reports of Han death tolls and denouncements of Islamic (read: Uighur) separatists has created a fear-inducing, anti-Islamic mindset among the Han, many of whom receive their news through state media enclosed within the Great Firewall of China and hold a resolute distrust of the Uighur. Indeed, when my cellphone was stolen in Chengdu last year, nearby witnesses were quick to inform me that it was a ‘Xinjiang man’ on a motorbike.

In July 2009, violent riots in the Han-gentrified provincial capital of Urumqi ئۈرۈمچى شەھىرى 乌鲁木齐 led to over a hundred (Han) deaths, a temporary internet lockdown in Xinjiang and the penultimate nationwide blockage of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The car explosion at Tiananmen Square and the knife attack at Kunming Railway Station back in 2013 have both been attributed to Xinjiang extremists. On the other hand, foreign media are often quick to hum the tune of the Chinese Government heavy hand— the words to the song we all know.

Anyone who has taken the most elementary class in Media Studies will know, the way in which the media report an event will influence the way we perceive it. With regard to ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, I think it’s safe to say that people’s perceptions have indeed been influenced.

Rough translation: "Look to modern culture to lead the way." Near the Kuche old town 老城, just nearby a Uighur dude passed out in his own vomit on the footpath. Image Kiwese.
“Use modern culture as a guide.” Propaganda billboard in Kuche’s Old Town, 老城, just up the road from where a local man was passed out in his own vomit .

Click smaller images to enlarge

After a ten-hour overnight train ride in the shàngpù 上铺 out of Liuyuan near Dunhuang, the ancient Buddhist cave site and last major stop in Gansu, my long-time Welly bro Ben and I were welcomed to Turpan تۇرپان‎ 吐鲁番 with open arms— full-body, boob-patting, nutsack-tapping frisk downs by gender-assigned security guards. Hellooo, Xinjiang!

From the train station to Turpan City, we experienced the hassles with security that local people have to deal with on a daily basis, with at least three ID checks during the one-hour bus ride into town. The Chinese flag flew atop all kinds of structures, even a rickety old shack with a teetering awning constructed entirely of old car parts.

Beneath the colourful fabric sunshades of a Turpan food market was all sorts of boiling, baking and frying going on in steel pots over roaring, open flames. Samsa pastries filled with salty, tender beef. Fresh apple juice. Wonton soup and tea. “WHISKEY!” claimed one witty juice vendor, pouring me a cup and thrusting it into my clammy hands for the criminally low price of 1 kuai. Most snacks and beverages in Xinjiang linger around the 1-2-3 kuai mark!

“How do you say ‘thank you‘ in your language?” I asked the owner of the wonton stall, who was tending to an enormous mound of spring onions with a cleaver. “Raqmed!” she replied with a warm smile.

A nearby woman soon butted in with something along the lines of: “Raqmed! Raqmed! Take my photo! And then take hers!”

Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Glam poser lady who requested I take her photo hahaha
Glam lady who demanded I take her photo hahaha 

Carpets, fabrics, patterns. A local guy approached us in broken English and said he cannot get a passport with a Xinjiang hukou (registration). I’d later meet a dude with a Xinjiang hukou who couldn’t even visit a scenic spot on the border with Pakistan, in the province where he was born.

We took a ride with a Uighur driver who couldn’t speak Mandarin to the Jiaohe Ruins, where we melted in 40 degree heat surrounded by the remains of an ancient city.

The Grand Central Temple. Jiaohe Ruins.

The Uighur specialty dish, ‘big plate chicken’ dà pán jī 大盘鸡, emerged on two plates of spicy chicken, noodles and potato.

“Where are you all from?” the laoban of the Famous in Turpan restaurant asked me in Mandarin with a smile. I responded: New Zealand, the Netherlands, France and the U.S was our combination that evening.

“Welcome!” he responded with a grin and adding “so you know, I don’t mean any offence by it!”

“Of course not!” I replied, and we shook hands and waved goodbye while saying “bai bai!” and the Uighur form, “khosh!”

BIG PLATE(S) CHICKEN. Turpan styles.

If you are looking for accommodation in Turpan, go no further than the Turpan Dap Hostel, 吐鲁番达卜青年旅馆, run by original Fuzhou gal Tang, her husband Liu and their golden retriever Hadou! Located in a quiet neighbourhood in a traditional Uighur-style courtyard covered in grapevines. They welcomed us in and let us enjoy their beautiful hostel, as well as providing sage travel advice and even POSTING MY UNDIES TO CHENGDU WHEN I FORGOT THEM ON THE WASHING LINE!!

Tang: "Why are you going to Aksu ئاقسۇ 阿克苏?!" 
Me: "Cos we wanna go down to Hotan خوتەن 和田." 
Tang: "....why would you wanna go to Hotan?"

And with that, we disembarked our next overnight train in the dusty, little town of Kuche كۇچار‎ 库车 instead.

High speed trains have made their way to Xinjiang, while the line that runs through the belly from Urumqi to Kashgar has improved tremendously, said one Han driver from Gansu who’d been in Xinjiang for over 25 years. He likes it. He could understand Uighur but only speak a little of the rapid, Turkic-lingua franca: “我的舌头发不出来” (‘my tongue can’t get the words out!’) He thought the train improvements were positive, noting that all kinds of people use them now. There are long haul buses too, which are cheaper.


Chinese characters fell away. Elegant hooks, calligraphic swoops and diamond-shaped dots of Uighur adorned the remaining dusty, flat brick buildings of Kuche’s Old Town.

Coloured headscarves for women and square, pointed doppa hats for men, white-grey beards on the elders. I felt so silly for trying to speak Mandarin in a restaurant where the menu was completely in Uighur for its completely Uighur customer base. Noodle soup and nang that tasted like pizza with a big pot of black tea, however, were achieved that morning.

What was up with the photos of soldiers in the corners of all these standardised shop signs?!

Big ornate doors opened into courtyards similar to the old Chinese courtyard homes 四合院 which have now largely been bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings to house the swelling urban populations. The open doorways on ‘Rasta Lu’ revealed all sorts of happenings: woodwork, noodles, dough, toilet paper, barbers, dentists, bread makers, vegetables, steel works tink-tink-tinking away…

Nang flat breads sat outside the abundant bakeries, stacked and displayed with Newtown New World-like precision. Bed bases covered with rugs for sitting and snoozing lay out on the street, occupied by smiling families and their gorgeous babies with big, wide eyes. The one child policy does not apply to China’s ethnic minorities. A large clay oven revealed dozens of samsa stuck to the inner walls like lichen on a rock.

Samsa,” I observed, sidling up to the beefy pastries to snap a photo.
“Mmm, samsa,” echoed a by-standing elder who donned the classic dark-green doppa hat, nodding with content.

Homeless old people with dark, leathery skin lined the bridge from the Old Town across the arid, scorched river bed; their hands outstretched with small wads of jiao notes, their toothless mouthes wailing in a tormented arrangement of Uighur. Later on, I saw an impoverished man sprawled out on the ground of a food street, eating the fallen peanuts from a nearby stall.
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Wandering around Kuche with our backpacks in the sun, we met Xinjiang ice-cream. Sweet, tangy ice-cream solidified in a rotating freeze machine and scooped into little pottles of goodness for 1 kuai each. Armed cops sat idly among apples and watermelons. A three-wheeler trundled past the vegetables and covered bowls of yogurt with a baby strapped into a hammock in the back.

A Uighur man jammed his three-stringed snakeskin lute outside a neighbouring teahouse. His strumming wrist was sore, so he let me have a try. The instrument had a chunky neck with frets marked by fine, nylon string, with a twangy timbre similar to the Turkish doshpuluur I played in Litang. The community gathered round with intrigue. An older lady plonked herself down and spoke with me at length in Uighur about an unknown topic. My awkward interjection of “不好意思,我听不懂,” “sorry, I don’t understand,” did little to break the flow of this mystery monologue.

It was truly humbling to sit at that tea table with them—welcomed into the bosom of their community without question.
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A bizarre By the Rivers of Babylon remix played on repeat with another random club banga on the 民族街 Food Street. Sweet potatoes, Turkish egg pancakes, lamb skewers, more samsa and icecream. We eventually found ourselves walking past a Uighur primary school as class was let out for the day. Kids spilled out onto the road, hopping on the back of mini motor buses home. Boys played in water spouting from a burst pipe. 


Ben and his new mates. School's out in Kuche!
Ben and his new mates. School’s out in Kuche!

Security scans, black dogs and riot cops armed with rifles greeted us in the southwestern city of Kashgar قەشقەر شەھرى 喀什, closer to Bishkek, Tashkent and Islamabad than Beijing. On the bus into town, a Uighur was punched in the face by a Han. There was a brief scuffle, in which no one dared intervene.

The Pamir Youth Hostel sits next door to the Id Kah Mosque in the centre of town. Wu Laoban is a skinny, chain-smoking Han dude from Heilongjiang in the far northeast— a province famed for sub-zero winters, the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival and year-round coal smog.

Wu is staunchly anti-Muslim and despises the Uighurs for despising him. He freely discussed them alongside the need for ‘控制’ (‘control’). Speaking with Wu was an interesting insight into this Han Xinjiang resident perspective, to hear how people from the majority feel when they become the 少数民族, the ethnic minority. When I asked if he could understand any Uighur after four years, he shook his head vigorously and replied that he only knew the sound of the Uighur slur for “fuck you.”

As an optimistic foreigner that had been in Xinjiang for all of five minutes, I told Wu all about the positive experiences we’d had with the local Uighurs so far.

“Try going out alone,” Wu said, toplessly smoking another cigarette in his non-smoking hostel lounge, “without your foreign friend.”

It was as if he was daring me into some kind of perilous danger; and his words sent shivers down my sweat-ridden spine.


Animal carcasses hung upside down from every third or fourth shop, carefully inspected, pinched and prodded by local consumers and restauranteurs, selected and chopped up on a wooden board with a small axe. “thwack-Thwack-THWACK!!”

The crusty yet majestic, half torn down yet floodlit (!) ruins of Kashgar’s original Old Town. Bulldozers sat a top cleared land and the omnipresent red Chinese slogan banners (横幅 héngfú) hung above. Random cows continued to graze and shuffle about on a street behind the construction site. We clambered up the stone stairs into the grove of alleyways, steps, overpasses and balconies, all of which seemed eerily deserted, except for a few quiet, remaining families. Two dudes were torching severed goat heads in an open furnace.


One evening, when everyone was just chilling on the Pamir rooftop, sitting cross-legged on cushions a top the wooden platforms draped with that quintessentially Xinjiang fabric, the mosque’s call to prayer lingering in the air, three geared up cops with flashlight mounted AK-47s shimmied in the door. Fuck!

I asked ‘Zhao Laoshi,’ Wu’s girlfriend and co-laoban about it once they’d gone. She was completely unfazed by such a routine procedure, noting they get only checked occasionally, while the Uighur-run hotels get checked every night.

Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar's main streets.
Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar’s main streets.

The public bus was chock-a-block full of Uighur school kids and locals heading home for lunch. A cute, little girl of maybe eight-years-old bravely posited a question to me on behalf of a dozen curious classmates.

“姐姐,你是美国人吗?” “Big sister, are you American?” she asked in perfect Putonghua, while my ‘husband’ Ben was sardined up the aisle among the other commuters.

“不是,我是新西兰人!” “No, I’m a New Zealander!” I replied, sparking a flourish of Uighur analysis among the thrush of tiny children. The leader spoke again.

“姐姐,你是汉族吗?” “Big sister, are you Han?”

“是的。” “Yes.”

This sparked endless excitable chatter, accompanied by a headscarf gesture. Students are prohibited from wearing headscarves to school in Xinjiang (see aforementioned Millward article). The Han stick to the Han areas, and speak of the Uighur areas in a foreboding Mufasa style discourse of what happens to those who venture into the shadow lands beyond Pride Rock.

A Han chick aboard the local bus was a foreigner; and a Han chick wearing a headscarf was an anomaly.

Bai bai!” they tweeted gleefully, full of waving and smiles as they bounced off the bus and into the street.


On the last Sunday of our trip in Xinjiang, I ventured out “without my foreign friend,” to test the strength of Wu’s evaluation on Uighur-Han relations…

There’s a kind of wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability that comes with being a non-native speaker. You have less suspicion of people, you are less jaded, you have less experience in traversing the markers of character through the nuances of speech.

Ordering food in Kashgar in Mandarin:
Me: "Do you have noodles?" 
Laoban: "Yes, but not till 10am."
Me: "Great, just another ten minutes!" 
Laoban: "No no no, 10am Xinjiang time!!"
Lamb for breakfast, again.

Morning tea was served in a white teapot inlayed with ornate, turquoise flowers. A bowl of polo پولۇ, 抓饭, Uighur pilaf: a generous pile of rice with grated carrot and an unbelievably breakfast-sized lamb bone planted on top. A side platter of vinegary bright orange and yellow-green preserves, arranged neatly atop the washed out blues, purples and browns of the outdoor woven tablecloth. “Raqmed!”

My day at the Kashgar Livestock Market 动物市场 and the Sunday Market 星期日市场 is scrawled in frantic shorthand as “absolutely bonkers, chaotic, manure, loud, wonderful, hot, gross, shocking and wow.” These two sights are often considered ‘must-sees’ by tourist guidebooks and I was excited to get lost in the madness. With spot-on directions from Zhao Laoshi, I put on my headscarf and was off.

I caught the #7 and the #23 to the Livestock Market, and was easily the only foreigner on board either bus. When the #23 rattled to a halt at the final destination, the driver yelled out the name in Uighur and an old bearded man in a dark-green doppa gestured to me that we’d arrived. I joined the human migration up the road towards the market entrance and he said something to me in Uighur, to which I apologetically uttered a “听不懂.” He calmly raised his right hand with a nod, as if to indicate that whatever he said was not of much importance anyway.


Holy. Mother. Of Woah. Trucks full of sheep with their heads clamped in a row sped down the road. A couple were cracking up as they tried to wrangle themselves onto a 50cc scooter with a live goat positioned sideways across the bottom, clearly seeing the utter ridiculousness of the equation. Near a grassy embankment, a dead sheep was strung up by its hind legs and sliced down the belly with a knife, where its pink-grey guts fell out of its body with the gravitational spill of an unzipped bag of toiletries.

Eeekkk!! A donkey harnessed into a wooden swing structure had a back leg slowly winched upwards with a pulley. Oh, wait, whew – just a donkey shoe repair station!

Goats, sheep, horses, camels, cows and people with hats and veils of all fashions, even more diverse than the ones seen in town, blurred into one manically bustling scene. Breeders from all over the region flock to this market every Sunday. Mooing, baaing, neighing, whinnying underscored the constant yelling of bargains in an incomprehensible rabble of Eurasian dialects. Faaaaaaaa out!!

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I bustled through the swine and legs and poo behind (though almost beneath) all the livestock vehicles, horse-drawn carriages, colossal bulls and small children, while gaining my fair share of stares and confused looks. Donkeys bucked about wildly and camels bared their big, yellow teeth. Carts sped off and sent cow dung flying into the air. The edges of the market were lined with tarpaulin-covered eateries, where firey ovens pumped out samsa, noodle soups an endless pots of tea as crowds of men in doppa hats sat around the cluster of tables. Herds of goats were pulled around by hollering businessmen, a horse raced down the rocky mud-gravel at the back of the yards, creating an incredibly satisfying galloping sound of hoof to dirt, that crunchy ‘clop-clop-CLOP!’

Swear I almost shat myself when I was encircled by a  donkey cart. It felt like my heart rate was up by a zillion bpm, while my eyes had bulged to twice their usual size and I kept gasping aloud involuntarily into the hot and smelly market air. Curious at everything, yet urged along by the overwhelming sense of movement to shuffle through it all with the endless stream of living, breathing things. 

Fruit and vegetable carts parked up at the gates of the Livestock Market and I was quite relieved to be around some non-sentient produce. These two watermelon vendors held up their finest product and asked me to take their photo! Cool guys!


The #23 back into town had everyone packed in like sheep in the back of a pick up truck. The roads surrounding the Sunday Market were absolute madness— completely criss-crossed in all directions with motorbikes, buses, cars, pedicabs, horse-drawn carts, fruit vendors, snack trolleys, shoppers, pedestrians… pretty much anything with wheels or feet. And then some. Zhao Laoshi had mentioned there was a section out the back of the main market where the locals go to shop. I bumped into some of the Chinese crew from the hostel who were heading back to the Old Town. When I told the Jiangsu girl that I’d caught the bus to the Livestock Market, she stared at me as if I were Joan of Arc, or… Mulan.

This market was beyond massive. Anything and everything was for sale in enormous quantities. Trestle tables of torches, aisles of alarm clocks and of course endless stalls of local patterned fabrics. Out the back, was indeed where the action was. If the Livestock Market was a male domain, then the Sunday Market was where da ladies at. Arabian style white veils with regal crowns on top, high turbans, loose flowing veils, classic tied back kerchiefs and more. Some women had drawn on their eyebrows with blue eyeliner in a straight line across both brows. Kid vendors yelling at the top of their lungs about shoes. Feeding frenzy bargain bins. There was some serious shopping going down. I bought a bunch of red and green fabric, deftly cut and measured by a barefoot fabric vendor, which is now on my wall in Chengdu!

Exhausted, hungry and sweaty, it was time to retreat to Pamir. The roads were chaotic, the buses were bursting at the seams. A three wheeler with rug-covered benches on the back was chugging past while the driver yelled out “ID KAAAAAAH!! ID KAAAAAAH!” so I flagged him down and hopped on, joining an absolutely ancient woman in a pink veil, a mother and daughter, a classic dark green doppa elder and about six more people who would squash with us during our quick, 3 kuai zip through the backstreets to the Id Kah Mosque. So awesome!! Whizzing down these alleys I’d never have known about, past a guy kneading mud concrete with his bare feet, through the distinctive smell of cumin and spices from the charcoal-smoked lamb kebabs. People piled in as quick as they piled out. What a wild day.

“Huh? How’d you get back so fast?!” the Chinese crew asked, surprised to find me back at Pamir before them.

Because I trust the locals. Because I have trust.


There is so much to be said about Xinjiang. 

The encounters I had in Turpan, Kuche and Kashgar (I haven’t even gone into Karakul Lake) are all I can write about at length with my mere amateur understanding of the intricate and often controversial complexities of Xinjiang’s greater historic, cultural and social situation.

There’s always so much more to learn, discover and consider.

Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake. Sunrise. Freezing our butts off.
Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake for a beautiful sunrise, where we stayed in a Kyrgyz yurt. Near the border with Tajikistan. Freezing our butts off. Ben wears: Uighur hat, it has ‘sheep’ inside.
Hahaha this ad is such a winner, had to make it in somehow.

Xie xie and RAQMED to all!

Shout out to my mains Ben ‘Cool Charm Rachel’ Allnatt for being an incredible travel companion, as always!

Until next time, Xinjiang!


Zaomengshe Turns 1: Interview with Lydia McAulay

While the Chinese Government plaster the streets with images of the ‘Chinese Dream’ 中国梦, there are quite different dreams being conjured in the belly of the Chengdu underground.

Zaomengshe.com 造梦社 is crowd funding website that provides a platform for the local creative community. Co-founder and Marmite enthusiast Lydia McAulay came over for a cuppa to talk about the website’s one year anniversary.

zms poster

The music scene in Chengdu is probably the main reason I wanted to move here (uh, I mean, the opportunity for increased trade ties with New Zealand…) Last summer, after being shown a street party blaring from a kitted out supermarket trolley on a foot bridge, followed by a drum and bass rave at a swimming pool with fireworks, I knew Chengdu was something different.

Around the same time last year, co-founders Lydia and Mat were working through the long-winded bào àn 保案 registration process for Zaomengshe, which has since helped fund over 100 local campaigns and raised over ¥117,000.

As the small, dedicated team, including two developers referred to as ‘the app guys,’ suss out PayPal payment gateways and release the ZMS Ticket Scanner App, allowing for pre-sale tickets QR codes to be scanned by several devices at once, the opportunities for the website abound and the dream factory at Zaomengshe are showing no sight of slowing down.

Diligently hunched over a Macbook while wrangling several iPhones and multi-lingual phone calls is the usual state in which one will find Lydia. Zaomengshe is the labour of love (from which she earns a whopping total of 0.00 RMB) that she hopes will bolster the independent music and arts scene in the face of meaningless vast corporate sponsorship, which has been jumping on the growing music festival bandwagon in China and steering it down a bleak road of profit and commercialisation.

Pool Party in Flower Town last summer.
Pool Party in Flower Town last summer.

KIWESE:  Hey Lydia, how did you first end up coming to Chengdu?

LYDIA: I’ve been here for about five years – but it must be coming up on six years now. I left New Zealand in 2005 and was living in Normandy and Ardeche in France for a bit over a year. I ended up moving to Guangzhou for a year, where I learnt a bit of Chinese from my flatmate. I lived in Scotland for a year and bit, then London – where I got a job in the IT department of a derivatives trading company, which sent me to Chengdu. They were really open minded and put a lot of trust in me. I learnt a lot working with them.

Did you have any prior IT experience?

No, I studied Politics and Art History at Vic [laughs].

So you are originally from Tauranga and lived in Wellington for a while. What generation Kiwi are you?

My mum is from outside Opotiki. She’s like fourth generation Kiwi. My grandfather’s grandfather was born in New Zealand. They came from Midlands England, and they were the typical settlers trying to find a better life: ‘farmland coming out your ears!’

My dad is from Scotland and lived at sea for like twenty years on cargo ships. He was in the Merchant Navy as the first engineer, second below the captain. He told me stories about going through the Suez Canal back in the day. They went up the river into Guangzhou quite a few times. There were walls along the river, he said their boat was slightly higher than the walls, so they could see farmlands and heard speakers blaring out Mao’s thoughts.

Coming to Chengdu, how did you see there was a need for a platform like Zaomengshe?

It was a long story. I left China for a year in 2012 – that’s when I met you in New Zealand – and one of my friends was living with Anna, who started PledgeMe. So I ended up having a good chat with her about crowd funding, and was thought “holy shit, this would actually be a brilliant idea in China,” because there are some real problems with artists getting funding here. The bottom line for artists is different to that of young people making music in New Zealand.

You mean creative arts funding sources like NZ On Air and that?

A lot of what happens here is traded in guānxi, 关系, relationships, so if you don’t have the right background, you are really hard pressed to get your ideas heard. Crowd funding is a way to break down those traditional barriers. I guess it’s the anonymity of the internet – on the site, people have a username to post their campaigns, you are just a person with an idea, so people will look at your idea – not who your rich daddy is.

What were your first impressions of the music scene back in ’09?

One of my first friends here was Li Lan, the owner of Lan Town 蓝堂, which was – and still is – the hub for folk music here.

First gig I remember going to was Zhang Xiaobing 张小饼 . He is really interesting guy, who used to be a liúlàng 流浪, how do you even translate that? Like a roaming musician. His lyrics are really poetic and he incorporates his local dialect, instruments and way of singing into his songs. He is also a shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族, it’s quite cool how he manages to bring these ethnic minority aspects into his music.


When you say shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族, ethnic minority, do you sometimes feel like a minority in China?

Yeah in someways. I guess it can be a little bit difficult here – being white. Because you feel like you will never be totally accepted, ya know what I mean? Peoples first reaction to you is that you are foreign. Whereas when I lived in France, you could almost mix in, especially in the small town I lived in. People wouldn’t realize right away that I was foreign, which was kinda cool. You feel like if you did actually stay there for a really long time, you wouldn’t feel like a foreigner your entire life.

“The thing is – people treat you like an outsider until they know you. It’s the same in any country. Once you get to know them, you stop thinking of them as ‘that person who is different.’”

What are the main platforms that people can use to share their campaigns on Zaomengshe?

People are much more used to doing things on their phones here. Weibo 微博, WeChat 微信, and we have QR codes. I talked to Xiao Xue 小雪 (The Hormones) about crowd funding an oven – she’s thinking of having an event where people come along and scan their QR codes to get a cake!

From an IT working perspective, what was internet censorship like in China when you first got here?

That was before Facebook got blocked. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all got blocked on the same day.

Is that day like a ‘where were you when Michael Jackson died’ kind of memory?

I think it was about May or the start of June 2009. I remember that day because my workmate who sat behind me was receiving distressing calls from Xinjiang, where he comes from, there were massive riots. They didn’t just block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, they put the internet for the entire province on lockdown. My poor workmate – it was a really emotional time. We were all worried about what was going on out there.

Though I wouldn’t say that censorship has ever impacted our website. It doesn’t really affect people on a daily basis here. Well arguably the bào àn 备案 is censorship, but it’s just red tape. There’s a lot of red tape in anything you do here. But censorship is certainly not something that contributes to the story of Zaomengshe.

Dayi and Lydia modelling the new Hormones t-shirts, which you can get on Zaomengshe!
Dayi and Lydia modelling the new Hormones t-shirts, which you can buy on their Zaomengshe campaign!

What are your hopes for Zaomengshe, coming up to your 1st birthday?

At the moment, a lot of what we do is working with bars who want to use our ticketing platform – and it’s great that we can support them in that way. But it would be really cool to have more crowd funding based events going up.

It’s difficult, there is a different mentality towards crowd funding here. A lot of people think it is like tuán gòu 团购 -this concept where, for example, if you want to buy a cheaper hot pot meal, everyone goes in on it and you can all get it for a better price. It’s not entirely false that that is not crowd funding – it’s almost an offshoot, but what we are trying to do is get people to change their ideas about what it means to be supporting music and the arts here. It’s about supporting, not buying.

I guess in NZ if you wanna support a local act, you could go to their gigs, buy their album on Bandcamp, buy their merch or whatever. Perhaps here in China, people are not so accustomed to paying for music online, so that cuts off a big part of supporting independent bands.

I think it’s the same in a lot of countries, the music industry struggles with free downloads being a pretty common thing. It’s not just China. It’s really common to use streaming services like Xiami for free.

Check out Lydia’s recent Pecha Kucha presentation in Mandarin about Zaomengshe, as part of a Creative Minds session in Min Town 明堂:

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“The scene exists here without our website. We are just trying to do something that contributes to it, rather than to push it in any direction.”

What has been your favourite campaign Zaomengshe so far?

Probably Beat Chengdu, the New Year’s party last year that crashed our server. The guys at Zao Shang Hao 早上好 who put it on thought it wouldn’t sell over 150 tickets. It ended up selling over 600 pre-sales on the website, with about 2,000 people attending on the night. It was an awesome – it showed them there was a demand for that kind of festival, while also showing Mat and I what Zaomengshe was capable of.

Any local favourites in Chengdu at the moment?

I don’t really have a favourite. I just like the fact that people are being creative, it’s the key to things changing here. I feel like I’m just observing.

…But in saying that, I do really like Qi Qi’s music, Cvalda!

Oh, how’s your Marmite supply at the moment?

Onto the second jar. Bit worrying.

Eek. What are your other main hankerings?


So you are planning to suss out a boat and sail the seas, how’s that shaping up?

It’ll take a bit of planning. Technically, I looked this up, you don’t have to have an international boating license to skipper a vessel that’s under a certain size – and the size is enormous. You’d be surprised!

Count me in! Cheers, Lydia!

zms logo

Zaomengshe will celebrate their first birthday at Zao Shang Hao 早上好 in Flower Town 三圣乡 this Friday 1st November! FREE ENTRY with a downloaded Zaomengshe app! Featuring Stolen 秘密心动, Proximity Butterfly变色蝴蝶, Zhang Xiaobing 张小饼, Zuo Yue卓越 and more.

Download Zaomengshe on the App Store.


Keep Dreaming, Keep Creating!”

High Times with Shanren

Back in January, Kiwese hung out with the boys from Shanren 山人 (mountain men) in Beijing to chat about ethnic music fusions, tourism development in Yunnan and their upcoming trip to New Zealand for WOMAD.

Shanren are a band from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the south-west of China, where the mountains are tall and majestic, the people are warm and hospitable and the traditional cultures of various ethnic minorities thrive away from the scurry of the metropolitan centres. The band, consisting of lead singer and guitarist Qu Zihan [瞿子寒], bassist Ai Yong [艾勇], drummer Ou Jianyun aka Xiao Ou [欧建云], vocal instrumentalist Xiao Bu Dian [小不点] and Sam [夏天] on percussion, are all multi-instrumentalists who possess an artillery of instruments, such the qinqin [秦琴] (a three stringed lute with high frets), the Yi banjo [彝族月琴], the sanxian [三弦] (a type of three stringed banjo), bamboo flutes, tooth harps and a smorgasbord of percussion. It’s a wonder they can all fit it all on stage.

Shanren's logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.
Shanren’s logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.

When Sam said they could meet for an interview at the Sheraton Hotel, I was somewhat puzzled. Aren’t these guys based in Beijing now? Why are they at a five-star hotel? All was to be revealed upon my arrival, as I walked passed the gaggle of Yunnanese girls in full ethnic headwear, costume and make up, past the illuminated signage full of curated snippets on the beauty and splendor of Yunnan [lit. south of the clouds] and through to the back room where the band had stationed themselves away from the formalities.

I shook their hands as I went round the room and asked them all to sign my guitar, bestowing Qu Zihan with a plastic bag full of Tsingdao cans, which Xiao Ou soon descended on with boyish glee. They seemed knackered, potentially hungover, and keen to wrap up what had been a morning of performing for people who were not exactly like regulars from their usual habitat of reggae bars and festival stages. Nervously placing my iPhone on top of a beer can, we commenced the interview.

Ai Yong was sprawled out on the chairs, while Qu Zihan was in a more able state to answer questions. “The band formed at the end of 1999, then it was on and off for a while,” he explained “at first, it was just me and Xiao Ou, followed by a bassist who is not with the band anymore. Then Ai Yong came along. And Sam. Then in 2007, Xiao Bu Dian joined in too. That’s pretty much how it went.”

Aside from the geographic significance behind the name, Qu Zihan says the phrase ‘shānrén’ also gives a nod to ancient figures in Chinese history who would choose to live a hermit [隐士, yǐnshì] existence away from the public eye, in order to dedicate their lives to art and culture. Think of reclusive but brilliant Tang poets, tucked away high up in the mountains, writing in perfect solitude. Kind of Romanticist in a way.

Shanren with some of their folk instruments. Photo from Jue Festival site.
Shanren from left: Ai Yong, Qu Zihan, Ou Jianyun, Xiao Bu Dian. Photo from Jue Festival website.

Though the band have been around since the late nineties, it’s only in recent years that they have released some studio recordings, including a self-titled EP (2009), the highly praised ‘Listen to the Mountains’ [听山] (2012) and their latest offering ‘Left Foot Dance of the Yi and other Chinese folk rock anthems,’ (2013) released last year to excited appraisal from international and Chinese music critics alike.

Listening to the album is a rollercoaster ride, underpinned by voices that bounce back and forth through the call and answer group vocals – a style that is perfectly realised through the crispness and succinctness of Chinese syllables. Bluesy hammer-ons and bends on traditional lute strings swim through the song ‘Thirty Years.’ The pop choruses heard in ‘Bi Li Tong,’ are starkly contrasted with haunting, dystopian wails atop bustling city soundscapes in the duel tracks ‘Wandering’ and ‘Lost.’ Hip-hop even rears its head in ‘Song of the Wa,’ featuring a rap from Ai Yong in his native tongue and record-scratching effects produced with a mouth harp. ‘The Crab’ is a reggae-infused mojito getaway, followed by the upbeat vibes of ‘Yi Wa’ which layers Chinese flute, rumbling percussion and loud group calls not unlike a Samoan sasa.

Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren douban page.
Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

“At first we called ourselves ‘ethnic rock,’ but it didn’t feel accurate,” says Qu Zihan of their inimitable style, “so we came up with the name ‘agricultural metal’ [农业金属]  partly inspired by ‘industrial metal’ [工业金属] in the West.”

The album is a triumph – the techniques, instruments, dialects, rhythms and melodies a cohesion of both the mountainous highlands of China’s south-west, and the influences they have encountered from lands of other altitudes – The Beatles, Nirvana and Bob Dylan were names that floated round the room.

“We try to bring the atmosphere of the mountains to the stage,” says drummer Xiao Ou of performing in a stage environment, “of course there can be a distance, but the audience can still dance and feel the vibe even if they are behind the handrails.” Xiao Bu Dian, who fashions a long plait of black hair, counters the point, “our music is not traditional – it’s a fusion with modern aesthetics,” he says “to me there is no difference in the delivery between being on a big stage and being in the mountains.”

Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year
Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

‘Drinking Song’ [酒歌] is Shanren’s signature track; the Chinese answer to ‘Bliss.’ “Xiao Ou probably drinks the most,” Qu Zihan says, as he ashes his cigarette in a recently drained beer can. “In Yunnan we have paojiu,” Xiao Ou explains, while cracking open another Tsingdao, “which is like baijiu steeped with things like quince, jujube, snakes and stuff.” Hold up, wait, what?! I was as perplexed by the concept of preserved snake liquor as they were by fermented apple cider. Laughter ensued and more beers were shared round.

Since forming in Kunming, the band have now moved from the fresh air of Yunnan to ‘the big smoke,’ where the phrase takes on a more literal sense with regard to Beijing. “That video was shot near Beijing,” Qu Zihan says of the video for ‘第五期,’ set alongside lush, flowing rivers and green foliage, “though these kind of places are getting rarer and rarer due to the pollution. Sometimes the entire region from Sichuan to the north-east is completely covered in smog. But most places in Yunnan are still good.”

Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton's novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to remain so on most public buses.
Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton’s novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to retain this name on most public buses.
In addition to the landscape, Yunnan can boast a healthy music scene, with Dali long having been considered the ‘hippie capital’ of China for musicians, while the capital Kunming provides a hub for local artists in the region. “I think the music scene in Kunming is great at the moment – nowadays there are a lot of music venues and it’s a definitely being included by more touring independent artists,” says Qu Zihan of his hometown. “There are definitely more opportunities for us here though, in smaller places there is not always an audience,” he says, “in Beijing, you just have to get on stage and people will be there to listen. That is the nature of this city.”

Mountain men. Photo from World Music.
Mountain men. Photo from World Music.

Shan Ren’s application for funding to play at WOMADelaide and WOMAD New Zealand were rejected by the Chinese Ministry of Culture – but instead of canceling, WOMAD agreed to fund the band themselves. “We are really looking forward to seeing acts from all over the world play in one place,” beamed Xiao Bu Dian. Hanggai, who Shanren have performed with on the Beijing circuit for years, played at the three-day camping festival back in 2011, which was extremely well received by the festival’s eclectic mix of sunburnt jivers. “Hanggai said WOMAD was a big platform for sharing music,” says Qu Zihan, “and I heard that New Zealand is where they filmed Lord of the Rings,” he added, “I wanna see that – it’s beautiful.” The boys will also be doing a cooking workshop at the Kunming Garden area, as fate would have it their hometown and New Plymouth are sister cities!

Xiao Bu Dian surprised me by with his knowledge of hongi custom and the didgeridoo of Australia, though the band are no strangers to touring outside of China – working hard with crowdfunding campaigns to get to Europe, South East Asia and the States in recent years. “Unfortunately we won’t have time to travel in New Zealand after WOMAD,” says Sam, who has been involved with the band for several years as a percussionist and dancer, “we are going to Australia for about a week, then Ecuador before that!” It’s a shame we can’t show off a bit of New Zealand ‘shan’ while they are here, I thought.

Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.
Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.

“Great t-shirt,” Qu Zihan remarked, pointing at my tie-dyed ‘大理风景’ [Dali Scenery] t-shirt bought on my recent trip to Yunnan. We talked about the rapid increase of commercial tourism in Yunnan, which was why they had been brought in to play at the Sheraton.

Ai Yong, who had been silent for the duration of the interview, uttered his first words.

“A lot of things have disappeared. Old villages are being torn down [拆, chāi] and local people are being told to move out. It changes people’s traditional lifestyles, but they come and cut down the rambutan trees, then smile together and have a toast. Even when we were kids I remember it being like this. Though it is happening not only just here in China, but all over the world.” Its not difficult to see what he means, when campaigns like this are fast becoming a reality. Note: apocalyptic music.

The symbol for 'To be Demolished,' 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image China Daily.
The symbol for ‘To be Demolished,’ 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image from China Daily.
The band feel strongly about preserving and maintaining the native mother languages of their regions, in an age where standardized Mandarin [普通话, pǔtōnghuà] is the expectation in schools. “In Kunming, there have been times where if you are wearing ethnic clothes and get into a car, they say Wa people have to give more money,” he says, closely followed by the only English of the interview: “…fuck you!”

The mixture of personalities and often-contrary opinions within the group is something I loved about Shanren. The banter and jokes that went down at each other’s expense – often dished out in a Yunnanese dialect, reflected the way they interact as a band who are never content to conform with one standard.

“There are some policies that give special consideration for ethnic minorities to attend school,” commented Xiao Bu Dian, who is of the Buyi People, “I think its okay.”

“Dude, you look heaps like this New Zealand rapper called King Kapisi,” I mention to Ai Yong, who has grown up in places all round central-northern Yunnan like Dali, Lijiang and Kunming. Turns out, the Wa People are of the Austronesian ethnic group, who have connections to the migratory history to the Pacific Islands.

“Stay and eat with us!” they warmly entreated at the end of the ‘official’ interview, exuding that warm hospitality that is often bestowed by the Chinese, “really, you should come and eat a bit.” Having had such a great time with them and even jamming some guitars, how could I refuse?!

Woah. A large banquet hall was set up for the ‘Colourful Yunnan: Quality Travel’ [七彩云南: 品质旅游] event, a Sims build mode-esque theme song played on repeat over the speakers while delegates in suits and cocktail dresses chattered away exchanging business cards beneath the faux chandeliers. Once we had sufficiently ravaged the buffet of vegetables, meats, seafoods, snacks, eggs, salads, cakes and fresh fruits, a high heeled hostess addressed the table in extremely polite putonghua and presented each of us with beverages and glasses with robot like efficiency. “There’s no word for ‘cheesy’ in Chinese,” Sam laughed, “I’ve been trying to explain it to them for years, but they have no concept of it.”

Having a feed with Shanren at the Colourful Yunnan expo.
Having a feed with the boys at the Colourful Yunnan expo.

Having visited Yunnan as a tourist, it was insane to see the other side it – the industry behind those upcoming, half-completed luxury resorts in Xishuangbanna. “What do you think of these adverts?” I asked Qu Zihan, as I shoveled more vegetable rice into my mouth. “They’re so boring,” [非常无聊, fēicháng wúliáo] he said, flicking through the glossy picture advertisements of Yunnan tourist statistics and new developments.

While the left foot is dancing the Yi, the right foot is treading a distinctive path of its own – and the world is listening.

Shanren. They are the ones truly representing Yunnan.

Shanren Schedule for WOMAD this weekend:

  • FRI 14th March: 8.15pm @ Chimney Stage

  • SAT 1pm @ Dell Stage – doing a workshop!

  • SAT 4pm @ Taste the World – doing a cooking class!

  • SUN 4pm @ Chimney Stage

Special thanks to Lin Yin for her help with transcribing and translation, Sam for sussing the meeting, Colourful Yunnan for the free food and of course the Shanren boys for being champs! See you at WOMAD!