A Tale of Two Places

Jessica Yeung is a docent of translation at Hong Kong Baptist University where her research includes minority cultures. In this text she depicts the common denominators that weave together Hong Kong and Xinjiang—two completely different geographical areas that share a common history and have now become the target of harsh monitoring by the Chinese regime. Here Jessica Yeung creates a space for voices from the Xinjiang province. This is an area seven times the size of Great Britain but which, due to the long arm of Beijing, is shrinking. 

June 13 2019 Text: Jessica Yeung

Hong Kong is located at the southeastern tip of China with a population of 7.4 million and a GDP per capita (as of 2017) of €53,581. Xinjiang is situated in the northwesternmost part of China with a population of 21.8 million and a GDP per capita (as of 2017) of €6,652. In terms of size, Hong Kong is just over three quarters of the size of London, and Xinjiang is almost seven times the size of Britain. Geographically, from China’s perspective, beyond Hong Kong is the sea, but beyond Xinjiang are Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. 

There is one thing in common between Hong Kong and Xinjiang, however: Beijing is mindful of their respective ‘splittist’ sentiments. 

The two places also share a common historical experience. During the reign of the Wu Emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty (141 BCE – 87 BCE), the various kingdoms in the land now called Xinjiang became an obsession of the Han Emperor, who sent first diplomatic envoys and then military troops in to create footholds in the territory. His series of attempts resulted in the establishment in 60 BCE of the Han Protectorate in the region with an administrative office located in the present town of Bürgür. Around the same time that the Emperor’s emissaries and armies were sent to the northwest, some troops were ordered to venture southeast. In 112 BCE the Emperor’s soldiers rampaged through the towns and villages of the South Yuet (Viet) Kingdom, and conquered it. Before its demise the kingdom stretched from the present-day Guangdong (including Hong Kong) and Guangxi Provinces all the way to the north of Vietnam. The kingdom’s capital was located inside the modern-day city of Canton. 

Our common historical experience does not end with our respective interactions with the Han Empire. In each of our recent histories, foreign powers have made their mark, arguably too much of a mark. ‘The Great Game’ among the European powers played out in Central Asia determined the stance of each of those powers towards the two East Turkestan Republics of 1933 and 1944. The ‘restructuring’ of the second East Turkestan Republic in 1949 basically took place under Soviet pressure. There are even rumours that the plane crash that killed the Second Republic’s leaders on their way to Beijing for negotiation was actually part of a conspiracy to kidnap them and take them to Moscow where they were intended to be murdered. While none of these surmises regarding the Second Republic can be verified, the part played by foreign powers in determining Hong Kong’s fate was executed brazenly and in broad daylight. Hong Kong was colonized by the United Kingdom in 1842. When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War, there was an understanding between not only Britain and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Republic government, but also the United States, that Hong Kong would remain under British colonial rule. Then in 1984 negotiations between Britain and China took place, without the participation of, or even consultation with, Hong Kong people, resulting in Hong Kong’s sovereignty being transferred back to China after a century and a half of British colonial rule. 

There are other parallels. There is the uncomfortable status of the local language: Uyghur and Cantonese respectively. There is also the tension between the local people and the large number of new immigrants from mainland China. The list can go on. Could these commonalities between the two territories simply be a matter of chance? 

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Xinjiang is huge. Everywhere you cast your eyes, you see things in huge expanse: the yellow of the sand, the blue of the sky. It is huge not only in terms of space. Hugeness is not always profound, but Xinjiang’s is. Living is profound there, because it is so good, yet so terrible. Xinjiang has the best climate for farming. The cold winters ensure that snow is stored as snow caps on its Tengri (Celestial) Mountains, Altun Mountains and Kunlun Mountains. In the heat of summer which always exceeds 40°C, the snow caps melt to provide water for irrigation that sustain all kinds of fruits and cotton to grow in the long hours of sunlight. Grapes and mulberries from Turpan in South Xinjiang are sweeter than honey. Lavender and roses from Illi in North Xinjiang exude fragrance to charm entire valleys. The stereotype of the Uyghur people is a happy one, based on their shared heritage of singing and dancing and producing the most beautiful music. This is only half true. They do sing and dance often, but not happily. Music and dance can express much more than happiness. If you want to know whether they are happy, you have to look into their eyes. That might be the only way, because they won’t tell you. They can’t. 

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Abdulla: I was drifting in and out of consciousness all the way on the train from Lanzhou to Ürümchi. That 1000 RMB was all I had. To this day I don’t know why that policeman let me go, or why he gave me the money, or what happened to him afterwards. As a Uyghur policeman in the Chinese mainland, how does he explain away letting go of a Uyghur pickpocket. There was no time to think. I hurried and stowed away on the train. I was worried about being searched at some point and had to hide the money. First, I rolled up the banknotes and wrapped them up in a piece of tissue paper. Then, I cut open the flesh on the side of my waist to hide the money. Lastly, I patched up the cut and wrapped myself up with a bandage. I must have got infected. I didn’t feel so much the pain, but fear. I was lucky twice over. A girl on the train took care of me. It must have been she who dropped me off at the hospital when we finally arrived in Ürümchi. I couldn’t have possessed much medical knowledge; how could I? I was 14.

Qurban: I was trying to sell some old books. They belonged to my father. I loved those books, but my mother thought they brought bad luck. She insisted I got rid of them after he died. I only found out the bookseller was away when I got to his shop in Yark. I decided not to let my journey be in vain. So I checked into a cheap guesthouse to wait for the bookseller to return. I wandered into the market, and saw some entertainers doing their routines. A boy was walking the tight-rope, with his grandfather setting up his ropes. A pretty woman was selling yoghurt drinks with ice. There were jade vendors all over the place. I turned the corner from the market and found myself venturing into a quiet area. There was a small square, and some women with percussion instruments in their hands were doing something I didn’t understand. It was probably some kind of ritual. Perhaps they were asking for charity offerings from passers-by. They were wearing veils that only revealed their eyes. I was fascinated, but it would be inappropriate to stay and watch, so I walked away and strolled back to the guesthouse. At dinner time I went to the dining hall and saw a woman in the far corner giving food to a beggar. She was so graceful in her movement. I went over trying to catch a glimpse of her face. When she turned to my direction I was stunned by the greenish light in her grey eyes. I recognized those eyes, unmistakably. 

Tömür: We were shocked when my grandfather turned up. We thought he was long dead. For 17 years we had not heard a word from him. We only managed to piece bits of information together and made a guess at what had happened. We think he must have got on the back of a truck taking Han rightists to the Tarim Labour Camp. He probably fell asleep but for some unknown reason he didn’t get off when the truck passed through our village, and was taken all the way to the camp with the rest of the Rightists. He spoke not a work of Chinese. He probably wasn’t able to explain the mistake to the jailers, and there he stayed, for 17 years. It just so happened that his friend Grandpa Sëyit was in the field that morning, and saw him on a truck that took prisoners to work. Grandpa Sëyit stopped the truck and told his little grandson Memetjan to fetch us. We spent weeks but couldn’t work out what his offencewas. The Labour Camp found no record of his sentence, or of his initial entry. So he came home. But for years now he has not spoken a word, not in Chinese, not in Uyghur. 

Jennifer: We had such a good day. It was Gülnar’s first time outside Xinjiang. I had never met her before, but I’d heard of her, and my dance teacher said I must meet her. So I contacted her, and she agreed to travel to Canton and help me with my show. One afternoon she came with me to the artists’ village and met my performance artist friends. They were great with her. She didn’t have much Chinese, but enough to follow the conversation. As usual I updated my friends with the situation of Hong Kong, and they told me about the latest arrests and other things. Gülnar remained quiet throughout. Early evening, on our way back to the hotel, she said she didn’t know such Chinese people existed. I laughed. We decided to make a detour to a Xinjiang restaurant. She had polu, which is like a pilaf; and I had leghmen, which is noodles in Uyghur. That was in late 2017, and I’ve never had a chance to meet her again. She is in a camp now. I think of her often. 

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Jessica Yeung is a translator and cultural critic based in Hong Kong. She is also a docent in translation at the Hong Kong Baptist University where her research includes Chinese dissident art and literature with a primary focus on the Uigurian population.