Gene A Bunin has spent the past 18 months talking to Uighur restaurant workers all over China. These conversations reveal how this Muslim minority feel the daily threat of arrest, detention and ‘re-education’
It was about a year ago that I first walked into Karim’s restaurant, intending to write about it as part of the food guide I was putting together about ethnic Uighur restaurants in the traditionally Chinese “inner China” of the country’s east and south. Having already spent a decade researching the Uighurs – a largely Muslim ethnic minority group based mainly in the westernmost Xinjiang region, outside inner China – this food-guide project was intended as a fun spin-off from my usual linguistic studies. Or even a “treasure hunt”, you might say, given the rarity of Uighur restaurants in such major inner-China cities as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, where the Uighurs are migrants and where the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group that account for more than 90% of China’s population, are the great majority.
While my travels for the guide would involve visiting almost 200 restaurants in more than 50 cities, Karim’s was particularly memorable. I found the usual pilau rice and hand-pulled laghmen noodles – central-Asian dishes that are staples of Uighur cuisine, and which Karim’s kitchen did very well. More important, though, were the sense of warmth and feeling of community, which made sitting there for an additional hour or two a real pleasure. Karim was a great host, and his diners would often chat with each other across the tables, touching upon serious issues while maintaining a certain levity and humour.