Building a new Old City in Kashgar

Phoenix Weekly, June (II) 2009

Old Kashgar is not long for this world. Quake fear, anxiety over ethnic unrest, and pursuit of development have spurred the authorities to launch a large-scale plan to demolish and redevelop 85% of the Old City.

There has been considerable criticism of the project among Kashgar residents and in the world world media, but it has done little to stop the project. This month's Phoenix Weekly contains an interesting cover feature on life in the Old City and how it may change in the future. The story is a little oversold based on the coverline: "The Shadow of 'Eаst Turkestаn' on China's Strategic Anti-Terrorism City," as most of the feature is about everyday life as opposed to terrorism.

Translated below is an excerpt that looks at how the area has already changed in the days since the founding of the People's Republic.

First though, a look at what's coming next. The "This is Xinjiang" blog put up a post that detailed the changes that are in store for Kashgar's old city and included photos of a promotional sign trying to sell the project to a skeptical public:


Basically, in this plan, the city will straighten the major pathways within the block. The first story, comprised of neatly squared stores, will attempt to replace the current commercial district in the area. Now, people must pass through a labyrinth of homes in order to reach the inner core, but in the future, anyone will be able to access these shops easily from the street. The project aims to cover the entire first floor with a roof, which will eliminate the traditional sunlit courtyards of Uyghur houses. Instead, I guess that street lamps will light these alleyways, which is so very environmentally friendly. A grassy surface will top the first floor. Four outdoor staircases, one from each major road, will lead to this second level, which opens to four lawns and possibly a central fountain, all enclosed by five-story apartment buildings. Finally, the project offers eight different types of apartment layouts. This plan organizes social life vertically, instead of horizontally, which dramatically cuts down on daily interactions.

The blog post has more descriptions of the reconstruction project, photos of the old city, and additional views of the plans for the new buildings.

Here's a translation of an excerpt of a much longer piece on Kashgar's Old City that ran in Phoenix Weekly:

From The End of Kashgar

by Zhou Yu / PW

Crossing the bazaar street that has already been entirely demolished, Alimjan (阿里木江) approaches his old house in the depths of the lane.

In the course of a month, the dust covering everything has made it impossible to see what sort of homes used to be here. Workers blackened in the sun sit on the ground pounding brick fragments. The earthen bricks of the oldest homes are to be discarded, ground into fine powder.

A billboard stands here describing the impressive outcome of the old city's reconstruction: trim and tidy six floor matchbox buildings, with toy-like cars running single-file between them. Behind the billboard comes the noise of real-life cars.

More than 100 meters down the lane, you reach an entirely different world.

A building standing astride the street casts a long shadow. A pair of foreign tourists amble in the shadow, unsure of whether to continue deeper into the lane. The twists and turns of the old city alleyways are like a labyrinth to tourists, who call it "a place where time stands still," and who need four-way or six-way directional indicators to help them identify through streets and dead ends. Alimjan knows all of the lanes and all of the owners of the earthen buildings on either side.

At home, Alimjan shuts the wooden door, and protected back behind his thick mud brick walls, the sweltering heat gradually recedes from his body. In the mornings, the windows of the old home are opened to let in the cool breezes, and when the sun climbs into the sky, Alimjan shuts the doors and windows tight to enjoy the coolness all day.

Alimjan sits down on the carpet that covers the floor. Sunlight filters through Islamic-style mullions to illuminate this traditional residence. In the corners are colorful tile mosaics, just within reach. The entire wall in the sitting room is a mosque-shaped plaster latticework, and the compartments are filled with fine ceramics that have been around for several generations, as old as the house itself.

Alimjan's father and grandfather were born in this mud brick house, and though Alimjan's beard has now grown as long as his grandfather's, there has been no perceptible change to the house.

Mud bricks are the most important earmark feature of homes in Kashgar. An academic in Kashgar who preferred to remain anonymous gave this description: "Square houses built of mud bricks laid out in thick layers, with a capped wooden roof covered in reeds, straw, and guard against earthquakes, the walls are built 70 to 90 cm thick, and their durability is rarely seen in the Muslim world."

Alimjan's grandfather recalled that over the 100 years since the home was built, it had always been rock-solid and never needed to be repaired. The lanes surrounding it were peaceful, and you could hardly feel the passage of time.

But sudden changes crashed into this placid life.

In 1958, Kashgar was electrified. This miraculous event changed the working habits of the inhabitants of the old city. Previously, even though they had kerosene lamps and candles, residents would still plan their days the way Allah intended, going to sleep as soon as it got dark and waking up at around 4 in the morning. Going out onto the balcony at night, you could see the moon half-hidden behind an earthen wall.

After electricity came, nighttime was like a lantern. Not only was the nighttime bazaar illuminated, but people could read at home, and they delayed their bedtime.

In 1968, red guards charged through the old lanes. They tore off women's scarves and threw them to the ground, they smashed old artifacts and tore up mosques, and they surged into people's homes and burned old books.

Two years later, the old city experienced its first major "reconstruction" under the new regime: digging tunnels.

The neighborhood committee told everyone that Soviet revisionists were going to attack. Alimjan hoisted a shovel and dug into the ground. Air-raid shelters were dug under many streets in the old city, four to seven meters down, and about two meters high.

The old city was already crowded, so the earth that was dug up had to be piled along the road. In some places it stood a meter high, so the old drainage system failed and rain and snow flooded people's yards and ate away the foundations of the walls.

In the end, Soviet revisionists did not attack. Half a year later the tunnel digging campaign came to a quiet end, and residents sealed up the strange tunnels that had entrances but no exits. The days continued on.

At the end of the 1990s, running water came to the old city. Alimjan remembers that it came along with a number of other things: the term "Eаst Turkestаn" circulated ever more stridently through the old lanes, and mosques and public address systems echoed with lectures about ethnic unity and anti-splittism.

Then one lane after another was torn down. In 2002, renovations to the Id Kah Mosque commenced.

During this round of renovations, the traditional bazaar and old residential area in front of the mosque vanished and were replaced by a broad square and giant commercial buildings on the other side of the street.

This time, things were different from the past. A Kashgar official who preferred to remain anonymous recalled that between 2002 and 2006, the sounds of disturbances in the old city were carried overseas.

In 2004, Minister of Construction Wang Guangtao made an inspection tour of Kashgar. In a speech, Wang said that as soon as he got out of the car, he went looking for the old city: "Earthen-walled structures cover four square kilometers, and in the middle a mosque famous across Central Asia. Let me make it more tangible for you: these four square kilometers are worth more than the districts surrounding you, their price is far higher."

Wang stressed that the old city's original appearance had to be preserved as much as possible while improving the road network and expanding services: "Mud brick structures are the basic characteristic of this ancient city...plans for precautionary strengthening against earthquakes should not be overemphasized."

The eye of the foreign media first turned toward the old city's reconstruction in 2006. Alimjan was surprised to discover that their voices of protest seemed to have born fruit: large-scale reconstruction in the old city largely came to a halt.

But after the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008, calls for "earthquake precautions" overwhelmed everything else.

The television repeatedly aired scenes of the ruins in Wenchuan, and the old city was described as a dangerous place that could completely collapse at any moment.

This time, the government's will was firm. "We will absolutely not let a few people use the guise of protecting historical culture to hoodwink our populace, making them pay a price in blood and face a loss of life and property to protect old and dangerous homes that have no value whatsoever, and we will absolutely not let those people with ulterior motives fabricate erroneous public opinion to prevent the development of Kashgar," warned the General Management and Publicity Outline for the Reconstruction Project for Old and Dangerous Houses in Kashgar's Old City.

On February 27, 2009, at a municipal mobilization meeting, officials were requested "to immediately dismiss any leaders who intentionally interfere with or refuse to cooperate on the work, or do not carry out their respective duties and obligations. There is no alternative...."

On March 25, the first stage of demolition of the Östang Boyi* neighborhood commenced, and nearly one hundred families were moved to a residential neighborhood five kilometers away.

"We had no right to choose." One resident of the street said that after being moved to the new district, some of the older people would come back to the street in the evenings to stand in front of their demolished homes for a long while.

On his way back home, Alimjan saw this scene play out in the shadow of the old street-spanning building: two old men in identical doppas, with identical white beards, clad in identical long robes, stood in the shadows shaking hands and exchanging a greeting in Uighur, while a tourist snapped a photo.

What the camera did not capture was the tear at the corner of one old man's eye, while the other felt in his heart an uncertainty that stretched as long as the lane itself.

Note: 吾斯塘博依. I originally had the Pinyin Wusitangboyi, and replaced it with a version supplied by a commenter. Neither rendering appears to be all that common in English.

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There are currently 18 Comments for Building a new Old City in Kashgar.

Comments on Building a new Old City in Kashgar

This translation is fantastic, Joel. Thanks for not only finding the article but making it available for all to read.

The signs showing what is soon to come of Kashgar's Old City look nice, but as you correctly pointed out they're definitely selling this to a skeptical public (who have no other choice but to accept the coming changes).

吾斯塘博依 is "Östang Boyi" in Uyghur.

It's a Han world after's a Han world after all...

Thanks for the name.

This is just great, Joel. People need to know what is happening, and your timely translation and links make this possible. Not because everyone will agree that it's "a pity"; but simply because I don't think most people KNOW that the Old City has been slated for demolition. Who knows? There may be more support here in China for freezing the project that one might think!

The outlook for the Uighur in today's China is really a bit bleak, and the destruction of the Kashgar Old City is sadly symbolic of what awaits them and their culture in 21st century China.

I have been to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, a province whose Han population in 1949 was under 10 percent. Today, Urumqi is recognized -- by Han and Uighur alike -- as a Han Chinese city. The tension between the two groups is palpable, and outside Erdaoqiao, the Uighur part of the city, Uighurs seem almost like foreigners.

Twice during my last visit my Uighur taxi drivers called my hotel to find out its location, but communication was impossible. My hotel staff grew up in Urumqi; yet when I asked why no-one could communicate with my taxi driver, it was clear that "Chinese people don't speak Uighur." Period.

I had a poor impression of Uighurs from my time in Shanghai, when I was often approached to buy marijuana, and here in Shenzhen, where it seems every 8-12 year-old Uighur child is a pickpocket.

But when I visited Kashgar two years ago, I was amazed at the difference. Kashgar is a UIGHUR city, unlike Urumqi. Many Uighurs see Kashgar as their spiritual home in China, and historically it has played an important role in trade, hosting famous madrassas and the like. People were so mellow there; it was really nice to see Uighurs at ease...for once.

I can't help but believe that the decision to knock down the old city was made at the highest levels in Beijing, with an eye to destroying a historical and tourist site that reminds everyone that the Uighurs have, in fact, been around a long time in this neck of the woods.

In my eyes, this demolition project is a wrong-minded attempt to rewrite history and dispossess a people of their past. Too bad!

Joe, check out the link below. it's a blog by an architect who's currently working on the kashigar project. There's much more details in progression of the project and interaction between the designer/urban planners and the local residents. link

jsyang nice blog link, it's seems there is a lot of misinformation out there about this project. Though, those running the project should looks at fenghuang city modernization project (which my mom actually worked on it), after all, we are way pass the time where we took down the city wall of Beijing in the name of progress

bruce - i have a friend who was born and schooled in Urumqi and her impression of uighurs was quite negative (pickpockets, thieves, carry knives, etc. reinforced by later experiences in Beijing and Shanghai where, sadly, most of these stereotypes are true) and this from someone who had uighur schoolfriends.

a trip to kashgar in 2003 changed all of that. seeing uighurs in a more natural environment was so rewarding. the first few interactions in the old town were filled with paranoia but, once she relaxed, she got so much out of the trip. the plan was always to go back one day, but if these plans go ahead, it won't quite be the same.

Joel, Jeremy, anything about the riots in Urumqi?

Sadly, we are seeing today the inevitable results of this racism and cultural vandalism.

tear down those houses, to hell with them. China should learn from Israel.

The blueprint of new Kashgar just looks really really STUPID!

So glad I spent a few weeks in Kashgar back in 2000 and also travelling around Xinjiang. It was a unique place and the people were great. So sad what is happening now but the discontent has been there for a long time.

Should we assume new Chinese construction methods are more stable than traditional Uyghur methods? Witness the disaster in Sichuan last year, and some new buildings falling before completion. The asymmetric, interlaced stuctures in the old city of Kashgar, with combinations of brick and wood, have stood the test of time. It is a testimony to the multicultural nature of Kashgar's history. Good for community coherence, but bad for the central government. Is this a result of autonomous rule? Please provide a link to the Kashgar Historical Preservation Society.

They have to keep up that "bao ba" (保八) slogan somehow ...

Perhaps a dose of chill-it will be more suitable for the Young & Restless on this forum. The jury is out still yet. It all depends what comes out of this remake of the Old Town. It is not so infrequent that all new buildings are derided by the self-styled Lords of Protectors of the Earth. We will have to see what is the result, and hope that the design is the right one.

" We will have to see what is the result, and hope that the design is the right one."

Indeed, who gets to design the new look? If it turn out to be the 'wrong' look, who is going to take the responsibility? Or rather, who is going to live the consequences?

The issue at stake is not about whether or not an old city should be rebuilt. What's worrying is the lack of public debates on such issue, and most importantly, who get the say in such events. Did the residence in Kasghar discuss and make a decision on this? Did they get to draw the blueprint for the new look?

@dave: Bam in Iran had similar architecture and managed to last a long time, but was hit pretty heavily by the 2003 earthquake. If anything, hopefully the Sichuan earthquake has convinced the Chinese authorities of the need for better construction methods.

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