China Underground: The Uighur Jimi Hendrix

[18 May 2009]

By Zachary Mexico

Excerpted from China Underground , Chapter 6. The Uighur Jimi Hendrix (PopMatters / Soft Skull, April 2009)

See also China Underground: The Black Society

And China Underground: The Slacker

It’s a Wednesday night in Shanghai, and I’m at the Tang Hui Club, a four-story music venue just off Huaihai Road, the city’s main shopping street. The Tang Hui used to be a scummy little dive on the outskirts of town; in the spirit of New China, it has been given a slick makeover, resurrected as a clean and modern music pub in an unbeatable location.

A World Cup game has just finished, and throngs of partygoers mingle around, waiting for the band to start. The group is called Alhambra, and they’re a strange-looking crew: the drummer is a skinny Chinese hippie in a baggy T-shirt and Rasta hat. The rhythm guitar player is thick and well built, with broad shoulders and flowing black hair. He looks vaguely like a Tibetan or another ethnic minority—stockier and darker than the average Chinese.

And then, at the front of the stage fiddling with his guitar, there’s the kid. The superstar.

The kid’s scrawny, with pale, white skin and the ethereal beauty that is often bestowed by the hand of genetics on people with mixed blood. His deep brown eyes are partly hidden under a hairdo that’s half Afro, half hippie-era Beatle shag.

He wears a tailor-made, floral-print shirt, open at the collar, exposing his hairless chest. A silver medallion dangles around his neck. His jeans hug his skinny legs in true rock-star fashion, and simple flip-flops hang playfully off his feet. He twists his even features into a bad-ass expression, brushes his hair off his face, closes his eyes, and starts to play.

His hands are fast, insanely fast. Most amazingly—and like almost no other music in China—the kid’s improvising. He’s rattling off little motives from Spanish folk songs and then, without notice, shifting his fingering patterns and taking the music in completely new directions. Sometimes, the music seems so standard-flamenco that it wouldn’t be out of place at a club in Barcelona; seconds later, though, the kid will shift into a darker, more psychedelic style.

Behind him, the drummer and guitar player are laying down a simple groove, and the kid’s just going nuts, playing whatever he wants. It’s easy for guitar virtuosos to descend into wankery, but the kid’s so talented, so in the moment, so versatile, that the entire crowd is hanging onto each note he plays. Growing increasingly ecstatic, the audience starts clapping for the kid, hooting, cheering. He glances up at the crowd, for just a few seconds, curls his lips in disdain, and then returns to his music, moving his hands up and down the neck, firing off quick little riffs.

After a little more than an hour, Alhambra finishes their set. The other house band comes on, a mediocre one with Cure covers and an American bass player, and the kid steps outside to get some fresh air. He breaks little mouse-dropping-size pieces of hash off the ball and mixes them with the contents of an emptied-out cigarette, then rolls the whole thing up into a joint with the dexterity of an experienced craftsman. He appraises his work like a jeweler looking at a freshly cut diamond, lights the joint and takes a long hit.

He sucks in a lungful of smoke, exhales a thin stream, and smiles, looking at me curiously. I’ve already asked if I can interview him; at first, he acted quite dismissive but I’ve explained that we have a good friend in common, this old travel buddy of mine who works for an English-language magazine in Shanghai. He’s really looking at me hard now, judging me just like he judges everyone he meets: What can this person do for me? What can I get out of this guy?

“Okay,” he says in accented but fluent English, “call me tomorrow. Here’s my home phone number.”

It’s well into the next afternoon, and I’ve called several times and left messages on the kid’s home answering machine, but that was hours ago, and so I am stuck, waiting for the kid’s phone call, sitting in an air-conditioned café near Tang Hui on Huaihai Road, Shanghai’s central shopping artery. The street is known as “The Champs-Elysées of the Orient,” as Huaihai Road was originally constructed by the French who modeled it after their own most famous boulevard.

Today, most of the old buildings are long gone, replaced by colossal shopping malls: Times Square, Hong Kong Plaza, Plaza 66. A Porsche dealership sits next to a park where migrant workers from a nearby construction site are taking their noonday break, chatting, picking their bare feet and sipping from thermoses of tea.

Both sides of the street are absolutely jammed with people, going to lunch, coming back from lunch, going shopping, looking in store windows, buying things. There’s something for everyone, here, with stores selling tea and cigarettes next to stores selling international luxury products; Gucci next to Shanghai Famous Cigarettes and Alcohol.

Right in front of the Pacific Ocean Department store—a standard Chinese multi-story monolith with hundreds of tiny shops selling mid-priced consumer goods—and just next to the exit of the Huangpi Road subway station, a crowd has gathered around an old woman.

The woman is dressed in a grey shirt that has Chinese characters handwritten all over the front and the back, like some kind of homemade sandwich board advertising. She wears a white hat which looks like a cross between a nurse cap and a dunce cap. The hat’s also covered with messy black characters like her shirt—they are written all over her clothing with a marker.

The woman has what she wants, which is the attention of the crowd. She’s addressing them in a series of pitiful screams: she punctuates the end of each sentence by thrusting her head forward ever so slightly, and streams of spittle fly out from the many gaps in her teeth. The bystanders, their hands toting shopping bags, are listening with a mix of interest and befuddlement.

Her rural dialect is very thick, and I can’t understand what she’s saying nor get close enough to read the sloppy characters that are written all over her clothes. A mall security guard who’s way too young for his too-big blue uniform stands in the crowd near the woman, nervously running his hand over the peachfuzz on his upper lip. He knows that he should get her out of there, but he can’t; there are too many people around her, and besides, she’s a force, she’s got some power, everyone in front of the Pacific Ocean Department Store can feel it.

“I HAVE BEEN INJURED!!!” She’s screaming. “I HAVE BEEN INJURED! THEY KILLED MY HUSBAND! I HAVE BEEN INJURED! I HAVE BEEN THE VICTIM OF GOVERNMENT INJUSTICE! THEY KILLED MY HUSBAND!”

She takes a plastic bottle of water that’s all crinkled and bent, it looks like it’s been imported directly from the city dump, out of her purse, which is an old plastic sack, and she unscrews the cap carefully, takes a sip before slipping it back in her bag.

“I HAVE BEEN INJURED!!!” She starts to scream again.

By now the young security guard has called for reinforcements. Two Pacific Ocean Department Store blue-uniformed guards, Chinese rent-a-cops, take the old woman gently by the arm and lead her away.

Just as this drama concludes, my phone rings. It’s the kid. He gives me his address, tells me there’s a party going on, to come over to his house, he’ll wait for me.

As I get out of a cab in front of the kid’s house, I see him getting into the cab in front of me with the bass player from his band. I wave to the kid and he beckons for me to get into his taxi. I hop into the back seat and close the door behind me; from the front seat, he turns around and fixes me with an incredulous, wide-eyed stare.

“What the fuck took you so long, man?” He’s wearing a sleeveless undershirt, and locks of his thick black hair stick out in every possible direction. It’s well into the afternoon; clearly, the kid has just woken up and smoked a joint, before hopping into this taxi just as I was arriving.

“I thought there was a party going on,” I say. He turns away without response.

We ride in silence for a bit before I ask him where we’re going. A zany smile crosses his face, and he starts ranting in his speedy, stoner English: “We’ve got to get the Internet fixed, man, without the Internet, what are we going to do, man, we can’t do anything, we can’t download music, we don’t know anything, man, you know?”

I nod, and he smiles, and repeats what he’s just said over again. “We’ve got to get the Internet fixed, man ...” Hyper, kinetic, he starts blabbing to the cab driver in Mandarin about the World Cup. Then he begins a long, impassioned speech in Uighur to Madan, his bandmate, who’s been sitting stoically next to me, smoking Panda cigarettes, throughout the whole cab ride.

He is Chinese, and he is not Chinese.

The Kid’s name is Hassan and he’s 22-years-old. He is Chinese, and he is not Chinese. He has a Chinese identity card; he is a Chinese citizen; and the place where he was born, the
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is part of China. But he looks like a Middle Easterner, not an Asian. His mother tongue is Uighur (“wee-gur”), a variant of Arabic, and not Chinese.

He considers himself a Uighur, not a Chinese. Indeed, one of his favorite things to do, it seems, is make fun of Chinese people. He’s got, he claims, a beautiful Minnesota-born, California-bred girlfriend who taught him his English, which he speaks in a lazy drawl reminiscent of Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

When Hassan gets impassioned while speaking English, he rants, talking incredibly fast and repeating phrases several times in a row; he doesn’t lose the lazy pronunciation, though, so it gets difficult to understand exactly what he’s saying. When talking about Chinese people—mostly about how he doesn’t like them—he’ll preface his statements with a quick drawl: “Chinese people, man ...”

“Chinese people, man,” he says, “they don’t know how to dress. Look at them, they all dress the same.” We’re stuck in traffic in Shanghai’s busy Xujiahui district. To our right, a steady stream of bicyclists and motorcyclists pass by. The women are dressed in floral-print blouses and too-tight pants, the men mostly in ill-fitting Western suit pants and dress shirts. He points at them and sniffs. One older man rides by wearing a massive white hat and no shirt.

Hassan thinks for a second, then smiles. “I do like his hat, though.”

Since Hassan is from Xinjiang and carries a Xinjiang identity card, getting a high-speed Internet connection in his Shanghai apartment requires a series of tricks. He’s borrowed a Shanghainese friend’s identity card, and he’s brought the silent Madan along because he bears more of a resemblance to the picture on the card.

We climb up a flight of stairs into a large room in the China Telecom building. “Oh, shit,” says Hassan, and I understand why: there are hundreds of people waiting in line and only four tellers processing forms at small tables to the front of the room.

There are so many people waiting that it’s almost funny. Just as the citizens of Moscow queued for hours in bread lines during the leaner days of the Soviet Union’s communist empire, and the Chinese queued for rice during their past famines, so today’s Shanghainese line up to register for home DSL connections.

The scene in the telecom office is emblematic of socialist bureaucracy: you have to wait for hours and present an ID card to get a form that says that you are a Shanghai resident and thus allowed to have broadband in your apartment. Then, sometime in the undisclosed future, a representative for China Telecom may or may not call you to set up an appointment to actually install the connection.

In short: while more and more urban Chinese are acquiring the level of income needed to buy their own computers, the inefficiency of the state-run telecom services makes it difficult to use said computers. In the cab on the way over, in the middle of one of his rambling, semi-lucid monologues, Hassan told me that China “is not a communist country, you know?” Now, at China Telecom, I remind him of what he said.

He stares at the line of prospective DSL users from the foyer outside the room and lights a Panda cigarette. (He’s not standing in the queue; instead, he’s dispatched his bandmate Madan to endure the torturous wait.) The scene is grim: The people in the line all wear a uniform expression of extreme, numbing boredom, except for an older gentleman wearing an ill-fitting Western suit, slouched in a plastic orange chair, a wet yellow washcloth covering his face.

“Well, sometimes, it is, you know?”

A majority of the population of China is Han Chinese. However, China also has fifty-fi ve “national ethnic minorities” including the Miao, the Zhuang, the Hui, and the Tibetan. Hassan’s ethnicity is among these minorities. Uighurs are Turkic Muslims, native to Xinjiang, who comprise a little more than half of Xinjiang’s population of 15 million. The other residents of
Xinjiang are Han Chinese who moved there from the east of the country.

Xinjiang—in Chinese, the characters mean “new frontier”— comprises the northwest quadrant of today’s China. It takes up roughly one-sixth of China’s total land mass and separates China from the Muslim countries of the Middle East: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan. It also borders Tibet and Siberia. Xinjiang is comprised of two large basins, the Tarim and Dzungaria. It is a land of desert and mountains, a remote, isolated corner of Asia.

An assortment of desert warlords controlled what is now called Xinjiang until the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Urumqi and “liberated” Xinjiang in October 1949. The native population of Xinjiang is, by definition, Uighur. Since “Liberation,” however, Han Chinese from the overpopulated east of the country have been flooding into Xinjiang in order to use its natural resources in search of a better life.

However, Han culture and Uighur culture are, understandably, natural enemies. The Han are secular and view Xinjiang as part of their country. The Uighurs are Islamic and view Xinjiang as their own country, not part of China. There are comparatively few biracial enterprises: most Uighurs work and live with Uighurs, while Han work and live with Han.

However, the Communist government has always been controlled by the Han. Almost 60 years after the first Communist troops arrived in Xinjiang, Han Chinese now run most of Xinjiang’s largest businesses. Han Chinese also hold most of its government positions. The Han, in effect, control Xinjiang.

Due in part to Xinjiang’s separation from the prosperous Chinese east coast—its GDP is a fraction of that found in wealthy eastern provinces—and in part to the aforementioned economic imperialism perpetuated by the Han Chinese of the CCP, the Uighurs have been largely left behind in the recent Chinese economic boom.

Therefore, Uighur males often leave Xinjiang and go east to China’s big cities and more affluent coastal provinces in order to find work and make money to support their families back home. They hook up with other Uighurs, and, speaking their pidgin Mandarin, open restaurants, start small trading companies, change money on the black market, serve as interpreters, sell nuts and raisins, furs and hashish, and, in Hassan’s case, play guitar.

Hassan left Urumchi, his hometown and the capital of Xinjiang, after high school, when he was 18. He had the chance to come to Shanghai because his father, a prominent Uighur in Shanghai, had been here for several years working in a government bureau before Hassan arrived. When he arrived in Shanghai, Hassan says, he felt “crazy”: there were so many different kinds of music at his disposal.

The rich Uighur musical tradition dates back to Ancient Persia. Uighur music sounds like Middle Eastern folk songs touched with occasional Eastern European influences. The Uighurs are famous throughout Asia for their love of music, and it is a staple not only at holidays and festivals but also in their daily lives.

Hassan started making music when he was only three -years -old. As his childhood progressed, he mastered the guitar along with traditional Uighur instruments, such as the tanbur, which is the guitar’s ancient predecessor, and the first stringed instrument ever—there is evidence of its existence as far back as 600BC.

In Shanghai, all kinds of international music is readily available on bootleg CDs, and there are live performances of all kinds of music on a nightly basis: rock at the Tang Hui or the Shuffle Bar, jazz at JZ, blues at The House of Blues and Jazz, for instance.

After he arrived in Shanghai and started checking out the music scene, Hassan knew this was a place where he could succeed as a musician. He had originally planned to pursue a university degree, which would have been tremendously difficult for a non-native speaker of Chinese. Instead, he decided to focus on playing guitar. Electric guitar, that is.

Hassan lives in a ground-floor garden apartment in the French Concession section of Shanghai, the area that was controlled by the French in the 1850s when Shanghai was the busiest international port in Asia. His front door opens onto a small, pleasant courtyard, filled with plants and flowers and his Pearl drum set, which he stores under a massive waterproof tarp.

We take off our shoes before entering the house. Hassan makes a point of emphasizing that he keeps his apartment clean, the subtext being that Chinese people are not clean enough for him.

The apartment is small; in between the kitchenette in the back and the sitting room in the front, Hassan has set up a basic home recording studio on the bottom level of a loft bed. He’s got a rack of stringed instruments affixed to the wall: acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and some traditional pieces from Xinjiang, some of which he claims are hundreds of years old.

A cluster of microphones sits next to a 16-channel mixing board and two fl at-screen PC monitors. The whole setup would be pretty standard for the West but, for China, his equipment is impressive, his space remarkable in its efficiency.

On the walls are pictures of Hassan’s rock idols: Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page. More prominent, in a telling testament to his rock-star aspirations, are pictures of Hassan himself at various stages of his adolescence: a skinny, scared looking kid at 18, a tough-looking punk at 20, and fuzzed-out recent black-and-white portrait, which sits on a wall next to a picture of Jimi Hendrix. Hassan and Jimi look very similar; the hairdo, the lazy eyes, the cheekbones, the symmetry. I ask Hassan whether it would be fair to call him the Uighur Jimi Hendrix. “No, man!” he explodes. “I’m me, man, my music is my music.”

Hassan takes me into the tiny front room. The furnishings consist solely of a mattress on the floor and another PC. Madan and Aziz, another Uighur in his 40S, are sitting solemnly cross-legged on the tile floor. Seemingly from nowhere, Hassan produces a small wooden bowl containing what appears to be a gourd with a straw sticking out of it. He packs a fat wad of hashish into the gourd/bong, lights it, and sucks down the whole thing in one gulp. He exhales an enormous cloud of smoke and immediately starts rambling again.

“This place is so fucking ugly man, you know? Look at that (he indicates the shoddily constructed chest of drawers set back into a depression in the wall), look at that (he points to the grotesque, bulbous fluorescent light fixture on the ceiling), these Chinese people, man, they always make their houses so ugly! Why do they do that? Hey why don’t you check out some of my new stuff man, my new music.”

He hands the bowl to Aziz, who’s got a skullcap on his head and a crazy gleam in his eyes. Aziz stubs out his cigarette and pulls a chocolate-bar-sized baggie of hash out of his pocket. Aziz can’t speak English or Mandarin, and I can’t speak Uighur; he’s staring at me and I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable.

A wicked droning arises from the speakers. It’s one of Hassan’s new tunes. While one guitar repeats the same haunting motive and the drums remain steady yet subtly threatening,
Hassan kicks in with the electric guitar, spinning a crazy, hypnotic masterpiece. Though there’s no bass on this recording, Hassan’s tone is so full that the music’s thick and symphonic. As the music swells, it sounds like an orchestra of paranoia and destruction, like the modern subsuming the ancient, like a powerful expression of the relationship between certainty and uncertainty in contemporary life.

After almost an hour of uninterrupted music, the song finally ends. A tiny kitten the size of a human fist pops out from behind the computer and dashes around the apartment like a rat on speed. Hassan packs up the bowl and hands it to me. I decline, vociferously, but they’re not having any of it. In the Uighur culture, just like the Chinese culture, when people offer you food and drink, you take it, even if you’re not hungry or a teetotaler, or, in this case, aren’t in the habit of smoking hashish, especially when Aziz’s cold stare and Hassan’s insane music have created a cauldron of paranoia in your mind that might bubble over at any minute.

“Just suck,” says Hassan, seductively, as he lights the pipe.

The hash tastes clean, earthy, and the smoke is smooth, filtered through the water in Hassan’s pipe. Just a few seconds later, I’m out of my mind, stoned so violently that my foot is tapping out a steady, paranoid rhythm on the floor. Hassan puts on the new Tool album, and, in spite of myself I’m tripping, caught up in a terrible fantasy. These guys are gonna abduct me, bring me to some back alley, take my money, and then slit my throat in the name of Allah.

Even though I know that my thoughts are irrational, that these are friendly people, the effect of the drug is so strong that I’m really no longer existing in the world of rationality; instead I’ve been punted into some kind of hyper-awareness where the massive FreakOut is lurking in the shadows, waiting just around the corner to fuck up my brain for a while ... or maybe forever.

Want to read more about the talented but somewhat sinister Uighur Jimi Hendrix?  Does our adventurous author escape unscathed? The rest of this chapter and more can be found between the pages of China Underground.

Zack is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and well-versed in Chinese cultural customs. His undergraduate studies at Columbia University include extensive studies in Chinese language and literature. He also studied for a semester at Qinghua University, Beijing. For over two years, Zack lived in southwest China, where he opened a thriving restaurant / nightclub in Kunming City and operated a café in Lijiang Prefecturs. His language skills and network of contacts in China allowed him unparalleled access into the Chinese youth scene. In addition, his relatively young age and open-minded, cosmopolitan attitude gave him credibility with his subjects, as readers can see in his sensitive and thorough prose. Zack spent three months during the summer of 2006 traveling and interviewing subjects for China Underground. (To protect his subjects and the status of his passport, Zack is writing China Underground under a pseudonym.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/72739-china-underground-the-uighur-jimi-hendrix-1/