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Tuesday, March 20, 2001, updated at 11:20(GMT+8)

Xinjiang Street - Anthropologist's Paradise

Lovers of Muslim cuisine in Beijing have a great place to go. An array of small and medium-sized restaurants, mostly specializing in Muslim cuisine, can be found gathered together on "Xinjiang Street."

This bustling lane in the Weigongcun area of western Beijing's Haidian District is not just of interest to those after a good meal.

Cultural anthropologists, such as Zhuang Kongshao, are also interested in the street for academic reasons.

This professor with the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing has written about the street in an article in the latest issue of the China Sociological Research Bimonthly.

Over the past few years, he has organized a series of sociological interviews and sample surveys with Xinjiang Street residents to unearth the social and cultural mores underlying this Uygur community, which has become a multi-cultural community in recent years.

"Xinjiang Street is an ever-changing, interactive arena where different ethnic groups contend and represent their awareness of cultural intuition and cultural symbolism," he wrote in his article.

During his research, Zhuang discovered that Xinjiang Street has a strong connection with the past.

He believes that the "Uygurville," or "Urgur Village" of Dadu, capital city of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was located in the same geographical position as today's Xinjiang Street.

In the Yuan Dynasty, many Uygur intellectuals, Uygur immigrants of the Muslim faith from neighbouring countries and Xinjiang and Uygur merchants settled in what is now the Weigongcun area of Beijing.

In the late Yuan and the following Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, there was a gradual decline of the area as most of the Uygur immigrants moved back to Xinjiang.

But the area continued to be called "Uygurville."

Zhuang supposes the name developed into today's name "Weigongcun."

More than 600 years later, an increasing number of Uygur people are moving into this area, opening up some 20 Muslim restaurants since the early 1980s.

When China began to open-up and reform 20 years ago, some Uygur restaurant owners came from Xinjiang and elsewhere in Northwest China to seek business opportunities in Beijing, joining the existing Uygur restaurants in Weigongcun.

Uygur merchants also arrived and made their fortune in the clothing industry and by establishing other kinds of local businesses.

Uygur community

Non-Muslim residents living near Weigongcun have witnessed changes in the street over the years.

"Nowadays, the Uygur people feel more at ease living on Xinjiang Street than before. Some 20 years ago, there were smaller hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving exotic and savory Muslim food. Today, the businesses have grown much bigger," recalled a local resident interviewed by one of Zhuang's students.

"They dressed more formally in their distinctive ethnic clothes in the past. Now they don't. I still remember those young Uygur kebab vendors' colourful skull caps. Today's Uygur restaurant owners seldom wear them."

But the Uygur restaurant owners have tried to maintain their traditional family lifestyle and ways of doing business on Xinjiang Street, a place thousands of miles away from their original homes in the west of China.

The Uygur people in Beijing have a strong sense of community and a clear awareness of their ethnic identity.

Zhuang said their collective behaviour reveals the irresistible power of their rich and ancient Muslim culture.

He said in most cases, the father of a Uygur family would come to Beijing by himself to first establish himself before inviting the rest of his family to follow him.

Uygur women usually have little to do with the management of the restaurants.

The typical Uygur restaurant serves various Muslim foods - some that served only noodles in the past have been forced by competition to adopt a more complicated menu and better marketing skills, Zhuang's report shows.

The most popular and interesting Uygur foods include lamb kebab (yangrou chuan'r) sprinkled with cumin and hot pepper; various types of "pasta" (mian pian, la tiaozi); roast fried spicy mutton (chao kao rou); square noodles in tomato sauce (chao pian'r); naan, a type of bread; a salad (Xinjiang shala), usually consisting of tomatoes, cucumber and onion; and pan ji, a gigantic plate of chicken and potatoes cooked with tomatoes and red and green chillies.

The decorations in a Uygur restaurant usually evoke the owner's Muslim religion, with Islamic inscriptions on the windows and walls.

In the interior rooms where the owner lives can be found traditional Chinese paintings depicting Uygur daily life.

Many of the restaurants hire Han workers to do chores such as sweeping, mopping, serving dishes or greeting guests for the owners, who often do not speak standard Chinese.

These Han employees are not allowed to enter the kitchen or bring non-Muslim foods into the restaurant.

As well as running businesses side by side, many restaurant owners on Xinjiang Street like to share rented apartments.

They often party or dine together and go to a nearby mosque to worship every Friday.

Without full-time imams to serve the community, the Uygur residents on Xinjiang Street usually carry out their own simplified religious services.

Most of their dead are buried in the Muslim cemetery in Beijing, although wealthy families send their loved ones back to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for a formal burial.

Public affairs on Xinjiang Street are jointly managed by the residents' committee, the local police office and a village leader who is generally accepted and respected by the Uygurs there and has authority in handling internal affairs and disputes between Uygur people and other local residents.

Surveys show non-Uygur restaurants have been moving onto Xinjiang Street in recent years.

The newcomers include Dongxiang Muslim, Tibetan, Korean, Dai, Yi, Mongolian, and Sichuan restaurants.

There are also Mao (Zedong) family style restaurants, which are run by Han people and serve spicy Hunan foods said to be the favorites of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, a Hunan native.

The growing diversity of restaurants on this compact block have made the food business on Xinjiang Street increasingly competitive and vigorous.

It has also become more attractive for visitors from home and abroad.

Some people Zhuang interviewed suggest that the Uygur restaurants should take the initiative in "creating something new and fresh," or "borrowing from other ethnic cultures" to enhance their competitiveness.

Regular patrons of Xinjiang Street said that they "want more delicate, more exquisite Uygur foods" and want to try foods from different parts of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with different flavours.

The Dongxiang cuisine

Some of the new restaurants have taken a cunning approach to attract more guests.

For example, the spacious Youhao Restaurant on the east end of Xinjiang Street claims to be a Xinjiang Uygur style restaurant, but it is actually owned by a Dongxiang Muslim woman with a university education who speaks Mandarin and the Dongxiang language, not Uygur.

The restaurant owner employs several Han, Dongxiang and Hui workers from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Shandong Province.

Her restaurant serves Dongxiang, Hui and Xinjiang Uygur food.

She has also adapted some Dongxiang and Hui dishes by adding spicy seasonings or tomato sauce to make them look like and taste like Uygur foods.

Asked why she does not call the restaurant "Dongxiang style," she replied: "When we first arrived here, we had to stick to the rules of the game. Most guests came from afar just to savour Uygur foods and to experience Uygur customs. If we didn't pretend to be Uygur, we would surely have been ignored and forgotten by guests."

While making superficial compromise to achieve commercial success, the Dongxiang restaurant owners have clung to their own traditions and customs, Zhuang's report shows.

They are now planning to change their selling tactics as the restaurants on Xinjiang Street become more and more diversified.

"We'll make it a real Dongxiang restaurant offering special Dongxiang foods. We even plan to change the employees' uniforms into Dongxiang style," the Youhao Restaurant boss said.

Tibetan restaurants

The first and most famous Tibetan restaurant on Xinjiang Street is the Shangbala Restaurant run by a Tibetan woman with a university education.

The smart owner has created a Tibetan family-like atmosphere in her restaurant to cater to mystical perceptions about Tibet and Tibetan life.

The restaurant consists of a huge outer dining hall and a smaller inner dining room.

In the outer dining hall are religious instruments, a Buddhist shrine and tableware made of precious stones. There is also a model ship, symbolic of good luck and brisk business, an auspicious token commonly seen in Han establishments.

The inner dining room, however, has the exclusive ambience of a Tibetan Buddhist home.

The owner, waiters and waitresses in the restaurants are all devoted Buddhists.

On traditional festivals and on the first and fifteenth days of each month of the Tibetan Lunar Year, the restaurant owner and her Tibetan employees from Qinghai Province carry out religious rituals in the inner room.

Of the 171 dishes offered by the restaurant, 164 are not purely Tibetan foods.

Some of the dishes are made in a similar way to certain Hui dishes, but they are cooked and served with different condiments and seasonings to cater to guests from North China.

To Zhuang's surprise, about 20 dishes in the restaurant are made with fish or chicken - materials most people think Tibetans never eat.

But Cairang, a Tibetan waiter at the restaurant, explained that nowadays most Tibetans do eat chicken and fish, except very devoted Buddhists.

In the Shangbala Restaurant, even the few authentic Tibetan dishes such as renshenguo (a type of root vegetable), butter tea, milk tea, tsampa cake, yogurt, finger mutton (shou zhua rou) and highland barley porridge, are deliberately served in a non-traditional way, Zhuang noted in his report.

For instance, to cater to the tastes of non-Tibetan guests, the finger mutton of the Shangbala Restaurant is overdone and is cooked with huajiao (Chinese prickly ash), which is not used traditionally.

The hand-made italics cakes served in the restaurant are each printed with a character that carries an auspicious meaning according to Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. They are served with a knife for the guest despite the fact that the authentic Tibetan way to eat tsampa is to use one's fingers.

The Mao Jia Cai

In addition to the Uygur and Tibetan restaurants, the few Mao family restaurants also deserve a mention as they add another dimension to the interplay of business and culture, "drawing on political and symbolic resources for commercial success," wrote Zhuang.

"Tongxinju," the first Mao style restaurant on Xinjiang Street moved in from a nearby street in 1997. The restaurant used to serve home-style dishes without distinctive ethnic or regional flavours.

But Tong Xin, the shrewd female owner of the restaurant, changed her marketing strategy when they moved here, repackaging her dishes as "Mao family style cuisine (Mao Jia Cai), a branch of Hunan cuisine," food that has gained increasing popularity in Beijing in recent years.

Sometimes called Xiang Cai, Hunan food is renowned for its potent, spicy seasonings, ideally accompanied by fruit, which can dull the effect of the tongue-numbing huajiao.

The Mao family dishes are primarily based on Hunan foods, but boast a connection with the late Chinese leader and Hunan native Mao Zedong.

Among the culinary delicacies of Mao Zedong's homestead, the restaurant's "signature dishes" include jianjiao larou (dried chilli pepper with dried pork); hong shao rou (Mao's purported favourite, a very fatty pork cooked for a very long time without spices); da za hui (a mixture of stir-fried pork meat balls, fermented and salted soya beans, salad leaves, dried green chillies and sliced squid); and ban huo bei yu (smoked fish with dried red chilli).

The wide use of chilli pepper is in line with the widespread believe among ordinary Chinese that Mao loved it.

Zhuang discovered that all the core materials for these dishes are transported from Hunan Province to Beijing and the names of the dishes deliberately include the Chinese characters mao jia, or mao shi, meaning the Mao Zedong family, or Mount Shaoshan, where Mao was born and raised.

The little red book of Mao's quotations, Mao badges, photos of Mao, replica of Mao's calligraphy and poems written by Mao, Mao statues, some of Mao's selected works, and even songs about Mao that were once popular give special atmosphere to these restaurants.

Frequent guests to the Tongxinju, mostly middle-aged people, said: "We come to eat here because we cherish good memories of Chairman Mao. We feel like eating in his home with him."

"Every one of these Chinese, now in their 40s and 50s, find that their personal histories have been deeply influenced by Mao Zedong and what happened in China under his leadership," Zhuang said.


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Lovers of Muslim cuisine in Beijing have a great place to go. An array of small and medium-sized restaurants, mostly specializing in Muslim cuisine, can be found gathered together on "Xinjiang Street."

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