In the ethnically mixed region of Xinjiang, in China’s far west, tensions run high, and the government-promoted slogan that “Uighurs and Han are all one family” is not embraced by everyone.
But Xie Shi, a 30-year-old photographer and skateboarder based in the eastern city of Nanjing, says that the skateboarding scene there is both ethnically diverse and more harmonious than the mainstream of society. In a new photography book titled “Aghine” — the Uighur word for a like-minded and close friend, which is sometimes translated into Mandarin as “brother” — Mr. Xie compiled 64 photos he took on his two trips to Xinjiang last year. They include 30 portraits of skaters in the cities of Urumqi, Karamay and Kashgar, and in Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County. There are also photos that offer a glimpse of the everyday life in the far-flung western region.
Xinjiang is home to a number of ethnicities, including the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim group. In recent years, Xinjiang has been the scene of violence that has been attributed to differences between the Uighurs and Han, China’s dominant ethnic group. Advocates for Uighur rights point to resentment over economic disfranchisement and restrictions on religious and cultural expression, while the Chinese government routinely blames the violence on separatists and religious extremists.
In an interview, Mr. Xie — who is Han — discussed how, even when skaters of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang bond over their love of skateboarding, tensions still impede the development of the sport.
Q.What made you want to do this photography project on skaters in Xinjiang?
A. I have been interested in Islamic culture since I was little. Xinjiang has always been a place I wanted to go. At first, I actually thought there wouldn’t be many skaters in Xinjiang. I was only traveling there to enjoy local food with friends, get a taste of Xinjiang’s Islamic culture and shoot skateboarding photos in different landscapes. It was not until I got there that I came to know there were also many skateboarding enthusiasts in Xinjiang. It was after I discovered this that the idea for “Aghine” started to take shape.
The reason I wanted to shoot this project was because of Xinjiang’s ethnic diversity. Due to the large number of religious extremist terrorist attacks and social conflicts between opposing ethnic groups in recent years, people in mainland China have only been exposed to negative Xinjiang-related news, and they often have a biased perception of the minority groups living in there. I want to make people in other places understand that life in Xinjiang is not just about ethnicity and religion. There are young people in Xinjiang like those in the book.
Q.What inspired you to title your book “Aghine”?
A.The word aghine, meaning “brothers” in Chinese, represents my true feelings for skaters in Xinjiang. I decided on the name when I first planned to shoot the project. Later, I did some research and consulted some friends, and finally used the Uighur word aghine to title the book.
Q.How did the sport develop in Xinjiang? What is its current state?
A.Skateboarding first appeared in Xinjiang around 1997. At that time, some people started to use skateboards brought back from what was then the Soviet Union. Urumqi started to have skateboarding stores around 2005, and the number of skaters began to rise gradually since then.
Skateboarding has not been very popular in China. It has not been as well received here as in Western countries. But in recent years, people in China have gradually come to accept this sport, which is one of the most popular sports among young people around the world. Most large cities in Xinjiang have skateboarding stores now, and more and more local young people have become skateboarding fans.
Q.Do local skaters of different ethnic groups hang out together?
A.Yes. They always hang out and chill together. In skateboarding, we are all friends.
Q.What are the obstacles Xinjiang skaters are faced with?
A.In Xinjiang, one must seek the government’s approval for any event involving more than about a dozen people. (Local grannies’ square dancing is an exception. I don’t know why.) Events involving young people gathering on the street have no chance of getting approved. Besides, neither squares nor parks allow skateboards inside, so it’s impossible to skate in those places.
But skateboarding is all about constantly seeking different spots and conquering new stairs and handrails. It’s all about challenging oneself. If a skater has to practice skateboarding at the same spot every day, he or she will soon lose passion. If skateboarding events at different spots cannot be held, the sport will fail to attract fans. This is the problem with skateboarding in Xinjiang.
Q.What was your most unforgettable experience in shooting this project in Xinjiang?
A.When I was in Karamay, a friend in Urumqi helped contact several “brothers” there to skate together. We met in the afternoon, but they took me to a cobbler first. At the small store, they each took out a pair of worn-out skateboarding shoes and had them patched. They then put the newer shoes they were wearing into their bags and threw on the old shoes instead.
Skaters all know that the sport is very shoe-consuming. If you practice everyday, your shoes will be broken in less than a month. The scene I just described should feel familiar to skaters in the 1990s because at that time, skateboarding equipment was extremely scarce. But as living standards improve in recent years, such a scene can no longer be seen in eastern or southern coastal cities in the country. I no longer want to wear my skateboarding shoes even when they just get a bit worn or the color begins to fade a little. So the scene touched me a lot. I actually felt very guilty.
Q.What was your impression of Xinjiang before you traveled there?
A.My impression of Xinjiang mostly came from television and the Internet. It was just about beautiful scenery, good food, many ethnic groups and travel warnings saying it’s not safe there. Actually, I knew nothing about the development of the skateboarding culture there before, and many friends were saying it wasn’t safe in Xinjiang. But after I got there, I just found that as long as we could respect and accept their culture and follow their customs when we were on their land, smiles could be found everywhere.
Q.Have your trips changed your impression of Xinjiang?
A.Xinjiang’s beautiful scenery, food and its diversity will always stay the same. But I have seen the gradual disappearance of some old, ethnic things in the development of some Xinjiang cities. For example, there are fewer and fewer ancient ethnic streets and buildings amid the demolition and relocation efforts there. They have all been wiped out as standardized modern cities like the ones in other places in China spring up. I am feeling an inexplicable sadness and boredom about this.
Q.What do you think is the best way to make people in Xinjiang aghine?
A.I doubt skateboarding has the power, but it has at least made some of the people there like-minded friends. I think understanding and inclusiveness can make everyone in Xinjiang aghine. The land has been home to people of different ethnic groups since very long ago. People of different ethnic groups and religions are bound to have different points of view and customs. When people start to try understanding each other and respecting different cultures, others will definitely respond with smiles.