Uyghurs are an Asian people who mostly live in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which most view as their homeland. There are significant diasporic populations in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Russia. The US also has a small population, most of whom live in either the Washington, DC or Los Angeles metropolitan areas. Unrecognized by US census and lacking either their own state or a fashionable political cause (e.g. Tibet), they’re decidedly low profile. In Los Angeles their cultural profile is so far almost entirely limited to the restaurant scene.
The first people known as the Uyghurs were a coalition of nomadic Tiele tribes in the Altai Mountains, the valleys south of Lake Baikal, and the Yenisei River. They overthrew the Turkic Khaganate and established the Uyghur Khaganate in 744 CE. At its most expansive, the Uyghur Khaganate stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and had its capital as Ordu-Baliq, in modern day Mongolia. The Khaganate was invaded by the Yenisei Kirghiz and collapsed in 842 and many of the Uyghurs resettled among the Karluks and in Gansu, Turpan, and the Tarim Basin.
The Uyghurs went on to found two kingdoms, the Ganzhou Kingdom (established in 850 with its capital near Zhangye), and the Kingdom of Qocho (established in 856 with its capital in Qocho). The first kingdom was absorbed by the Western Xia in 1036. The Kingdom of Qocho, also known as Uyghuristan lasted into the 1335.
The Uyghurs were absorbed by the Mongol Empire and the Tarim Basin was conquered by the Dzungars in 1680. The Qing Dynasty Chinese arrived soon after and from 1687–1758 waged the Dzungar-Qing War, with the Uyghurs generally siding with the Chinese. The long conflict culminated with the genocide of an estimated 600,000 Dzungars, after which China began settling Chinese of various ethnicity in the region.
The Republic of China was founded in 1912. In the 1920s, the Uyghurs staged several uprisings against Chinese rule and in 1933 successfully regained their independence, forming the East Turkestan Republic, which was re-conquered by China the following year. The Second East Turkestan Republic, backed by the USSR, existed from 1944-1949, when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PROC). After they were made part of the PROC, many of East Turkestan’s republicans fled to Turkey and elsewhere. The PROC conquered neighboring Tibet the following year and for whatever reason, that has long been a cause cause célèbre inspiring Hollywood films, benefit albums, protests, concerts, and “Free Tibet” bumper stickers. Both Tibet and East Turkestan were admitted to the UNPO on 11 February 1991.
The highest profile incident involving Uyghurs came with the detainment of 22 Uyghurs in Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Although none viewed the US as an enemy, they’d been rounded up by China as “terrorists.” Although determined not to be enemy combatants, the last of the Uyghurs remained in Guantanamo Bay until 2013, when they were transferred to Slovakia.
As mentioned in the introduction, the most obvious signs of Uyghur presence in Los Angeles is in restaurants. Several of the local restaurants offering Uyghur dishes are Hunanese. Around 5,000 Uyghurs live around Taoyuan County and other parts of Changde in Hunan province, believed to be descended from Uyghur general Hala Bashi and his soldiers, who were sent to Hunan by the Ming Emperor in the 14th century to crush the Miao rebels.
Uyghur cuisine bears the influences of Central Asia and China. Common meats include sheep, cow, camel, chicken, and goose. Common vegetables include carrots, eggplants, celery, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. The typical Uyghur breakfast included tea, naan, hardened yogurt, olives, honey, raisins, and almonds. The most common dish is polu (pilaf), usually cooked with rice and a mix of carrots, raisins, apricots, chicken, or mutton. Chuanr (kebabs) are also popular, as is the stir-fried noodle dish, leghmen, which may have originated with Chinese lamain. There are several varieties of lamb pies including samsa, göshnan, and pamirdi. Shorpa is lamb soup. Other typical items include sangza (crispy, fried, wheat flour), youtazi (steamed bread), toghach (tandoor bread), and the bagel-like girde.
In Southern California, Uyghur restaurants and restaurants serving Uyghur dishes include China Islamic Restaurant (in Rosemead), Feng Mao Lamb Kebab (in Wilshire Park), Omar’s Xinjiang Halal Restaurant (in San Gabriel), Silk Road Garden (in Rowland Heights), Mao’s Kitchen (in Melrose), and Mas’ Chinese Islamic Restaurant (in Anaheim).
For more about Uyghurs in Southern California, check out Trip Advisor’s “A Rare Uyghur Restaurant, and Worth the Trip!,” and Clarissa Wei’s “Silk Road Garden: Discovering Uyghur Cuisine In Los Angeles” and “Xinjiang Cuisine in Los Angeles: Halal Food And Hand-Pulled Noodles.”
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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