Southern exposure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2002, 12:00am

NONCHALANTLY FLICKING her long, black wig from side to side, dancer Sofia Turshun struts the stage, swivelling her arms in swan-like postures to the pounding beat of an ancient drum. Suddenly she pirouettes, her red and gold skirt spinning like a blazing Catherine wheel, and flounces down to reap the applause of her audience.

This is the New Silk Road restaurant in Central, the SAR's first venue dedicated to the festive folk music, dancing and food of China's western Xinjiang province. Open for just six months, it has already hosted local celebrities such as actress Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, tycoon Richard Li Tzar-kai and Monetary Authority boss Joseph Yam Chi-kwong.

But the New Silk Road is unusual in more ways than one. In the corner, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings, is a Communist Party cadre. The presence of the willowy 30-something woman, Shu Min, is a sign of the cultural balancing-act the restaurant must perform.

Shu is a director of foreign affairs in Xinjiang and a Han Chinese, now the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang and which holds most of the senior government positions there. The culture on display here belongs to Xinjiang's indigenous but now minority Muslim Turkic Uygur population. In recent years, some Uygurs in Xinjiang have been waging a low-level separatist campaign. After the September 11 attacks on the United States, the central government linked them to Muslim extremists and said crackdowns were justifiable in the fight against terrorism.

Whether government paranoia about restive Xinjiang is one reason Shu was sent to babysit the dozen cooks from the region in Hong Kong is open to conjecture. Shu, who arrived in June to replace another cadre who had been here for five months, says she is not a government minder, but a 'personnel manager'. So she's not here to keep an eye on them? 'The cooks are professional, so it's not for that,' she replies. 'Maybe the lifestyle here is different from China. I am the bridge.'

Head chef Mamat Tursun Tohti, 33, previously worked at Shenzhen's Splendid China theme park and says he's never had a government overseer before. But he isn't perturbed. 'She watches us to make sure we punch our time cards,' he says. Does the official monitor where Tohti and his colleagues go outside work? 'We don't go out,' he says. 'When we finish work we just go home and sleep.'

Apart from the cooks, a troupe of musicians and dancers from Xinjiang perform nightly at the second-floor restaurant above Gaia on Queen's Road, Central. The troupe are commerce-savvy (having released their own CD) and have all worked previously at Xinjiang-theme restaurants in Beijing. The group's leader, Ali Abullahjan, says although his family are Uygurs they are also Communist Party workers. He says they simply want to share traditional Xinjiang culture with the world. His percussionist colleague, Nur Mohammed, agrees but adds that none of the troupe 'intends to go back to Xinjiang as long as we have work elsewhere'.

Shu, who normally works as a Japanese translator, says she's happy the region now has a presence in Hong Kong. Asked why, she says the provincial government exports traditional Uygur culture 'for financial and cultural reasons'. 'Most people don't understand Xinjiang, so it's chance for them to learn,' she adds.

The New Silk Road's owner, Tim Rucquoi-Berger, brought the concept to Hong Kong after seeing the success of the first Xinjiang-themed restaurant in Beijing, Afunti. Its success led about 20 more Xinjiang places to open in the Chinese capital and they have sprung up in most mainland cities.

'The Silk Road is a party place,' says Rucquoi-Berger, who also runs the Manchurian eatery Bistro Manchu in SoHo. 'Xinjiang is very different from normal Chinese culture. It's a place where people come to be entertained and enjoy themselves.'

He is aiming to tap the market left by restaurants such as Igor's and Casa Mexicana, where customers join in the fun. He adds: 'We're showing people there is much more to Chinese culture than people might think.'