Even foreigners in Urumqi can't avoid being affected by events

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2009, 12:00am

Erwin Sotelo, a Filipino singer-guitarist, doesn't understand why the government banned all internet access and long-distance calls in Urumqi . He has not been able to contact his family in the Philippines since the Han Chinese took to the streets to protest against the random attacks with syringes a week ago. 'My family must be worrying,'' he said.

Sotelo has been performing at the bar of one of the city's most luxurious hotels. Four years ago, his agent got him and his band a contract in Urumqi.

'It isn't a Chinese name, right? So I was surprised after seeing the map, finding out it is a Chinese city.' He took the job after a little research and decided the city was a safe place to work and live.

Since the clashes broke out on July 5 between majority Han Chinese and minority Uygurs in the capital of the Xinjiang region, officials have blocked people from getting online and making overseas phone calls, including ringing Hong Kong. Two weeks after the riots, Sotelo was among a small group of fortunate people who were allowed to go to the hotel's business centre to surf the Net for two hours every evening. That privilege was suspended after last week's protests.

'I haven't been able to contact my family to tell them I am safe. They must be worrying,' he said. 'I don't know why they are doing this. Foreigners need to contact their families at home. I believe if they open the internet, there will be fewer crimes. People will be busy playing, such as going to Facebook. They wouldn't have time for crime.'

Far away from home, Sotelo has regular gatherings with other Filipinos in Urumqi. He is one of the 20 Filipinos there, most of them teachers of English who work and reside in the city's schools. The small community used to meet once a week, chatting, singing and cooking native dishes. But the weekly meetings stopped since they decided going out had become dangerous; the small community has no idea when they'll meet again.

Sotelo also can't take his daily walk in the park near the hotel. 'We work, eat and live in the hotel,' he said. 'We must go out to have fresh air, but now we can't have our daily walk as usual.'

Sotelo's contract will expire early next year, and he has not decided whether he wants to stay. 'Safety is a prime concern,' he said. 'On the other hand, it also depends on the hotel's business. If there is no improvement, ... if business is not good, the hotel may not renew our contract.'

By contrast, Ring Tang Kam-ling, Sotelo's colleague, has never thought of leaving. Born in Hong Kong, she's a hotel executive who has been working in Urumqi for nearly 11 years.

'I come here because of my job. I will leave if I can't do my job well,' she said.

Sitting at the hotel cafe overlooking the People's Square, the place where university students first gathered on July 5 before the ethnic clashes broke out, Tang said the thought of bloodshed following the protest had never occurred to her.

'This square used to be full of people. The elderly come here to do tai chi, kids run, young couples chat,' she said. 'And I also enjoy walking in the square. It's a lovely scene. The square has been sealed off since the riots. It is sad.'

And although she lives and works in the hotel, the gloom hangs in the air.

'Every discussion is about the riots and how people were killed or wounded,' she said. 'People are depressed. Even when we try not to talk about it, the topic naturally pops up.'