Kunming, a melting pot of disappearing culture where Islam survives

Between the billboards and the cranes and the Imax cinema, the faithful in the remote south-west of China have held on. Eric Randolph reports from Kunming

Yong Ning mosque offers an escape from the western-style consumerism in the new China, says Muslim Syed Rang Hoi, 24.
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KUNMING // There was a time, not so long ago, when a stroll through the Muslim quarter of Kunming, deep in the remote south-west of China, could transport visitors back through centuries of Islamic tradition.

Racks of beef and mutton would hang out to dry in the trading thoroughfare of Shuncheng Street, while men in white caps stirred large vats of roasting coffee beans, flipped pitta bread and grilled halal kebabs. The call to prayer echoed between the crooked wooden buildings leaning in over the crowds.

None of that remains today. The most prominent faces are not even Chinese any more. They are the gaunt, white faces of Calvin Klein and Christian Dior models, staring from glittering store windows in what is now the city's most expensive shopping district.

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province and the last Chinese city on the old southwestern silk route into South Asia, has long been a melting pot of races, religions and cultures. Yunnan shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, which made it a vital trading hub in the glory days of imperial China.

Islam came here about 700 years ago, established by Kublai Khan, grandson of the first Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, and the Hui Muslim community still accounts for a third of the city's central district.

But in the space of just 20 years, the visible signs of their culture have been all but wiped out from Kunming, lost amid the rapid appearance of towering apartment blocks and western-style shopping plazas.

"It makes me sad to see our culture disappearing," said Li Yong Chun, imam of Shuncheng Ging mosque in the heart of the district.

"But I see all this as a punishment from Allah because the young people chose to forget their heritage. Now many are realising what they have lost and are trying to regain it."

Between the billboards and the cranes and the Imax cinema, the faithful have held on. In the shadow of a huge new apartment block, the crescent atop Yong Ning mosque still stands out on the skyline, while the call to prayer, delivered in Chinese, battles it out against the music blaring from a local phone shop.

"This mosque has been here for 700 years and will exist for ever," said Gui Jun Wen, director of the mosque, recalling the threats that the community has faced through its history.

In 1856, the mosque was destroyed when the ruling Qing dynasty brutally suppressed a rebellion by the Hui Muslims, but was rebuilt 40 years later.

During Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Muslims were again targeted, with many mosques defaced or destroyed, and some turned into factories.

"That was a very difficult time, but we would meet secretly in people's houses to continue our ceremonies," said Mr Gui, who is now in his 70s.

In 2007, Yong Ning mosque was totally rebuilt in Arabian style, with minarets and green domes. Even the Chinese script on the walls is shaped into an Arabic-looking style. That contrasts with the Shuncheng Ging mosque down the road, which is almost indistinguishable from a traditional Chinese temple in its design. The increasing popularity of the Arabian style reflects the growing ties of Chinese Muslims to the outside world - one of the clear benefits that has accompanied the country's rapid economic growth and the easing of travel restrictions.

"I have been to Mecca 10 times," said Ma Zhong, imam of Yong Ning. "I also studied in Egypt for three years where I learnt Arabic and made many close friendships with the community there.

"We are now able to follow very closely what is happening in places such as Iran, Pakistan and Syria, which we could not do before."

There are estimated to be about 25 million Muslims in China today, on a par with the population of Saudi Arabia. Despite its secular creed, the Communist government has been largely accepting of the Muslim faith in the years since Mao, except where it has coincided with political separatism, as it has with the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province in the north-west of the country.

Yunnan has had a much more peaceful relationship with Beijing in the past century. The challenge for its Muslim community comes much more from western-style consumerism than state sanction.

"There is a lot of temptation in the new China," said Syed Rang Hoi, a 24-year-old working in the halal restaurant beneath the Yong Ning mosque. "A lot of my classmates at school cared more about making money and buying cool clothes than they did about our culture.

"But people still want an escape from the fast, new China and to remember their past, and that is what you get at the mosque, so I have faith that Islam will survive here."

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