Speaking to a foreign journalist is usually a stressful endeavor for a Uighur in China. Uighurs belong to a Muslim ethnic minority and speak a language closer to Turkish than Chinese. These differences from China’s dominant ethnicity, the Han, have been at the root of a tense and sometimes violent relationship between Uighurs and China’s government.
But there’s another difference many Uighurs possess that the rest of China is attracted to: Their appearance.
Speaking to a foreign journalist about that is easy for Xahriyar Abdukerimabliz, a 19-year-old model from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in China’s far northwest.
“Not to brag, but we are very good-looking,” he says. “Our facial features are naturally attractive. We’ve got great eyebrows, big, beautiful eyes and double eyelids that weren’t created by a surgeon.”
Abdukerimabliz blinks, revealing his naturally creased eyelids. More and more Chinese are undergoing surgery to create a crease in their upper eyelids that about half of all East Asians are born without. Abdukerimabliz’s “double eyelids” are topped with striking eyebrows, a long nose and expressive eyes that look either Asian or European, depending on his mood – or pose.
The demand for this look has roots in the birth of Chinese consumerism back in the 1990s.
“There were fewer local brands in China back then,” says Max Liu, CEO of the Beijing-based modeling agency Fun Models. “All the famous brands were international, and they all used Caucasian models. As China has developed, local brands now want a local image, but not too local. So they’ve turned to models who have half-Asian, half-European looks for their brand identity.”
Plus, says Liu, Uighur models are Chinese and they speak Mandarin, making it a cinch for agencies to work with them. That’s why he’s seen a 10 percent increase in Uighur models year to year in China.
“With their looks, they can easily flow through cultures,” says Liu. “They can play multiple roles. If you need to cast a foreigner in a movie, they can do that while speaking flawless Chinese. They’re incredibly versatile.”
At a tea house in Urumqi, Uighur model Parwena Dulkun shows off a video on her smartphone of her dancing to a local song on Walk of Fame, a talent show on CCTV, China’s largest broadcaster. Later, she scrolls to another video of her in a nationwide beauty pageant.
She’s busy. Her shape-shifting appearance is in such high demand that she says she’s taken to turning down offers of work from some advertisers. “I was in the States recently,” she says, “and after that, I went to Europe – I was in Italy, France, and Switzerland – and then I had a job in Hong Kong.”
And wherever she goes, she says she gets the same response. “In France, people spoke to me in French, thinking I was French,” she says. “In Italy, they spoke Italian to me. The immigration officer in Europe wouldn’t stamp my Chinese passport at first because he didn’t believe I was from China.”
The only country where she isn’t mistaken for a local is her own.
“In many Chinese cities, people think I’m a foreigner,” Dulkun says, giggling.
She uses these moments to educate her countrymen.
“They try to speak English to me, and I answer in Mandarin,” she says. “Cab drivers always turn around and ask me what country I’m from.”
She says she smiles proudly and concludes her lesson by announcing: “I’m Chinese.”
Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.