FRANCESCO FIMIANI WRITES — On November 4, 2021 I had the pleasure of interviewing Bugra Arkin, owner and founder of Dolan’s Uyghur Cuisine located in Alhambra, in East Los Angeles.. Prior to our interview, I sat down and had lunch at his restaurant. In the entrance you find a large television blasting Uyghur pop music. Arkin welcomed me into the restaurant. He wears a black shirt with white text that reads “Google Uyghurs” as his uniform. Subsequently, as you become acquainted with the establishment more you begin to see the elaborate art pieces on the walls depicting scenery and people from Arkin’s home of East Turkestan (or Xinjiang as far as the People’s Republic of China is concerned) along with various artifacts and decor that Arkin imports from Uyghur artisans in Turkey. Once sat at the table, I ordered a giant Uyghur Goshnaan; basically a pie made of naan bread filled with beef, lamb, onion, and black pepper spice. I also ordered a side of Uyghur style milk tea. What makes it stand out from your standard milk tea order is that it has a salty undertone in the drink which may sound odd at first but actually synthesizes with the sweetness of the condensed milk very delicately. I finished off my lunch with the homemade yogurt topped off with honey. Lunch time was a true delicacy. What followed after was my conversation with Arkin regarding his restaurant, his activism, and his homeland.
Q: Why did you originally move to the United States?
Bugra Arkin: I came to the United States in 2015 to go to grad school at USC. When I graduated I was supposed to go back to my own country but there’s the crackdown, the genocide, happening by the Chinese government so I decided to stay and actually I got many calls, well offers, from the so called “reeducation” centers by the government to let me go back to China and attend the schools. Then I decided to stay.
Q: Because, of course, you didn’t feel safe to go back?
Of course yes because my most recent visit was in June 2017, it was a school project in Beijing at that time I had already stayed two nights in the police station when I went back to Urumqi (capital of the Xinjiang region of China that is East Turkestan) after we finish the project. I was very lucky to escape and be able to fly back to the US. Since then I never went back.
Q: You grew up in the region?
In Urumqi yes.
Q: What was it like growing up there?
In 1949, the communist party gained power and started to colonize East Turkestan and they renamed it “Xinjiang”, which means “the new land/territory”. They sent millions of Han Chinese to colonize our land. Then the problems occurred day by day and there’s like a government-lead propaganda to raise the hatred between the Uyghur and Han communities. In late 2016, they built thousands of prisons and camps to detain the Uyghur people. The state department said there’s over 3 million people in the camps but from what I know from what I heard from my friends and through connections in China I think it’s actually like 5-8 million people.
Q: Did you know of this and did you feel this when you were growing up there?
No, when I was growing up it wasn’t like they were massively detaining people. They targeted some individuals at that time. It wasn’t that horrible like now. In 2017, they really [started] massively detaining people at the time. When I was in the police station, because one of my friend’s brothers was head of the police station then, is the reason I was able to escape. At that time, he told me they had already detained like 300,000 people and I couldn’t believe it. How can you keep that crazy amount of people and he told me they can because there’s a lot of facilities. After I flew back to the US, my friends, my cousins, my uncles all got taken away by the government. In 2018 they took my father away and many of my relatives, friends, classmates, they all disappeared.
Q: In 2015 you moved to the US, and when did you found the restaurant?
Q: Where did you get the idea to start the restaurant?
So before I started the restaurant I never had experience in the restaurant business. I’m brand new. But I am a foodie guy. When I was working for a company in Urumqi I was able to travel all around East Turkestan and try all the different foods. We are really proud of our food and our culture, and at the time I thought “LA needs Uyghur food” and so then I opened up the restaurant and meanwhile also we are raising the voice for the Uyghurs. We did social campaigns through our food and restaurant to introduce our people to the LA community.
Q: Did you know when you started the restaurant that you wanted to use it as a tool to raise awareness?
Yes. That’s my main purpose because I think food is a good platform to connect the Uyghur people and introduce the culture, the history, the people in Los Angeles.
Q: There’s a large Chinese community in the area, how have they reacted to the restaurant?
The reason I chose this location is because the Uyghur people are very alone in the United States. But Uyghur food is very famous in China. It’s very popular. That’s why I chose this location. To secure the business. Maybe I would have more Chinese customers because they are more familiar with the food. I was a little bit scared because maybe the community would feel offended but on the contrary I have a lot of Chinese supporters.
Q: Based on your knowledge and experience, how would you explain what is happening there? And what is the goal of this effort by the CCP?
It’s pure genocide. There’s nothing else. There’s no other word to perfectly describe the atrocity in East Turkestan. I’ve heard people say it’s The Uyghurs are the owners of the land, and the main purpose of China is to expand [its power] throughout central asia.
Q: When you read these reports, see the satellite images of the camps, and hear China say it’s not genocide its counter terrorism efforts. What goes through your mind?
It’s very heartbreaking when I read reports from media outlets and sometimes I couldn’t really believe why. I mean they are just innocent people. They have done nothing wrong, especially my father and my uncles and cousins. They had a perfect family, a perfect life, but just in one night for no reason they disappeared and [the Chinese government] destroyed our family.
Q: Several Western leaders have come out and condemned the Uyghur genocide. What do you think of this when you see these leaders act only now?
It’s been four years, gonna be five soon. But still, they haven’t stopped detaining people. The United States is still making business with China. Nobody actually really speaks up strongly. They just say they condemn but under the table they still do business. It’s very shallow.
Q: Do you feel strong ties to your community here, or do you feel isolated at times?
Yes. The restaurant is a good way to gather all the Uyghur people in Los Angeles. Because LA is so big and we don’t have a specific neighborhood or community here, so a lot of Uyghurs come to the restaurant. We also hold a lot of activities and events. Even living in LA I’m living like in East Turkestan because I’m eating the Uyghur food every day, I’m very lucky. I can’t have that life [back home] again so I feel a very strong tie here.
Q: Do you feel you’ve been able to transport a bit of your culture back home here?
Yeah of course. That keeps reminding me every day to have strong ties with my people.
Q: How would you define “Uyghur culture” and what makes up Uyghur food?
Uyghur people are like Turkic people, very like the oldest, original Turkic people in Central Asia. East Turkestan is a transportation hub connecting East and West. So it’s a very important location during the Silk road in ancient times. In our culture, and our food culture, we have so much influence from India, Persia, Turkey, and also China. It’s like a combination. Some people can taste all types of cultures here even some that have no idea of Uyghur food they tell me “how do you invent this?” and I’m not inventing this is how it is. We have a variety of dishes.
Q: When Uyghur people visit here do they feel at home?
Yes cause it’s the only place they can have some food they cannot make at home. The art also reminds them of home.
Q: Has the Uyghur community felt they’ve been able to make Los Angeles their home away from home?
We have the LA Uyghur Community , like a non-profit organization, and we do a lot of events and gatherings especially during festivals. We also do a lot of political campaigns like lobbying at the city hall and even the department of state in California. We also do a lot of protests in LA, we just did one yesterday in front of the Chinese consulate.
Q: You’re very outspoken about your community here.
Yes because the Uyghur people have the most horrible life back in China. This is like the second time after the Jewish holocaust in the 40s. They promised “never again” but yet this is still happening and this is the 21st century. So I have to speak up and it’s not just for speaking up it’s because I’m a normal person, a human being, I have to, it’s my moral duty.
Q: Do you ever feel scared to be so outspoken?
No. I got many threat calls [before], but now I don’t really get scared. Three years ago, I was like a normal citizen in China and still I am a state enemy. I don’t know the fear anymore.
Q: What do you miss most about home?
I miss my family, my friends, my relatives, my cousins who grew up with me. I miss them a lot. Life is totally different now.
Q: What are some challenges to preserving Uyghur culture?
Uyghurs are very few in LA, like a few thousand. We don’t have a close community to live together and we don’t really have schools or cultural centers and I think that’s the main issue to preserve the culture for the next generation.
Q: What has Los Angeles come to mean for you?
It’s like a second life. A totally different experience than when I was in China. There’s a clear atmosphere, clear sky, nice people, and there’s no harassment from the government or other people because of race, or ethnicity, or your religion and everyone is really nice and welcoming and it’s a very international city. It’s like heaven for me. I like it here
Q: Do you think you’ll stay here?
Yeah of course, forever I think.
Q: Do you have hope for the future for your people?
Yeah, I always have hope because the people are slowly realizing the genocide on Uyghurs and I hope more communities will help because if they ignore it will come to them for sure because China is a totalitarian dictatorship. Like Nazi Germany. I used to have hope for them too but now I don’t anymore. It’s very cold blooded and very cruel. I don’t believe the dictatorship can stay very long. I think they will be destroyed internally. I don’t think they will stand very long.
Q: What would you want to say to college students who read this interview and maybe don’t know much about the Uyghur story but want to spread the word now?
I wish college students, especially Political Science majors, should not only be reading the major media but also go on Youtube and twitter to find these stories and raise awareness online. Make the voice stronger because it’s not enough at all.