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China is riding a tidal wave of domestic consumption. More products means more advertising, and that means more models. Few are busier these days than those from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. NPR's Rob Schmitz explains why.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Speaking to a foreign journalist is usually a stressful endeavor for a Uighur in China. Uighurs belong to a Muslim ethnic minority. They 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 Uighurs possess that the rest of China is attracted to - their looks.
XAHRIYAR ABDUKERIMABLIZ: (Through interpreter) Not to brag, but we are very good-looking.
SCHMITZ: Nineteen-year-old Xahriyar Abdukerimabliz is a model from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and he insists he's not bragging.
XAHRIYAR: (Through interpreter) Our facial features are naturally attractive. We've got great eyebrows, big, beautiful eyes and double eyelids that weren't created by a surgeon.
SCHMITZ: So that double eyelid thing - more and more Chinese are undergoing surgery to create a crease in their upper eyelids that half of all East Asians are born without. They do that to look more Western. Abdukerimabliz has naturally-creased eyelids, as well as striking eyebrows, a long nose and expressive eyes that look either Asian or European depending on his mood or pose. Max Liu, CEO of the Beijing-based modeling agency Fun Models, says China's demand for this look has its roots in the birth of consumerism in China back in the '90s.
MAX LIU: (Through interpreter) There were fewer local brands in China back then. All the famous brands were international, and they all used Caucasian models. As China developed, local brands now want local image but not too local, so they've turned to models who have half-Asian, half-European looks for their brand identity.
SCHMITZ: Plus, says Liu, Uighur models are Chinese, and they speak the language, making it a cinch for agencies to work with them. That's why Liu says he's seen a steady increase of Uighur models in China in recent years.
LIU: (Through interpreter) With their looks, they can easily flow through cultures. 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.
PARWENA DULKUN: (Foreign language spoken).
SCHMITZ: At a teahouse in Urumqi, Uighur model Parwena Dulkun shows me a video of her dancing to a local song on "Walk Of Fame," a talent show on CCTV, China's largest broadcaster. Later, she shows me another video of her in a nationwide beauty pageant. She's busy. Her shape-shifting appearance is so in-demand that she's taken to turning down some advertisers.
PARWENA: (Through interpreter) I was in the states recently, and then after that, I went to Europe. I was in Italy, France and Switzerland, and then I had a job in Hong Kong.
SCHMITZ: And wherever she goes, she gets the same response.
PARWENA: (Through interpreter) In France, people spoke to me in French, thinking I was French. In Italy, they spoke Italian to me.
SCHMITZ: What's most surprising is the only country where she isn't confused for a local is in her home country.
PARWENA: (Through interpreter) In many Chinese cities, people think I'm a foreigner.
SCHMITZ: She uses these moments to educate her countrymen.
PARWENA: (Through interpreter) They try to speak English to me, and I answer in Mandarin. Cab drivers always turn around and ask me what country I'm from.
SCHMITZ: She says she smiles proudly and concludes her lesson by announcing, I'm Chinese. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Urumqi.
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