A Bahar Chay (Spring Tea) in Gheyret Suburb, Almaty, 2019

by Rachel Harris

Alongside the meshrep revival in Kazakhstan, a less well-known women’s chay revival has flourished. It has focused on the same goals of education, cultural revival, social cohesion and mobilisation, and often works in tandem with men’s initiatives at local level. Like meshrep, chay gatherings (essentially tea parties) assume complex ritual and social meanings in contemporary Uyghur society, and they overlap with a range of other non-life-cycle gatherings.

Today, playing chay is a common social activity; almost every Uyghur woman in Kazakhstan takes part in a chay, probably two or three. Women play chay with their neighbours or relatives, with their classmates, or women from their hometown. Chay gatherings are not exclusively associated with women. In contemporary Almaty, for example, mixed gender groups of co-workers or school friends may attend regular chay. But women-only chay are notable for the work they do in providing a forum for women’s networking and socialising; for managing the affairs of the local community; for mutual assistance; for sustaining Uyghur language and customs; and as a form of community credit. 

According to our interviewees, in 20th century Kazakhstan women’s chay served as important spaces for transmitting culture and sharing knowledge and skills: learning how to make classic Uyghur dishes, dress making or embroidery. Expressive culture – music, songs, poetry or joking – also played a part in chay gatherings. There might also be a religious element to chay, especially for older women. Some chay took the form of games surrounding mutual hospitality – Qarliq Chay (snow tea) or Towuq Chay, a game with a sheep’s knuckle bone – but the greater significance of chay was in the regular role they play in the day-to-day organisation of communal life. 

Uyghur women engaged in different kinds of chay throughout their lives, using them as spaces to plan and organise the different challenges facing their particular age cohorts. Young unmarried women may form a chay to discuss wedding etiquette. Young mothers met to discuss the rules of how to manage a household. More mature women held match-making tea (Qudilar Chay) to discuss marrying off their children, and consultation chay (Meslihet Chay) to discuss how to organise celebrations.

Women’s chay in contemporary Kazakhstan differ from the chay played by their mothers and grandmothers in the Soviet period in several ways. They respond directly to emerging social problems and rapidly changing lifestyles, and to a developing sense of social responsibility and ethnic identity amongst Kazakhstani Uyghurs. In Almaty, chay are also used to strengthen the new migrant Uyghur communities which grew in the 1990s as thousands of Uyghurs fled the impoverished rural regions to seek new lives in Almaty’s suburbs, requiring the established communities to find ways to incorporate this diverse group of newcomers into the neighbourhood. Chay provide an important tool for their incorporation and socialisation.

On 15 August 2019, 23 senior Uyghur women belonging to Gheyret neighbourhood chay met in Parvaz Café to perform a specially curated “Bahar (Spring) Chay” for our project cameras. Gheyret is a “new” suburban Almaty neighbourhood, created some twenty years ago as the city expanded in response to the post-Soviet wave of migrants, and the café lay on a wide arterial road crowded with traffic. For this special occasion the chay had invited Bahar Ensemble, an active Almaty-based amateur Uyghur women’s music ensemble to join them. The ensemble was led by Helime, a professional folk musician who trained in Tashkent and worked in the state-supported Arzu ensemble in the Uyghur region until her retirement. This chay gathering was rooted in regular, community-based association; it practised the rotational credit “kassa” style chay, and it combined this with “aktivist” support for Uyghur language and institutions, and a performative engagement with Uyghur customs and culture. As chay leader Roshengül Ekhetova remarked:

The most important thing about our chay is to make sure that the youngsters don’t forget their customs. We’re working to save our culture, and our art. We help each other. Our neighbourhood has earned a lot of praise from other people; we’re pretty united. We’re working hard to bring people together.

Centred around the lavish table and a multi-course meal, the chay included a series of formal speeches from the chay leader Asiyem, from Helime, and from the recipient of the “kassa” for that month. Asiyem reported on neighbourhood births, marriages and deaths, on their work distributing Uyghur-language publications, and fund-raising for Uyghur villagers in the Yerkent region hit by the recent flooding. After a short prayer, the chay turned to the task of transmitting Uyghur customs, and a group of older women acted out a “Kelin (Bride’s) Chay” employing a waitress to take the part of the bride. 

As she poured tea for each woman, they rubbed their hands on her stomach to wish her fertility. The oldest woman, Aygül, recited a section from the Quran and lectured the bride on the importance (in that order) of hospitality, of lying with her husband, and getting up for morning prayers. Then they played a teasing game with bread. Each woman in turn offered bread to the bride, then snatched it back: first a whole round of bread, then a single piece, and finally two pieces – symbolising marital harmony – which she was allowed to keep. 

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The chay then turned to music-making, beginning with informal solo singing around the table. The repertoire ranged from lullabies and folk songs to excerpts from popular 20th century Uyghur Operas featuring the tragic Uyghur heroines Ghunchem and Nuzugum. Then Bahar Ensemble gathered in more formal presentational style, singers ranged at the back, instrumentalists seated in front, to perform a suite of dance songs. As is customary at weddings and other celebrations, the older women danced first, then the younger ones, and dancers were decorated with scarves in appreciation of their efforts. The women laughed and enjoyed themselves, presenting themselves with style for the dancing, and the gathering “heated up” (qizip ketti). 

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