Gendering a Tourist Economy
Ölgii, the capital city of Bayan-Ölgii Province, is a small city that one can stroll all over in just an afternoon. Since falconry’s title of cultural heritage was affirmed by UNESCO, the concept of heritage has been widely accepted by locals. Just as falconry became a vital connection to the Kazakh historical past, natural environment, and traditional culture across Eurasia, handicrafts have also allowed Kazakhs to maintain their identity and traditional knowledge as an ethnic minority in Mongolia, and have become an attribute of “authentic” Kazakhness. While Kazakh men take up the iconic image and profit from falconry as part of ethnic tourism and international spectacle, women have quietly become the backbone of a local informal economy, clearly represented by traditional handicraft production.
My conversations with Kazakh handicraft producers in Ölgii—all of whom are women—revealed how the techniques are never static but keep evolving in different historical contexts: for example, star-themed patterns became popular in socialist times under Soviet influence; some flower patterns were inspired by Chinese embroidery. Anna Portisch, an anthropologist who worked in Bayan-Ölgii, also notes that some styles are innovated using equipment from Russia, for example, veterinary syringes are used to create a fluffy style in the embroidery that became popular in the 1990s. Nowadays people are returning to more “traditional” oyu (Kz: ornament) patterns that symbolizes animal horns, grassland vegetation, and natural environment.
In several Ölgii handicraft souvenir shops, I noticed many items have fragments of aged looking embroideries, some with signatures of the women (in the Cyrillic Kazakh alphabet) who made them and the year when they were made (e.g. Кұлшын, 1975). Many handicraft producers told me that these fragments are recycled from old wall-hangings (Kz: tus kiiz) from various sums (villages) around rural Bayan-Ölgii. Tus kiiz are usually two meters long and one meter wide, hung by the bed. Tus kiiz are passed down as an heirloom or given as a gift at the couple’s wedding. Experienced eyes can recognize by design and color scheme for whom and for what occasions a tus kiiz was made and given as a gift.
In recent years, there is a growing market for antique embroideries for tourists, who value the “vintage” look and time-tested good quality, whereas rural Kazakhs prefer new embroideries because they are more bright-colored and considered to be prettier. Handicraft producers in Ölgii cut these antique tus kiiz into pieces and combine them with other fabrics to make smaller, more versatile, and portable tourist souvenirs. For example, laptop bags and Christmas socks for Western tourists, or camera lens bags for Japanese tourists are common sights. Entire tus kiiz are also up for sale in some shops for about 350,000 tugrik (about USD 150).
Some Kazakhs think the handicraft industry is a net good because it promotes Kazakh material culture to the world and keeps the tradition alive. It does, however, exact a high toll on women’s domestic labor. The fragmentalization of wall-hangings also symbolizes that the shift toward the capitalist tourist economy is an irreversible one. Kundiz is a wool handicraft artisan who runs a souvenir shop near the Ölgii museum and at the same time she also studies the motifs in tus kiiz for her doctoral project at the National University of Mongolia. Seeing the above phenomenon as a form of cultural commodification, Kundiz purchased fifty tus kiiz from rural Ölgii and kept them intact. She tagged each piece with its metadata (date, place of origin, and names of the women who made it), and hopes to one day make UNESCO recognize tus kiiz as cultural heritage. “Tourists would buy them for money, but they don’t know the meanings. Fine, I will buy them too. I am actually more interested in keeping them for exhibition and research than making money.” In her shop, she sells her own works, all made from wool or other mixed materials, as well as local artisan women’s consigned products.
Staying Afloat in Capitalism and Family Care Work
Marjan runs a small shop that was rebuilt from an old shipping container next to the Ölgii city museum. She described her trajectory, going from a museum janitor to a small shop owner since the development of tourism in Ölgii. During the busy season when the eagle-hunting festival takes place, she goes to set up stalls and takes on the multiple roles of designer, producer, promoter, and cultural broker of her products. Years gone by, she has become quite conversant in multiple foreign languages. Several months ago, she had to take a break from operating her shop full time due to a kidney surgery. A little girl helped her in her shop, and later Marjan told me that was her younger sister’s daughter. Making these products over time wears out women’s eyes, but nonetheless the women retain various family obligations. Marjan supported her children and relatives’ children at school, and tends to her sick father in the hospital.
Kazakh women in Ölgii would suddenly become shy when asked to talk about themselves and their work, exclaiming, “What’s there to talk about?!” This shyness is partly because their conception of “self” is deeply ingrained in family and kinship relations. On the other hand, it is partly because traditionally speaking, handicraft production is integrated into everyday household activities and economies and is not considered a type of wage-earning work, as Anna Portisch points out. In the sharp turn toward a globalized economy in early 1990s Mongolia, women’s bodies became increasingly subjected to the double burden of family care work and wage labor.
The handicraft business is nevertheless an important means for women to make both ends meet. Since there are very limited state and institutional jobs many women work at home, saving the overhead of running an outside shop. They take orders from shop owners, who add 30-35% profit for each consignment. The prices range from 5,000-30,000 Tugrik (2-12 USD). Doctoral student Byeibitgul Khaumyen at Texas A&M University told me how she also used to make traditional handicrafts and sell them at the markets to pay for her tuition at Khovd University in Mongolia. She also built some connections to sell them at the embassies and international organizations. “My mother always wanted to teach me to be an ideal Kazakh woman: hardworking and devoted. She taught me how to make handicrafts. But my father was determined to educate all his children.”
In many post-socialist contexts, the value of cultural resources becomes structured by market logic. Sometimes dictated by the state, cultural heritage is promoted to boost national identity, economy, and global soft power. For Kazakhs in Bayan-Ölgii, the development of mechanized production of handicrafts is spearheaded by private companies in a national and global market. Such severe competition and mass market needs brought a sense of anxiety to people who feared the practice of handcrafting would become obsolete and eventually disappear altogether. At a souvenir shop, a middle-aged handicraft artisan boasted with her friend that they are the last generation, claiming younger generations are less interested in learning the traditional handmade techniques.
The affective value of nostalgia is not only consumed by foreign tourists but also Kazakh people themselves. They embody intergenerational memories of migration and are often reminded that their presence in Mongolia is as an ethnic minority group. The Kazakhs in Mongolia migrated through passes in the Altay mountain from Xinjiang as early as the 1860s, followed by another large exodus in the 1930s to the 1940s during the oppressive reign of the warlord Sheng Shicai in Xinjiang. In 1991, a huge number of Kazakhs emigrated to the newly independent Kazakhstan, however, in 1994 there was a minor remigration back to Mongolia. A very well-known handicraft business branded their company “nomadic memory” in English, asyl mura in Kazakh meaning “precious heritage,” while another local brand otau means “married son’s yurt.” They sell not only souvenirs to foreign tourists, but also luxurious home decoration items for well-off Kazakh families everywhere in the world, who can make their orders easily via Facebook. Most of the asyl mura products are made in family assembly workshops in Ölgii and Nalaikh, a predominantly Kazakh populated mining town near Ulaanbaatar.
Another rebranding comes from Christian missionary enterprises that take a capitalist philanthropic as well as folkloric repackaging strategy. “Mary & Martha,” a well-known brand in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, have been working with low-income handicraft artisans all over Mongolia for many years to help them better support their households, which in some cases the only income comes from handicrafts. In their shop, customers are provided with detailed information about the “Mary & Martha” supply chain, which advertises a fair and ethical atmosphere. When the customers shop for souvenirs, they are buying products that are presented as being made in an intimate and harmonious relationship between the group and the artisans. The group also supplies the artisans with eco-friendly dyes and claims that the materials used, such as yak down and fur, are also regularly exported to Europe for high-end fine clothing and yarn. “Homemade” and “handmade” become attractive and affective attributes of the products which also harbor a certain uniqueness and singularity. Under this mechanism, household space also becomes a place for shaping women’s modern subjectivities and the consciousness for productivity, producing exotic values in transnational capital flows. In a separate room in the shop, there is an entire tus kiiz section stacked and archived, organized by different time periods of production such as 1960s, 70s, 90s, or post 2000, as well as the ones that do not have a date embroidered on them. Naturally, with such repackaging and labeling, the prices of handicrafts on the shelves at “Mary & Martha” are doubled and even tripled compared to the prices in Ölgii.
Material Culture or Intimate Labor?
Among Kazakhs in Xinjiang, northwestern China, where I conducted my doctoral research, nostalgic remembering and descriptions of a piece of material culture in the past often led to a discussion of filiality and traditional knowledge. A Kazakh elder in Xinjiang once showed me how as a young bride she was tested by her parents-in-law when they watched her make felt thread. In order to make me understand, she found a piece of wool and rubbed it between her fingers. It takes great patience and skill to make a solid thread from rough wool. This makes it a great test for an ideal daughter-in-law to complete, because it is such a basic task for handicraft work. Making tus kiiz is just one of ordinary Kazakh women’s numerous household duties. The techniques to make these items used to be, and sometimes still are, passed down from mother to daughter along with teachings about family and cultural values (Kz: ata-anamizding tarbyesi). As Julie Cruikshank (1992) points out, objects and words both have ongoing stories: their meaning cannot be fully captured in a synchronic analysis. Tus kiiz is a medium for such traditional knowledge transmission as well as identity formation.
Material culture speaks to embodied memories around interpersonal relations and people’s connections to land and the materials around them. It marks the networks of communal intimacy and reciprocity through gifting and bartering in the mobile pastoral economy, and embodies metaphors of desire and subjectivities within such networks (Lynch 2007; Rethmann 2000). In Kazakh language, kong’il, meaning one’s heart or mind, is referred to as something one does for others voluntarily through intimate labor. For example, making a gift for a neighbor’s daughter’s dowry (Kz: jasaw), or a mother making something for her son’s wedding. I was also told that it was common for tus kiiz to have embroidered notes for the newly-weds such as “Wish you happiness” or “xxx and xxx forever” and so on. Middle-aged or elderly handicraft artisans told me, “We didn’t use to sell these. Even when there was only a pot of tea we would share it. Things started to change after 1991.”
This echoed the elders’ remembering among Xinjiang Kazakhs who spoke of the contrasts before and after Reform and Opening Up, the economic liberalization policies initiated in the 1980s in China. An elder skilled in making handicrafts complained about how sheep’s wool today is not as good as it used to be, blaming changes in animal husbandry practices. Since brown sheep produce more wool and meat, they replaced white sheep in the herd for the sake of productivity. However, brown sheep wool is harder to dye into different colors, so a felt rug made from it is not as beautiful as one made from white sheep’s wool. She also pointed out the loss of traditional knowledge involved in the industrialization and commodification of Kazakh handicrafts in recent years. “Now it’s all computerized, the young don’t know how to make it by hand. The patterns are pre-designed. But I know the patterns in my head, they are all in my memory,” she said.
Her narratives epitomize what anthropologist Tim Ingold (2012) has termed an “ecology of materials,” as he urges us to move our focus from the “objectness” of things to the material flows and formative processes wherein they come into being. The oral histories of the women producing handicrafts present a history of decollectivization as a turning point in their material, social, and affective worlds. When materials were scarce, handicraft women in Ölgii recycled scraps from old clothes such as zippers and buttons, and even skills and techniques were circulated among friends. Their knowledge of the materials such as wool, dye, and thread as well as their understanding of the styles grew out of a lifetime of close engagement and practice. Even though decades-old tus kiiz are recycled and revamped into vintage bags, they still tell vivid histories about what these artworks were for, for whom they are made now, and how their meanings have changed.
Cruikshank, Julie. (1992). “Oral Tradition and Material Culture: Multiplying Meanings of ‘Words’ and ‘Things’.” Anthropology Today 8.3: 5-9.
Ingold, Tim. (2012). “Toward an Ecology of Materials” in Annual Review of Anthrpology. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145920
Lynch, Kathleen. (2007). “Love Labour as a Distinct and Non-Commodifiable Form of Care Labour.” Sociological Review 55 (3): 550-570.
Portisch, Anna. (2010). “The Craft of Skilful Learning: Kazakh Women’s Everyday Craft Practices in Western Mongolia.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 16, Making knowledge: S62-S79.
Rethmann, Petra. (2000). “Skins of Desire: Poetry and Identity in Koriak Women’s Gift Exchange.” American Ethnologist 27 (1): 52-71.