These are dangerous times to be a Tibetan folk singer.
Drolmakyi learned that when she opened the only place to listen to live music in this dusty little town perched high on the Tibetan plateau.
The 31-year-old single mother, a singer, a member of the local government council and a well-known figure around town, had grown up tending yak in the mountains and hadn’t forgotten her nomadic roots. At the nightclub, she and her friends would put on swirling robes and coral beads as fat as grapes and belt out ballads aching with nostalgia for the old Tibetan ways.
“She sang from the heart,” said her mother, Caito, who insists that Drolmakyi’s music wasn’t political. “My daughter always said we must keep Tibetan culture and language. That’s all.”
On March 30, Chinese authorities arrested Drolmakyi as she was hanging laundry from the balcony of her apartment. She didn’t even get to say goodbye to her three children, ages 9 to 13, who were playing outside. They came back and found their mother gone.
At least six other Tibetan cultural figures were arrested in recent months under similar circumstances with no warning or formal charges. Friends and family say they eventually secured their releases by paying large fees and promising to keep quiet.
What made the arrests especially odd was that Dawu, which lies in the Golog prefecture, about 150 miles outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, saw none of the protests against Chinese rule that swept through other ethnic Tibetan areas beginning in mid-March. The cultural figures who were arrested had no direct involvement in protests.
The Golog prefecture is an enclave of 120,000 ethnic Tibetans and fewer than 10,000 ethnic Chinese in China’s Qinghai province. Tibetans call this region Amdo and consider it part of their historic homeland. The remote location, at least 12 hours up a partially unpaved road from the nearest train station, has kept Chinese influence to a minimum.
Until March, Golog’s Tibetans enjoyed relative freedom. Behind the cash register at most restaurants hung portraits of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whose image is banned in many other parts of China. Shops openly sold posters and lockets with the Dalai Lama’s photo, even copies of his speeches.
Tibetan folk music was enjoying a revival, particularly a relatively recent style that started in Amdo in the 1980s, known as dunglen. The songs are slow, sad, hypnotic and invariably about lost love or some tragedy. The exile of the Dalai Lama and the loss of Tibetan identity under Chinese communist rule were perfect subjects for the style of music.
“More and more in recent years, people were singing about the Dalai Lama. I guess because the Tibetans are just not happy together with the Chinese,” said a 25-year-old vendor who sells video and audio CDs at a kiosk at Dawu’s main market.
Donzhub, a ponytailed young man who occasionally played in Drolmakyi’s nightclub, a place painted with colorful murals of lotus blossoms and other Buddhist symbols, said, “We used to sing about things we couldn’t talk about.”
The nightclub opened in the fall. Drolmakyi was eager to provide some culture in a town where night life consisted of playing pool at the market. She also used the club as a training center for illiterate Tibetan women, teaching them to sing in order to gain financial independence.
Drolmakyi, who is separated from her husband, lived in the mountains until five years ago, when she bought an apartment in Dawu for her mother and children so the children could enroll in school. Drolmakyi had little formal education and taught herself to read and write.
It remains unclear what led to Drolmakyi’s arrest because the family was never informed of any charges.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing. They told us nothing,” her mother said in an interview in the family’s living room, dominated by a huge picture of Lhasa, the Tibetan region’s capital. “It is like she disappeared.”
The mother said she’d heard that Drolmakyi had sketched a Tibetan flag to use in one of her nightclub acts. Under Article 105 of China’s criminal code, people can be charged with “incitement to subversion of state power” for criticizing Chinese rule.
According to family and friends, Drolmakyi was permitted to return home in late May after nearly two months in custody. One friend said she believed that a condition of the release was that Drolmakyi cannot appear in public or discuss her arrest.
“She’s been basically told she has to shut up for a while,” said the friend, who asked not to be quoted by name.
Public security officials did not respond to repeated telephone calls and faxes seeking comment.
Tsering Shayka, a Tibetan historian based in Canada who knows many of those arrested, said the detainees were not subversives. “If anything, they were the people the Chinese could have worked with. . . . The Chinese are misreading the desire for autonomy and cultural identity as asserting independence.”
Others who were arrested about the same time as Drolmakyi include Jamyangkyi, a well-known singer and anchorwoman from Xining who had been a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Dabe, a comedian famous for his shoulder-length hair and beard, was held for about a month before being released in late April with a shaved head.
Palchenkyab, the head of a literacy project for nomads, and a teacher at one of his schools were arrested. Also arrested was Lhundrup, a musician who recorded a popular music video that refers obliquely to the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet to India. The sun and the moon have departed through the mountain pass. The person who gave hope is gone. He looks at the Tibetans and sees that this is the Tibetans’ fate.
The only news of the arrests to come out of China was in a blog written by Woeser, a Tibetan poet, who was under house arrest for a week in March and whose blog has been repeatedly attacked by hackers.
Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia, believes that Chinese authorities picked on local celebrities to intimidate other Tibetans. Most of those arrested were believed to have been released under conditions similar to those for Drolmakyi, meaning that they have been effectively silenced, he said.
“The Chinese have had a consistent focus on people who have ideas, people who think and who might inspire others to think about what it means to be Tibetan,” Barnett said.
Protests and the crackdown have continued despite the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province that has left 70,000 people dead. According to Tibetan exile groups, 80 nuns were arrested in late May in Ganzi, in Sichuan. Chinese state media announced Thursday that 16 Buddhist monks had been arrested and had confessed to planning bombings in Tibet.
In Dawu, it was easy to see examples of changed behavior after the arrests. The music shops lining the main market stopped displaying the videos and CDs of arrested singers. Shopkeepers no longer sold photos of the Dalai Lama. Even in homes, many Tibetans said, they have stashed away such photos. Some people were afraid to speak to the first foreign journalist to visit since the trouble began in March.
“You never know when the police will come,” said Cebu, a 50-year-old Tibetan herder.