The life and times of the first Uygur flight attendant
During her 32-year career as a flight attendant, Maria Wupur flashed the standard “six-tooth” smile to passengers more times than she can remember.
In 1979, Xinjiang Airlines Co chose the then-19-year-old as the first Uygur cabin crew member, three years after she served in the air force of People’s LiberationArmy.
“The selection procedure was very strict, the same as for the pilots, and I was the only candidate selected,” she said.
When Wupur, now 54, started work, wearing her military uniformshornof its badges, she never imagined it would be such a tough and long job.
Initially, she worked on propdriven planes, which didn’t have the range to fly outside the region, and were so slow that the flightfromUrumqito Kashgar took five to six hours.
The planeswereso small that only one attendantwasneeded, and Wuper did everything, including cleaning, changing the seat covers, and checking supplies.
“The planes jumped sharply in the airflow. I wasn’t physically sick, but the passengers always were, so I comforted them during the flight and cleaned the plane afterwards,” she said.
Her salarywasabout20yuan ($3.30) a month, and a ticket cost more than 100 yuan. “Aletter of introduction was required to buy a ticket, so traveling by plane was regarded as a sign of status,” she said.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Wuper and her peers received their formal uniforms — skyblue with tailored skirts for summer, and darkgreen for winter— designed by tailors in Beijing. In 1985, a newdesign, a tailored suit in orange, added a special charm.
The same decade saw the introduction of jets, which changed thewayMaria and her colleagues worked. They were often mistaken for expatswhen they began working on flights to other provinces because few people from other parts of China hadmet Uygurs before.
“The number of passengers rose, and so we wrote and practiced our broadcasts in Uygur and English,” She said, “The Uygur passengers were always pleasedwhenyougreetedthem in Uygur.”
In 1991, the Xinjiang branch of China Southern Airlines, which took over Xinjiang Airlines, operated the region’s first Boeing aircraft, and civil aviation began to develop rapidly in China’s northwest.
Five years later, the company introduced a Xinjiang-themed uniform featuring Uygur patterns, and scarves made from Atlas silk, a traditional material. “We could be recognized immediately, no matter what airport we arrived at,” Maria recalled. The company now employs more than 1,000 cabin crewfrom 14 ethnic groups.