On the Front Lines of Taiwan's History in Kinmen

On the Front Lines of Taiwan's History in Kinmen

What you need to know

Once the focal point of hostilities between China and Taiwan, the Kinmen archipelago has evolved into a fascinating tourist destination.

By Matt Fulco

Wandering Cihu Lake’s secluded beach on the largest of the offshore islands of Kinmen, I am about as close to the Chinese mainland as one can be in Taiwan’s territory. I came to the beach hoping to catch a glimpse of the skyline of Xiamen, the bustling Fujian Province city that lies just 1.2 kilometers across the water. A strong swimmer can make it from one side to the other in about 90 minutes.

Instead, I witness a dramatic sunset, as the sun emerges briefly from the mist enveloping the horizon and flashes golden on the water’s surface. Placid waves gently break on shore. Except for me and my guide from the Kinmen Tourism Bureau, the beach is deserted.

Yet in the tranquil beauty of this beach, there is a hint of the macabre. Slanted rows of spikes rooted on cement bases line the shore. During the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China (ROC) government installed the obstacles to prevent shore landings by Chinese Communist troops.

For the nearly 30 years (1949-1978) that spanned the height of the Cold War, Kinmen (sometimes spelled Jinmen and still best-known abroad by the name Quemoy) was on the front line of hostilities between the two competing Chinas. The ROC heavily fortified the archipelago against bombardment and invasion, while stationing 100,000 troops here.

It was here at the Battle of Guningtou in October 1949 that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops beat back a fierce offensive by the Communists, halting the advance of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) towards Taiwan. Had the archipelago fallen to the Communists, “that would have been the end of the Republic of China,” says a worker at Kinmen’s Guningtou Battle Museum. “Taiwan as we know it today would not exist.”

Indeed, as long as the Nationalists held Kinmen, they could prevent the Communists from using the port of Xiamen in an attack on Taiwan. In a December post, Edward Chen of the Warfare History Net- work notes that Kinmen was “the gateway to Xiamen Bay and ultimately to Taiwan itself.”

Mao Zedong and his military commanders had assumed that they would be able to win an easy victory at Kinmen against a demoralized and haggard Nationalist army – which had already been effectively driven off the Chinese mainland. As a result, they misjudged tidal conditions during a hasty amphibious landing on Kin- men’s largest island, exposing troops to intense Nationalist fire. The Nationalists’ elite 1st Tank Battalion, which included veterans of World War II’s 1944-45 Burma Campaign, was particularly effective in pummeling enemy positions.

The Chinese Communists learned from their mistakes at the Battle of Guningtou and took a more disciplined approach to subsequent amphibious campaigns. They successfully captured Hainan Island and the Zhoushan Islands archipelago (part of Zhejiang Province) in 1950, as well as the Nationalists’ remaining Zhejiang island outposts in the mid-1950s. However, the ultimate failure of the Communists to capture Kinmen (and the Matsu islands to the north) “ruled out any invasion attempt against Taiwan proper,” Chen observes.

Conflict flared up once again during the second Taiwan Strait Crisis that began in August 1958 as the PLA bombarded Kin- men with 500,000 artillery shells over 44 days. Shelling continued intermittently until December 1978, when the United States and the PRC established diplomatic relations.

Kinmen’s August 23 Artillery Battle Museum somberly chronicles the history of the bombardment. A total of 587 members of the ROC Air Force lost their lives during the 44-day onslaught. Over the ensuing 20 years, an increasing number of facilities were moved underground, including a guest hotel and hospital. Massive under- ground tunnels for sealift supply were constructed. With a certain degree of under- statement, a plaque in the museum points out that “the shelling had a profound effect on the people of Kinmen.”

Seaside tunnels were dug in Kinmen for concealing naval craft during hostilities with China. Photo: Matthew Fulco

The bombardment did have one positive legacy, in that an industrious family of craftsmen has used the shells to make knives. The tradition actually dates to 1937, when a steel shortage caused by the Sino-Japanese War prompted Xiamen immigrant Wu Tsong-shan to set up the Chin Ho Li Steel Knife Factory in Kinmen to forge knives out of Japanese mortars.

Wu Tsong-shan’s descendants have continued the family tradition using PLA shells while expanding the scale of the family workshop. Running the business today is third-generation “Maestro” Wu Tseng-dong. When he first entered the knife-making trade in the early 1970s, production was limited. But with 100,000 troops stationed on Kinmen, Wu had a large captive market. Soldiers waxed lyrical about the finely crafted knives to their families and friends when they returned to Taiwan, and the Chin Ho factory’s reputation blossomed.

Today Maestro Wu has five outlets in Kinmen and a customer base of profession- al chefs in both Taiwan and overseas. Some knives are made to order. “We’re gradually learning more about customer needs and developing our custom-made knife business,” he told Taiwan Business TOPICS in an interview. The factory also sells farming tools and hunting knives.

Demonstrating his skills to visitors – largely from China – Wu resembles a wizard as he transforms a faded artillery shell into a pristine, razor-sharp butcher’s knife. He first cuts up the shell with a blowtorch, then smelts, hammers, forges, grinds, and polishes the blade. Finally, he attaches a wooden handle. Still, the process is incomplete. For the knife to work properly, the blade requires additional refinement, he explains.

Turning to me, and within earshot of several of the Chinese visitors, Wu motions with his hand to the piles of artillery shells that fill the factory workshop. “These are gifts from Mao Zedong,” he says.

A world away from Taiwan

It would be impossible for Kinmen to forget how it suffered in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. Yet with improved cross-Strait relations today, visitors from China are important to its economy. And given Kinmen’s proximity to Xiamen, mainlanders are more likely to visit than Taiwanese.

“They come because it’s near, and because it’s familiar, yet different,” says Chen Mei-Ling, director of the Kinmen County Government Tourism Bureau. She notes the islands’ distinct blend of military history, eclectic architecture, and pastoral landscapes. Twenty-five percent of Kin- men’s land is made up of national parks.

Mainland tourists flock to Kinmen’s clusters of traditional Fujianese homes to take selfies in front of the historic architecture and sip on bubble tea in cafes that have sprung up in the more touristy of the villages. There are about 15,000 of these houses in Kinmen, of which the Council of Cultural Affairs lists 115 as historic monuments. Many date to the late Qing dynasty.

Cheng Chen-chuan, a local taxi driver and Kinmen native, lauds Chinese visitors’ contribution to the local economy. “Of course Kinmen welcomes mainland tourists,” he says. “Actually, Taiwan is the only place in the world right now that’s unwelcoming to them.”

“Maestro” Wu Tseng-dong forges highly crafted knives from PLA shells. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Cheng faults the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the year-long chill in cross-Strait relations that has resulted in fewer Chinese visitors. “The DPP won’t accept the 1992 Consensus,” he says, refer- ring to the tacit understanding between the Chinese Nationalist Party and Chinese Communist Party that Taiwan and the Chinese mainland are both part of “One China,” while leaving the definition of that “One China” ambiguous.

“Maybe for some people in Taiwan, people who favor Taiwan independence, the 1992 Consensus is a problem,” Cheng observes. But as far as he is concerned, “I am Fujianese, not Taiwanese, and we’re all Chinese.”

Compared to Taiwan, “Kinmen is much closer culturally to China, and especially Fujian,” notes Weng Ming-chi, Secretary General of the Fujian Provincial Government of the Republic of China, which covers both Kinmen and Matsu. Besides the obvious proximity, Kinmen has maintained its southern Min (Fujianese) culture for centuries virtually uninterrupted, he explains.

“Kinmen was almost untouched by Japanese colonization (1895-1945), which had a major effect on Taiwan’s development,” Weng observes. The Japanese occupied Kinmen only during the 1937-1945 Sino- Japanese War, and never set out to formally colonize it as they did Taiwan and Penghu.

Further, Kinmen differs from Taiwan in its consistently close ties with the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT). Indeed, Kinmen is one of the few locations in ROC territory that the DPP has never controlled. The reason can be traced to the late 1940s, when some Taiwanese began to view the KMT as unwelcome occupiers.

That view never took hold in Kinmen, Weng notes. During the Cold War, “the military was here on the front lines protecting people from the enemy – Communist China,” he says. Since soldiers were numerous, “they made important contributions to the local economy too. Their presence created many business opportunities.”

Critically, Kinmen did not experience the 2-28 Incident, an uprising against Nationalist rule in Taiwan that began on February 28, 1947. Government troops brutally suppressed the rebellion; the death toll is generally estimated at 18,000- 28,000. To this day, opponents of the KMT in Taiwan trace their antipathy toward the party to the 2-28 Incident and the subsequent White Terror.

With such voices muted on Kinmen, the islands can sometimes feel like a time warp. KMT iconography from the Martial Law era (1947-1987 in Taiwan and lasting until 1992 in Kinmen) remains on prominent display. In one of the main squares of Jincheng, the downtown of Kinmen’s main island, a large statue of a smiling Chiang Kai-shek presides over the scene. “People here are just used to it. I’ve never heard anyone talk of removing the statue,” says Cheng.

In contrast, many of those statues in Taiwan have long since been relegated to a park in Taoyuan County near Chiang’s tomb. Those remaining on display else- where are at constant risk of vandalism. In March, police prevented a group of students from sawing up a Chiang statue at Fu Jen Catholic University. In April, members of a pro-independence group called the Tai- wan Nation Founding Engineering Team decapitated a statue of the Generalissimo in Yangmingshan National Park.

A cross-Strait bridge

Even as Taiwan and China grow further apart, Kinmen residents say their geographic and cultural proximity to their giant neighbor necessitates a close relationship with the PRC. “We have foreign tourists, but in nowhere near the numbers we do mainlanders,” says taxi driver Chen Chinhai. “I have no complaints about them [Chinese tourists]. The customers I have are well-mannered independent travelers.”

Chen Shu-chen, owner of the Shangheryuan bed and breakfast, has noticed a drop in Chinese guests this year, but she says that the situation could change during the high season of summer. “Almost everyone in Kinmen is happy when Chinese tourists spend money here,” she says. “It’s good for hotels and B&Bs, retailers, restaurants, taxi drivers.”

Kinmen’s fortified beaches now look serene in the sunset. Photo: Matthew Fulco

The Kinmen Tourism Bureau’s Chen notes that while Chinese visitors on group tours have decreased, independent travelers are on the rise. With close links between Xiamen and Kinmen, and expected further simplification of the visa process for Chinese visitors, there is room for the independent traveler market to grow, she says.

In a positive sign for cross-Strait relations, cultural exchanges between Kinmen and the PRC remain vibrant. During my trip in May, hundreds of Chinese from Xiamen visited for a two-day Taoist pilgrimage held jointly by temples in Xiamen and Kin- men. The pilgrimage, the culmination of a month-long religious festival, was held to celebrate the birthday of the Taoist guardian of cities. One Chinese visitor I spoke to at the festival about my years living in the PRC surprised me by commenting: “This place is different; it’s the Republic of China.” I wasn’t sure if he was educating me or trying to be politically correct.

Given Kinmen’s close ties with China, the Taiwan government has called for it to serve as a test bed for cross-Strait exchanges. In December, during a visit to the islands, Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Tien Hung-mao said Taiwan will develop Kinmen into a “model spot” and “window” for peaceful cross-Strait exchanges.

“The Kinmen government is seen as fairly open to mainland China,” says Claire Ma, section manager of public affairs at Ever Rich, which operates a hotel and large duty-free store in Kinmen. While cross- Strait relations have cooled in the past year, Ever Rich has hosted an increasing number of cross-Strait events at its hotel.

Chinese tourists comprise about half of all guests at the hotel, and contribute heavily to weekend stays, Ma says. Overall, Chinese visitors account for a third of all visitors to Kinmen, according to the Tourism Bureau.

Should Chinese guest numbers ever fall steeply, Ma says she doubts that Taiwan visitors could take up the slack. “Kinmen is quiet and historical,” she says. “It certainly appeals to some Taiwanese, but not so much to the youth. They would prefer somewhere with beaches where they can swim or do water sports like Penghu.”

One project with the potential to literally bind Kinmen and the PRC closer together is the long-stalled Kinmen-Xiamen bridge. First proposed 13 years ago, the Jindeng bridge project would connect Kinmen’s Wulongshan and Fujian Province’s Dadeng Island. Proponents of the project say the bridge would make it possible to drive in less than 30 minutes from Kinmen to the island where the center of Xiamen is located.

There is strong support in Kinmen for the project. Local officials say the bridge would turn Kinmen into a Xiamen suburb, giving Kinmen residents more convenient links to the big city. Since direct ferry service opened in 2001, an increasing number of Kinmen youths have pursued their university studies in Xiamen, and in many cases their parents have purchased homes for them in Xiamen.

In a 2009 report in the English-language Taipei Times, then Kinmen County Commissioner Lee Chu-feng touted the benefits the bridge would bring to Kin- men. “The building of the Jindeng Bridge will not only help hone Taiwan’s bridge- building technologies, it will also help boost development in Kinmen itself,” he was quoted as saying. “The Jindeng Bridge will facilitate the building of water pipes and electricity transmission cables between Kinmen and Xiamen, allowing Kinmen to import fresh water and electricity from China.”

Yet the project has failed to garner much support from the Taiwan government. KMT legislators have expressed concerns that the bridge’s construction would put local taxpayer money in the hands of the Xiamen government. Unsurprisingly, the DPP opposes the idea outright, warning that it would serve to promote unification with China.

On the issue of unification, in fact, Kinmen people appear for once to be on the same page as most residents of Taiwan. “I don’t see any reason for unification,” says taxi driver Chen Chen-Chuan. “We’re doing fine with the status quo. Let’s keep it that way.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

(Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)