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Spring Break – Kinmen Islands

By: Camey VanSant

By Sophia F

At the end of my second semester in Kaohsiung studying Chinese, I traveled with the rest of the NSLI-Y cohort to Kinmen, a forty-minute flight from Taiwan. You may have heard about it in the news in the last few months—in March, two Chinese fishermen died while being pursued by the Taiwanese coast guard. Our trip, which was originally slated to be five days, was pared down to three after our implementing organization expressed some discomfort, so we zipped up, down, and around the islands as fast as humanly possible.

Kinmen, or 金門 Jinmen, is a small group of islands about ten kilometers from China’s southern coast at Xiamen. Like Taiwan, the islands have seen their fair share of immigrants, colonizers, governments, and conflict; most recently in 1949, when Taiwanese Nationalist forces managed to fend off the People’s Liberation Army during the Battle of Kuningtou. While Kinmen is technically still governed by the ROC, its own collective identity is somewhat outside of both Taiwan and mainland China—although governed by Taiwan, the general attitude on the island is not one of strong Taiwanese patriotism; and although most Kinmenese identify with China, their China is more the ROC than the CCP. All of this makes for an environment with many, many layers—which our local director Kai seemed acutely aware of. Before we left, we had a meeting to talk about the trip, where he cautioned us not to be taken in by Kinmen’s cultural, historical, and political importance: the Kinmen islands are inhabited by people, not just war ghosts.

But, of course, the war remains current in Kinmen. After landing at the Shangyi Airport on the eponymous main island, where I’d like to make note that the airport marshallers waved hello at us, we visited Yongshi Fort 勇士堡, where we scaled an old tank set up outside the fort walls for display. The fort adjoins the ten-year-old Landmine Museum, a winding display of tunnels showcasing old landmine shells, passages, and bunkers from the war, and which detail the efforts of the Taiwanese military to defuse landmines post-war.

Walking along the beach facing Xiamen.

Afterwards, we made our way to 雙口海邊, Shuang Kou Beach, on the smaller island of Lieyu. It was a small, sandy strip going down some distance each way; our car left us by a small viewing platform equipped with binoculars. It was already pretty late in the day—maybe six or seven—and the sky was thick and hazy with the promise of rain, but we could make out the coast of China quite clearly: the port at 廈門, or what on the mainland would be spelled 厦门 (both, however, pronounced xià-mén).

It looked, strangely, very ordinary: beyond the jagged iron stakes cutting up into the air a few meters from the shore and across the grey expanse of the water at a windy dusk, a few grey-black highrises with dark blue windowpanes, a huge LED billboard affixed onto the front face of one of the more prominent buildings. The distance between Xiamen and the Kinmen islands is short enough that, during the war, soldiers from the mainland used to swim their way to the shores of Lieyu during the night. They were called 水鬼, shuigui, which means water-ghosts.

Our second day unfolded similarly: we woke up early for a quick and refreshing morning walk (we were lied to: the worst hike of my life), which led us past an old Buddhist temple in the hills. During wartime, the hills were forbidden to civilians, so the locals would be unable to access the temple for worship and upkeep—except for once a year, when the monks were allowed to spend a day worshiping at the temple.

Old military waterways dug into the island.

Our hike eventually led us to 獅山砲陣地, Shishan-Howitzer front, where we were regaled with an artillery demonstration from seven members of the ROC military. This demonstration was featured in a New York Times documentary we saw before leaving—which you can find on YouTube—and detailed how soldiers would fire missiles at the Chinese coast during the war. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than six or seven minutes, a mismatched dance of tight salutes and half-jogging formations as the shell was lifted by the whole troop and inserted into the missile, before it was “shot” with a resounding bang. The view outside the front—which, like the Landmine Museum the day before, was largely tunnels—was a calm, breezy swathe of wind-swept sea oats and Buddhist pines giving out onto the sea, quietly at odds with the damp echoing cold of the tunnels. At 馬山觀測站, Mashan Observation Post, we found more of the same: a cool, winding set of tunnels giving out onto dusty blue stretches of sea making their way towards China.

We had lunch at an restaurant-grocery-breakfast shop manned, as far as I could tell, by a single grandma. Like many older mom-and-pop places in Taiwan, it was a close, dim, cluttered thing, with no mind for aesthetics or any of the glitz of a modern supermarket: canned bamboo sprouts and Kinmenese beef jerky stacked close on dusty wooden shelves; a small rattling fan in a corner half-hidden by a few stools; an old TV playing something that might have been a period-drama. She made us 炒泡麵 chao pao mian, or fried instant noodles, in an enormous sizzling wok by the open entry, handing out bowl after bowl until we were all sat by the roadside working our way through sweet sausage, white cabbage, and soy-sauce-sticky noodles.

Minnan-style village doorway.

After lunch, we visited 珠山聚落 Zhushan Village, a traditional Minnan-style village laid out against a hill in classic feng-shui fashion. It dates back to the Yuan Dynasty about 650 years ago, when a Xiamenian merchant named Xue Zhen relocated his family to Kinmen and built the settlement in 1345. After having only seen architecture that so thoroughly responded to the ROC-CCP conflict of the last few decades, it was interesting to walk around a place in Kinmen that attested to earlier conflicts. In the Xue clan’s time the main threat were pirates who often raided the island. To fend them off, each house was walled off; but once it was found that pirates scaled the walls fairly easily, they added a layer of fragile terracotta tiles stacked on top of the existing walls like card houses. In this way, when pirates attempted to scale the walls, the tiles would break underneath their weight, hindering the climb and alerting the inhabitants inside. We ended our second day at the beach again, where we all watched as a man on a tall brown horse galloped up the shore, waved at us, and turned to ride back down again.

We back at the beach again the next morning, this time at 歐厝沙灘, Ou-Cuo Sand Beach. It started raining halfway through the drive, and by the time we got out of the cars it was coming down in clear, icy sheets fed by a vicious wind. The sand was the same warm brown, almost caramel; and in some places the drier particles streamed across the beach at only a few centimeters off the ground, almost like water. As we made our way down the shore we came across a buried tank, half-exposed and encrusted with sand and rust. My classmates Amol, Alvaro, and I half-hopped-half-slipped our way up to an outcropping of boulders slightly off the shore, and crouched there with the barnacles as the waves shattered themselves into great white dashes against the stone.

We were all secretly hoping that the rain would last at least another day—we had really wanted our five-day trip—but already by the time we were in the car again heading into town it had slowed down to a drizzle. We visited a blacksmith who owned a shop called Maestro Wu, where they collected the old artillery shells left from the Chinese bombings and used them to make knives and corkscrews (also, memorably, nail clippers, which our local leader Kaiyuan bought for himself). Then down again to 模範街, Mofan Street, one of Jincheng’s older streets: red-brick arches and redder lanterns stretching over restaurants, apothecaries, and souvenir shops. Alvaro and I went hunting for a hat and a brownie respectively to no avail, but as we kept making left turns and going down alleys we passed a group of high schoolers sipping boba tea who fully turned around to keep watching us as we walked, which is how you know you’ve stumbled into a residential area.

After Mofan Street we attempted to visit 建功嶼, Jiangong Islet, a tidal island right off of Kinmen. It’s connected to the island by a low stone-paved causeway that is clear at low tide. As we walked down we passed a woman in rain boots and a grey-blue jacket bent over a small basket, harvesting oysters a few meters off from the path; but we found that we’d arrived maybe an hour or two too late. Already the end of the causeway had disappeared under silty water, and as we debated the merits of just braving the last winter currents with bare feet, it came creeping around our sneakers anyway, and we decided to turn around.

Shortly after (we stopped briefly to have some tea and New Year’s candy with the coast officer stationed by the causeway; he gave me a creamy-orange thing from Korea), we drove to 北山播音牆, Beishan Broadcasting Wall. It’s not often you get to see a weapon of what is basically psychological warfare: from its creation in 1967 until the late 70s, it was used to broadcast propaganda and Taiwanese music to the Chinese coast. (Most of the propaganda consisted of inviting Chinese soldiers to join their free brothers in Taiwan in the fight for the true China.) Although it is not longer used for propaganda, I believe that it still occasionally plays music (it apparently has Bluetooth, although I doubt it’s readily accessible—I did try), but we were too late to hear anything play. Instead we climbed over the outcroppings of cacti and shrubbery to take pictures with what was essentially a small building’s worth of speakers—about fifty, in fact.

We landed in Kaohsiung at just past 8:00pm. I slept like a baby that night, exhausted. Nanzih, my district, seemed so distant from the raw legacy of conflict we’d learned about, however superficially, in Kinmen: in Nanzih, the subway goes and goes, the motorcycles keep gunning their engines down the streets all night, music drifts over from neighborhood banzhuos; everything is bright and alive in a way that contrasts so sharply with the graves, military memorials, and bleak lookout points. Maybe that’s why my half-week in Kinmen is one of the most memorable parts of my whole nine-month gap year in Taiwan: a tangible, rock-solid reminder of Taiwan’s multifaceted history.

Categories: Sophia F