Find out what makes Taiwan’s Kinmen Island so interesting.
Kinmen is a pair of two islands right of the coast of China’s Fujian province that are part of Taiwan. Though its geographic position contradicting it’s national ties are not the only thing that’s significant about this area, as it’s one of the few places left in East Asia that the globalization era has yet to wrap its tendrils around. Beyond a couple convenience stores, there are pretty much no international chains operating there. There are no shopping malls, no McDonald’s, not even a single KFC. Instead, the place has temples — lots of temples — small, local restaurants, vegetable markets, antique shops, and corner stores. Shops are decked out with big vertical signs hanging out over streets that are windy and labyrinthine rather than straight and square. The place looks like an old black and white photo of early 20th century China. That said, this is probably one of the best places on the planet to observe the gradual progression of what could be called old Chinese culture.
When I wake up each morning the first thing I see is Taiwan. Lesser Kinmen Island is 5,000 meters from my balcony, and I can see Great Kinmen, the larger of the pair, stretching around from behind it. I have an apartment on the east coast of Xiamen Island, and while I am fully within the bounds of mainland China, places that are administered by another government are right outside my window.
How did this happen?
Kinmen was the last stand of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Republican government, during the civil war with the Communists in 1949. They’d already been booted out of the rest of the country and they retreated to a few islands off the coast of Fujian province. Once there they refused to be uprooted. It was a last stand that continues to this day.
Both the PRC, mainland China, and the ROC, Taiwan, claim to be the legitimate government of all of China: Taiwan claims all of China and China claims Taiwan. Technically, the civil war between the two governments continues — a peace accord has never been signed. Neither side acknowledges the legitimacy the other, mutually claiming their foe to be the phony government of China. But they seem to have an uneasy gentleman’s agreement when it comes to Kinmen: though geographically within the bosom of the mainland, it remains administered by Taiwan.
Though Communist China did not initially give up on Kinmen. Two battles were waged during the decade after the civil war, which consisted of anything from full on invasions to frog men sneaking over and wreaking havoc in the night. Eventually, the United States stepped in, and a tenuous peace was imposed between the two Chinas, which has only gotten better as the years went on. Though Kinmen, hovering within sight of the beaches of the mainland, is a stone in the shoe of the PRC — a heckler spouting off from close range.
One of the strangest engagements in military history happened between Xiamen and Kinmen. Unable to take the small island by force, the battle between the PRC and the ROC drew to a stalemate. Both sides sat on their respective shores staring down the other. For twenty one years, from 1958 to 1979, the two armies engaged in an informal ritual: they would take turns shelling each other on alternating days. So one day the Communists would fire bombshells over the narrow straight on to Kinmen and the following day the ROC would return the volley. But these shells were not full of explosives. Rather, they were stuffed full of propaganda leaflets. The Communists shot over communiques on how communism was better, and the Republicans fired claims about how they are the legitimate Chinese government. Literally, hundreds of thousands of propaganda shells were exchanged during this period.
Today, the propaganda war continues, although it’s of a different type. When the Kinmenese look out at the mainland all they see is a Great Wall of Prosperity. Xiamen has built up a new central business district and clusters of upper class high-rises on their eastern shore, which just happens to be right in the direct view of Kinmen. Miles of skyscrapers and luxury apartments rising high into the sky, beaming with bright colorful lights at night, extend down the coastline. When viewed from the shores of Kinmen it looks like a solid, large, prosperous city. Perhaps it was built to make them jealous. Perhaps it was built to make the Kinmenese think that the people of the mainland are living lives of luxury and to make them feel inferior for being born on the wrong side of the straight — in a place that doesn’t have any skyscrapers, luxury high-rises, or even a McDonald’s. The message is clear:
Look what we’ve got. If you were part of us maybe you could live this dream too.
But if you’ve ever been to this awe-inspiring array of skyscrapers on Xiamen’s eastern coast you will know that it’s only a block deep. Behind this wall of prosperity is a span of mediocre housing complexes, shabby villages, and undeveloped shrub land that extends for a mile or two before you get to the actual center of the city. Most of the skyscrapers and luxury housing developments on this coast are also mostly vacant, the entire area is still developing and hasn’t yet attracted much of a population. As of now, it’s a Potemkin show of the power of China, apparently put on for the people of Kinmen.
The impact of the Chinese Civil War was perhaps nowhere felt as severely as on Xiamen and Kinmen. This was the place where the blade’s sharp edge sliced Republican China from Communist China, dividing apart a geographic area and a people who have traditionally always been tied together. Traditionally, Kinmen was a part of China’s Fujian province, with whom it once shared a similar culture, local language, and industries. But for 54 years people were not permitted to even travel between the these islands, abruptly severing the historic, cultural, and family ties that that had been woven there over hundreds of years. The people of Kinmen still very much hang in the middle, neither fully identifying with PRC run China nor with Taiwan. They are Minnan people who didn’t undergo the cultural rapture of communism, industrialism, and, later on, rampant commercialism. Now travel between the islands is permitted, but almost nothing about them is similar anymore.
Kinmen is special because it was intentionally under-developed. Since the ROC retreated there during the civil war it’s basically been little other than a military zone. Because of this, most corporations have been kept away and outside investment has been severely limited. The result has been an old Chinese culture that has been allowed to evolve gradually, without the tumultuous turns of post-1949 China and influence from the relatively newly formed Taiwanese identity. But Taiwan has recently been withdrawing its troops, and the isolation of Kinmen is looking as if it is going to end. While you can still find soldiers stomping around Kinmen, and many bases are still very active, their presence is nowhere near the levels they used to be. Taiwan knows that keeping troops on Kinmen and trying to defend these islands is a waste of resources, as the PRC is now too strong and Kinmen far too remote from the main island of Taiwan to seriously defend.
Though such a violent predicament is unlikely to occur — at least not anytime soon. There is a much better chance that the thirst for commerce will settle all disputes between Kinmen and the mainland. There are plans in the works to connect Xiamen and Kinmen with a bridge, at least physically bringing the two Chinas together again, and there are currently cross-straight development projects getting underway. To put it bluntly, the undeveloped beaches and small, traditional villages of Kinmen are the next frontier.
Though as of now, Kinmen is probably one of the best place in the world for seeing what China may have become without the CPC, the SEZs, globalization, internationalization, chain stores, and the obsessive drive to get rich at all cost. This is why I’m going back. I want to know this place a little better before that bridge is built, before the developers begin stepping across that narrow straight, before the small, old villages are replaced with tourist resorts — before it’s all gone.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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