I traveled out into the woods of Kinmen and found an intentional community of homesteaders who built something remarkable.
I heard that there was a group of young Chinese who went out into the woods of Kinmen Island and built their own little village. The story I received said that they lived in tree houses. Whatever was the case, it was worth a hike to see if I could find them.
Their location was pinpointed out on a map for me, and I took off one afternoon to meet them. They weren’t hard to find, as they were living on a stubby hillside behind a temple on the southern edge of Jincheng, the biggest town on the island. I found the path leading to their encampment easily, and when I came to a roughly assembled wooden gate I knew that I found them. I walked through, not really knowing what to expect. They could have welcomed me as a fellow traveler of the way, or they could have chased me off their land.
I soon rounded a corner and the narrow, wooded path opened up upon a trimmed yard that was the central area of the community. A full size, plank board house that stood on stilts was on my left. The roof was a thatched patchwork of bamboo poles, random boards, and plastic sheeting. It was like something from a jungle slum in Laos. The boards of the walls came together unevenly, with a liberal amount of space in between each to allow for air flow, a little light, and the satiation of peeking Toms like myself. I could see a hammock and a mosquito net hanging on the inside. There were clothes and some pots and pans on the narrow porch. It looked as if the house rose up like a phoenix from a pile of junk, and I would soon find out that this was the way it pretty much happened.
My intrusion did not go unnoticed. Two men and two women sat on the low lying porch of another, ranch-like structure that was in front of me, as a baby that didn’t have any pants on rolled about freely. I walked up and introduced myself. Their earthly colored cottons hung loosely off their bodies. Nobody wore shoes. They were drinking tea at a knee high, Japanese style table. There were tea pots and loose tea all over it. One guy greeted me enthusiastically and invited me to sit down, while one of the women seemed to be trying to conceal a grimace.
The later was from Shanghai, and her venture out to these woods was a full fledged escape. She said the big city life didn’t suit her, that she’d rather be etching out her own existence and living a healthy lifestyle in the woods of Kinmen. With her husband, who was from the main island of Taiwan, they started up the little community in the woods around a year ago. The other two adults and the baby were locals from Kinmen who’d just moved in.
The land that the community was living on belonged to one of their friends, who gave them permission to do what they’d like with it. As far as the city government was concerned, they didn’t really seem to mind an eccentric knot of hippies living in the woods at the edge of town. The island has liberal building laws, and if a structure is zoned as “impermanent” there are not really any regulations. If you have access to the land you can pretty much build and live in whatever you want here.
The houses themselves were built out of natural materials that the homesteaders found in the woods as well as from refuse that they picked up on the beach and from garbage piles around the island. They didn’t pay for anything, the materials for their houses being 100% scavenged. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but be impressed.
There were three main structures on the compound, along with an outhouse that sat near the edge. Two of the buildings were for living in and the other was a cafe, the community’s business and main source of income.
One of the houses and the cafe were made from a simple bamboo frame that was covered in planks and other random materials. As I sat on the porch drinking tea I marveled at how the place was assembled together: just about anything that could be utilized as a building material was. They used sticks, shells, tarps, pieces of plastic — there was even a wall made from beer bottles held together with dried mud.
Though what really impressed me was the other house. It was a round hut made entirely of stones, beer bottles, and mud. It was the simplest style of all human structures, though also one of the best. They told me that they sourced the mud from nearby and simply packed it over the boulders in layers, adding in beer bottle walls, windows, and doors as they went. When it had all dried they had the makings of a home. They then added on a roof of bamboo poles and plastic sheeting.
I asked if it was hard to figure out how to build the mud hut.
“No, it wasn’t hard, just a lot of hard work.”
Inside the cafe, there was a complete kitchen. There were sinks, counters, racks for dishes and cooking tools, along with a giant table built in the center of it all. What really got my attention were the two ovens. They were stainless steel contraptions that were obviously handmade. One was oval shaped, and was connected with an exhaust pipe that lead out of the cafe. The other was a small rectangular steel contraption built into a counter. It looked more like a desk drawer than something to cook in. I’d never seen anything like it.
“What do you make with these ovens?” I asked.
They also made their own soap to sell. It was, of course, all organic and made of simple ingredients, herbs, and all of that stuff . . .
Though what really struck me as impressive was that their living style wasn’t hamstrung with absolute positions and zealot-isms. They lived apart from broader society but were not disconnected from it. They had electricity. When I asked how, they replied as if my question was ridiculous: “We applied for an address and then called the electric company.” They also had internet, which they had hooked up in the same, totally normal fashion. This little community of homesteaders living in DIY houses in the woods of Kinmen simply selected the aspects of the industrialized world that they wanted and shed the rest. Their lack of absolutism was a refreshing diversion from many other radical intentional communities that I’ve previously visited in other parts of the world.
Though this doesn’t mean that they didn’t come off as slightly elitist. Though they treated me very kindly, always filled my tea cup, and included me in conversation, I got the impression that they couldn’t overcome the smugness that easily comes to people who live in a way that they feel is superior to that of mainstream society.
While modern homesteaders still attract attention and accolades in the USA, they are a pretty normal phenomenon there. We all know people who went out into the woods and tried to build a new society — our parents tried it, our grandparents tried it. In point, escaping a society we don’t agree with, going out into nature, building houses, and starting an intentional community is an extremely typical thing for Americans to do — our very country and culture was founded this way.
But in China this is something new. These hippies were living on the subcultural fringe, doing something extreme that nobody they know has ever tried before. These people living in the woods of Kinmen had no models to go off of, they had no guides — they simply went out and did it. They are the advanced guard of a growing movement of educated, discontented young people who grew up in a China of plenty, who have never known the struggles for survival that their parents and grandparents endured, who are demanding more than a good job, a car, a house, a spouse, and a nearby shopping mall. They are part of a new generation who knows that there is more to life than money, and they are willing to go out and seek it for themselves.