Monday, October 29, 2018

A visit to Kinmen, where the PRC meets the ROC

A few weeks ago I visited the island of Kinmen, off the coast of Fujian, in Southern China. For decades this unassuming little island was one of the front lines in the Cold War, and it still lies on the edge between two political entities that don't recognize each other's legitimacy.

The question of who governs Kinmen gives rise to one of the world's strangest cases of political semantics. The governments of the People's Republic of China and of the Republic of China agree on very little, but they both concur that this small island is part of Fujian province, China. The only thing is that both governments officially consider themselves to be the rightful representatives of the whole of China, Fujian included, so this doesn't tell you much about who actually governs the island.

In practice, Kinmen has been governed from Taipei since the KMT retreated to Taiwan in the late nineteen forties. The island is, however, far closer to the Mainland of China than it is to Taiwan. In fact, it is literally in swimming distance from the the city of Xiamen, whose high-rises are clearly visible from the island's Western shore. This sleepy place was at the centre of two "Taiwan straits crises" in the fifties, which almost led China and the US into open conflict with each other. Kinmen was fired upon regularly from the Mainland up until the seventies, and its inhabitants lived under martial law, unable even to go to Taiwan with any ease. Nowadays open hostilities have ended, and life on the island is more or less "normal" in spite of the ongoing military presence. The fact that Kinmen is still ruled by Taiwan seems almost surreal, given how incredibly close it is to a powerful and revanchist China.

I visited Kinmen during the week-long vacation for China's National Day. It is a nice place to spend a few days, with lots of sites related to its recent history, well preserved architecture and traditions, and some nature thrown in. The island is reachable by ferry from the cities of Xiamen and Quanzhou, on the Mainland. These ferry rides started up when the so-called "three small links" were introduced in 2001, allowing trade, postal and transportation links to be set up between Mainland China and the two little Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen and Matsu. For a while these were the only direct points of contact between the PRC and the ROC, until the same three links were established between the PRC and Taiwan proper in 2008.

I decided to get to Kinmen by first flying down to Xiamen from Beijing, and then taking the 20 minute ferry ride to island. Flights to Xiamen cost one thirds of flights to Taipei, in spite of the distance from Beijing being basically the same. This route gave me the opportunity to spend a day in Xiamen, which I had never been to before. If you mention Xiamen to people in China you will be told that it is a pleasant city, with a relaxed lifestyle, clement weather and nice views of the ocean, and I found this to be more or less true. As Chinese cities go, Xiamen is definitely one of the more pleasant ones. I spent the night in a nice hostel located in the city centre, which is made up of winding alleyways dotted with cafes and shops, rather than the straight, alienating boulevards that make up the centre of most Chinese cities. What's more, while the city feels relaxed and the sea brings a nice breeze and good views, Xiamen still maintains a certain big-city vibe and urban energy.

Xiamen's impressive Shimao Twin Towers as seen from my taxi window

I also visited Gulangyu, a little island of the coast of Xiamen which is the city's main tourist attraction. When Xiamen was turned into a "treaty port" after the fist opium war, Gulangyu became its "international settlement", peopled mostly by Europeans and policed by Sikh policemen brought over from British India. For this reason it is still filled with Victorian-era buildings. It also has a long association with Western classical music, and is known as the "piano island". It has a piano museum, and some of China's most famous classical musicians were born on the island, even though it has few residents.

The island is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and entirely car-free. It is reached by a five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen. When I got to the pier and asked for a ticket, I was amazed to be asked for my passport, which I had not thought to bring with me. Luckily my Chinese social insurance card was accepted as photo ID, and I was still able to buy a ticket. As I scanned my ticket to get on to the ferry, a photo of my face was taken by the scanning machine (which may well be equipped with facial recognition technology). Levels of monitoring of people's movement are getting more and more insane.

Not having arrived in China yesterday I kept my expectations low, knowing that on the evening before the National Day a site so famous would be completely packed with tourists from the provinces, and I was proven correct. I will admit that I did not explore the island too much, since it was already evening, but the roads I walked down reminded me of Beijing's Nanluoguxiang, the centre of Lijiang, and every other tourist trap in China: the same shops, the same souvenirs, the same kitsch, overcrowding and commercialisation. Unfortunately this seems to be the destiny of most tourist sites in the country, even the ones like Gulangyu that must have originally had much real charm.

The next day I took the ferry to Kinmen, which leaves from a special pier near the airport. I passed through PRC customs before getting on, and then ROC customs once on the island. All the other passengers on the ferry seemed to be Mainlanders taking a trip for the holidays. Although Kinmen is far from being famous throughout China, people from Fujian do go there on weekend trips. Mainland Chinese are in fact able to go to Kinmen much more easily than to Taiwan itself. They can go independently and buy a travel permit on arrival, whereas for Taiwan proper they have to apply for a permit in advance, and can only go in an organized group unless their hukou is based in one of China's main cities. The number of Mainlanders visiting Taiwan has dropped after the election of Tsai Ying-Wen and the deterioration in cross-straits relations, but apparently the number of visitors to Kinmen has continued growing, although fewer of them fly onwards to Taipei.

Kinmen is hardly huge, but it's not tiny either. It has about 130,000 people living on it, and it would take a couple of hours to drive around it. I stayed in an airbnb in a rural settlement a few bus stops away from the island's main town, Jincheng. That afternoon I took the bus into town, and found a shop where I could buy a Taiwanese SIM card (my Mainland Chinese SIM card worked on international roaming, but as well as being far more expensive the service also made it impossible to visit websites that the Chinese government blocks. So for instance I could not use Google maps). After that I strolled around Jincheng. The town is a pleasant, laid back place, with a network of little lanes full of shops and restaurants. Although Kinmen still isn't Taiwan, the atmosphere is unmistakably that of a place ruled by Taiwan rather than by Beijing, right down to the 7-11s on every corner and the scooters parked on every pavement. While I wouldn't say it exactly feels more prosperous than the Mainland, everything somehow seems a bit more humane and easy going.

What made it especially clear that I was not in the Mainland were the big campaign posters for the candidates in the local elections, and the little temples that dotted the streets. Not that temples don't exist in Mainland Chinese cities, but they are not integrated into local life in the same way, and you don't usually see locals going there regularly. Jincheng also has a few interesting historic sights, including the Wu River Academy, originally built in 1780 as an academy of classical Chinese learning, and the surviving Qing government headquarters, all of which I visited.

Xiamen, PRC as seen at night from Kinmen, ROC

The Guomindang headquarters in Jincheng

Kinmen (or Quemoy, as Westerners used to call it) has been populated since the Tang dynasty, and for most of history it was a sleepy place, although not a totally unimportant one. Famous Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhuxi (1130-1200) even founded an academy on the island. It suffered from pirate attacks throughout history, in fact the name Kinmen (金门) or "golden gates" refers to the gates that were raised to defend the island from pirates. Koxinga, the famous Ming loyalist who expelled the Dutch from Taiwan and turned it into a base from which to resist the Qing and restore the Ming, also expelled the Dutch from the Kinmen, as well as chopping down all of the island's trees to build his navy. Still, Kinmen would have remained pretty anonymous if it hadn't been for the Chinese civil war in the forties. In the battle of Guningtou, in 1949, roughly 20,000 Communist troops were unable to take the island from the hands of 40,000 Nationalist ones, meaning that it was fated to become the last little outpost of Nationalist China.

After the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958, the two sides agreed to a bizarre "odd-day ceasefire". For the next two decades, the island was only shelled on even days (in the beginning the shelling also went in the other direction, but eventually it became a one-way affair). As well as shells, a constant barrage of propaganda leaflets was shot both ways. Until the nineties, the island was treated by Taipei as a special military zone, and travel to and from it was restricted. This led to the tragic Lieyu Massacre in 1987, when a boatload of Vietnamese refugees arriving on Kinmen to ask asylum were shot in cold blood by ROC soldiers under orders to execute anyone who landed on the island without permission, after which the government unsuccessfully tried to cover things up. In 1992 martial law was finally lifted, five years after it was in Taiwan.

The islanders' sense of identity is an unusual one. They don't see themselves as Taiwanese and don't share much of Taiwan's history, including the 50 years of Japanese colonialism that did much to shape the bigger island's identity. They are culturally very much Fujianese, and their dialect is Hokkien spoken with a Quanzhou accent (although it is still intelligible with Taiwanese Hokkien). As such the recent surge in Taiwanese identity holds little interest to them, but they generally identify with the Republic of China, while fearing that if Taiwan gave up on that charade and became de-jure independent it might lose interest in them and abandon them to the PRC, a result which most islanders unsurprisingly do not want to see. Due to these circumstances, the Kinmense vote for the Guomindang in national elections almost to a man and woman, and steer clear of the DPP.

On my second day on the island I went back into town with the intention of renting a scooter, which is by far the best way of getting around. Renting one was hard, since Mainlanders who'd come over for the holidays had already rented almost everything available, but in the end I found a place with an electric scooter left. Once motorized I headed south, to a village called Shuitou. The island's rural scenery looked pretty and green, but not exactly untouched. Unlike Taiwan's other "outer islands", Kinmen is quite well populated and mostly flat, and there are houses and new developments almost everywhere, much of them pretty unsightly and utilitarian.

All the same, Kinmen also has some of the best preserved old buildings in the country, perhaps due to life being frozen under martial law for decades. The village of Shuitou is known to have the island's best traditional architecture, and it did not disappoint. At its centre stand some impressive villas built in the late 19th century by locals who came back from the Dutch Indies after making their fortunes. The villas mix Chinese and European colonial architecture, and have now become museums. The most famous one is the Deyue mansion, featuring an impressive watchtower that was used against pirates. Next to it are rows of authentic traditional Fujianese houses from the 19th century, with local families happily living inside them. Seeing people living in houses more than a century old might be the norm in parts of Europe, but not so much in the Chinese-speaking world. Many of the houses have the long swallowtail roofs that are a feature of Fujianese architecture. These are normally only found on temples and ancestral halls due to their showy nature, but this was once a wealthy place. Over the last few centuries the Fujianese have been those who emigrated abroad in the highest numbers out of all the Chinese, especially to South-East Asia, and some of the resulting wealth made its way to this island.

After leaving Shuitou, I drove across the island and reached Mt. Taiwu, the island's highest peak, which reaches 262 mts. above sea level. I was able to go halfway up the mountain on my scooter, at which point I reached a shrine dedicated to the ROC soldiers who died defending Kinmen from the PRC, and a military cemetery with rows upon rows of soldiers' graves. Next to the cemetery was a modern military base, and I saw young men in uniform jogging, probably Taiwanese youngsters doing their two-year military service. After that point you could only continue on foot, and I walked up the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. Although there were few people around, I met the odd visitors from both the Mainland and Taiwan. The nature was gorgeous and untouched. In the trees next to the path there were webs with huge yellow and black spiders sitting in the middle, with thin and elongated bodies and leg-spans about the size of a dinner plate.

Once I got to the peak of the mountain, I could see most of the island around me. I could also see the Mainland's coast extremely clearly across the sea, so close I could have made out the buildings if the weather had been clearer. I asked myself how China's government, with its vast territorial claims that it is aggressively pursuing elsewhere, can let this state of affairs persist. Then I reminded myself that Kinmen is crawling with Taiwanese soldiers, and not for nothing. Doubtless China could now take the island back in a fight if it wanted, but this would involve serious fighting and numerous casualties on both sides, and it would mean the beginning of a real war. As long as a war doesn't start, Kinmen will thus remain under Taiwanese rule. If one day hostilities do break out however, I can't see it standing much of a chance.

A large spider with black and yellow stripes in the middle of its web

The view from the top of Mt. Taiwu, with the mountains of Fujian visible across the sea.

After leaving the mountain, I drove my scooter to the August 23 Artillery War Museum, which documents the battle that started on that date in 1958, when the PRC launched a heavy artillery attack against Kinmen. The subsequent hostilities (known as the "second Taiwan straits crisis") lasted for weeks, and included air-to-air combat between the two sides. Hundreds of ROC soldiers and possibly a few thousand of the island's civilians were killed, as well as a few hundred soldiers and civilians on the other side. The PRC was eventually deterred by the direct intervention of the United States. The museum was small but informative enough. Outside it stood a Taiwanese tank and another big military vehicle from that era. What was most surprising was that the museum's cafe' sold "Mao Zedong milk tea", and the wall displayed a large poster advertising Mao's milk tea and "Chiang Kai Shek's special blend coffee", with pictures of the two leaders' faces. It seems rather incredible that the Chairman's image would be made use of so lightly in Kinmen of all places, but there you go.

Mao Zedong milk tea and Chiang Kai Shek coffee on sale in the cafe' of the August 23 Artillery War Museum

A Republic of China tank outside the museum

War cemetery with the tombs of soldiers who died defending Kinmen

I got out of the museum and rode my scooter to nearby Shanwai, the island's second town. Looking for a place to eat, I wandered into a huge and very fancy five-storey shopping mall which seemed quite incongruous, in the middle of a little town of a few thousand people. I later discovered that the mall was opened in 2014 by Taiwanese company Ever Rich, in the hope of cashing in on Mainland tourism, and it boasts Asia's largest duty-free store and Kinmen's first multiplex cinema. The mall wasn't exactly empty, but it was hardly packed either, in spite of those being the peak days of the year for Chinese tourism, and I wondered how much money it can really be making. I was the only customer in the cafe' where I had a bite to eat.

That evening, back in Jincheng, I ate a bowl of the well-known local Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵) in a little restaurant, and then went and had a drink at the only bar in town (and probably on the island), a place named the "White Lion Pub". The bar was completely empty except for me and the girl working there, so we ended up chatting for a while. She was a local, and I asked her whether local people feel Chinese, Taiwanese or what. She replied that by now they don't really feel any of the two. "If we go to Taiwan we just say we are from Kinmen, but if we go abroad where no one has ever heard of Kinmen, then we say we are from Taiwan". It struck me that this would be the least misleading answer, while still technically inaccurate. Saying "Republic of China" would only baffle most people.

All in all, Kinmen struck me as a worthwhile place to spend a few days. It really has quite a lot of things to see, and in fact I only managed to pack in about half of the sites. For anyone who has to spend time in Xiamen it can make for a good weekend trip to see some nature, look at some old buildings, eat some good food and appreciate a few geopolitical realities.


FOARP said...

Nice Travelogue. Really regret not going to Kinmen, Matsu, or the Penghu islands whilst I lived in Taiwan but there was always so much to do on the island. Now I kind of regret not seeing more whilst it was possible to travel in Taiwan without loads of tourists being everywhere - unbelievably now, we used to talk about Taiwan as an off-the-beaten-track place with only small numbers of tourists.

Ji Xiang said...

I would say that Taiwan is still pretty "off-the-beaten-track", wouldn't you agree? I didn't notice hordes of tourists there. Or are you talking about tourism from Mainland China? Even that has fallen recently. I was there over the Chinese national day, and the National Museum in Taipei was indeed full of Mainlanders, but still much less than the Grand Palace in Bangkok would have been.