Kinmen: Now the Battle is for Tourism, part 2/4

By Trista di Genova / published 2005 in Travel & Culture magazine in its abridged form

Even though they it is not a UN member, Taiwan has made significant efforts to demine Kinmen island (金門). About 75,000 landmines still remain, and the process is ongoing. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) said in September [2005], that it was “the ultimate responsibility” of the Taiwanese government to finish clearing the island of its mines “to save innocent people from harm.”

Before the Executive Yuan, Taiwan’s primary parliamentary body, was the request for NT$304 million (about US$9.4 million) for clearance of the existing landmines on Kinmen, which is expected to take three years. This initiative has tremendous support within the government and is expected to pass easily. But until then, the work remains treacherous. As recently as April [2005], two Zimbabwean deminers were killed while working on Kinmen’s demining campaign. One of the men was carrying a mine when he slipped, triggering the explosion of over 20 others that were removed and collected – but not destroyed — at one of the island’s six dumpsites.

There is a strong movement on Kinmen to apply for the status of a World Heritage site. For one, Kinmen has some of the best-preserved examples of Fujian-style architecture in the region. And traces of human habitation, sites with mound shells that are still unexcavated, that date back as far as 5,000 to 6,000 years, at Fukuotun and Puban.

Kinmen was first called Wuzhou. It was a place where Han Chinese have been moving to for more than 1600 years to escape the wars and disasters that were taking place in the central plains of China. In particular, the Su, Chen, Wu, Tsai, Lu and Yan clans can be traced back to this time, and their ancestral shrines can be seen today.

In the early 9th century Tang dynasty, an agricultural minister named Chen Yuan went to Kinmen to develop the farming, fishing, and saltworks of Kinmen (such as Xiyuan salt plantation). After his death he was given the title of “Blessing Saint” by the imperial court, and venerated by the locals as “En Zhwu Gong” (the man who brought great charity”); not to mention the oddly-translated title for a horsebreeder, “The Marquis of horse pasturage.” Mount Fenglian has a shrine that was built in his memory during the Yuan dynasty.

During the 11th century Sung dynasty, Kinmen was included in maps of Chinese territory, and it began to be known as a cultural center. By the 13th century, the Confucian scholar Chu Hsi had built En-nan school in Kinmen, as well as other Confucian schools in Fujian. It became known as a place where scholars passed their civil service examinations to qualify for official posts. The Kuige, or Kuixing Tower, built in the Qing dynasty, is a place where scholars and literati used to worship the God of Literature.

A bunker on Kinmen with the appearance of a castle. Photo: Trista di Genova
Kinmen history as a military bastion perhaps began in 1387, the Ming dynasty Emperor Chu Yuan-Zhang ordered the Marquis of Jiang-Sia, Zhou De, to build the “Kinmen city wall” and make the island a fortress. The coastal area was transformed into a defensive position that guarded the entrance of the Quan-Zhang area based on “geomancy,” or “feng shui,” likening the topography of the area to dragon veins. Described in contemporary records as “the most impregnable, safe and stable gate,” the island was then renamed “jin men,” or “golden gate.”

“Quemoy” (pronounced “ke moy”) is another name for Kinmen that is more familiar to the West. It was what the people of Kinmen called their island at the time, as transliterated by the Portuguese, whose role during the 17th century served as a catalyst for development of the region as an important trade center throughout Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, Japan and Indonesia.

At the end of the 17th century Ming dynasty, Kinmen was used as first an exile from China and then a staging base to gain control over Taiwan by the fierce military leader and Ming loyalist, Chen Chueng-gong — or Koxinga as he is better known to the West. Koxinga ( 國姓爺; pinyin: Guóxìngyé; ) set out from the Liaoluo Bay to wage war against the Dutch in Tainan in 1661, successfully wresting away, settling in and controlling Taiwan and Penghu island until the Manchus later came to power. His shrine is a popular attraction in Kinmen’s Jincheng area.

Koxinga's shrine, one of the most popular sites for Mainland visitors on the island of Quemoy (Kinmen). Photo: Trista di Genova
Koxinga’s other legacy on Kinmen was denuding the island to provide shipbuilding materials for war boats and an army of 35,000. Kinmen would experience devastating sandstorms during winter monsoons for centuries to come. In fact, the hundreds of Minnan-inspired statues of the Wind Lion Spirit (風獅爺 or Master or God as it is variously translated) that populate the coastal area of Kinmen were a means of protection against these “evil winds.”

Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when Kinmen’s wealthy merchant class returned to Kinmen they often built fine houses and other public facilities that were architecturally a unique hybrid between East and West. One notable example is Shuitou’s Deyue Tower, and the nearby Jinshui school built by in 1932 by a merchant for all of his children – Kinmen’s first private school — using income from 40 stores in Indonesia. It also served as a type of town hall, and a military hospital under the Japanese. The exterior is a cross between European and Asian styles, and the layout of the school is built in the shape of the character “hui” (回), to go back, return. Part of the building also served to publish a periodical in the 1930s, to exchange news with overseas Kinmenese.

Next to Deyue Tower is the Stories of the Overseas Chinese Hall, which tells the tales of the hardships of the overseas Chinese and their families, including how money was sent over from relatives in Southeast Asia via a private postal agency – a practice interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Kinmen in 1937.

One of Kinmen's many wind lion statues, protection against bad spirits. Photo: Trista di Genova
Kinmen has been deeply influenced by Minnan culture, southern Fujian Province in terms of language, architecture and even the building materials that were brought to the island. The Kinmenese share the same religion as Taiwan, that is, a mixture of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese after the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, but Kinmen was occupied much later, in 1937, so its influence was less than in Taiwan. Many Kinmenese were forced to flee from their homes both by the Japanese occupation, and then by the Chiang Kai-shek’s armies in 1949.

Paragon Street (Mofan jie), home to Kinmen’s rather quiet nightlife (ends at 10pm), is a charming red brick arcade street with a colonnade effect. They were originally shops built in 1925 on the principle of a five-foot square entryway, influenced by Britain’s colonial architecture in Singapore.

Inside the 'Mao bar', or 'Communist cafe', is a great collection of the old boy, on Model Street. Photo: Trista di Genova
Visitors to Paragon, or “Model Street” must check out the “Mao Bar,” which is decked out with an astonishing collection of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek memorabilia. Besides being the “Hard Rock Café of communism,” it’s a cozy restaurant, wine bar and teahouse (Jinmen County, Jinchun township, #22-24 Mofan Street, tel: 08 2312606). On the menu are sumptuous tepanyaki and hotpot dishes, and several of Chairman Mao’s favorite snacks: chicken necks, hearts, skin, neck, wings and drumsticks.

To be continued…

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