I spent last weekend in Kinmen 金門 for the Taiwanese Political Science Association annual conference. It was my third time in Kinmen, but it was my first time in over a decade. I don’t really know much about how the legislative race is evolving this year, but Kinmen always makes me reflect on Taiwan and the ROC from a different angle. I am used to speaking of this country as “Taiwan,” but Kinmen is not really part of Taiwan. In Kinmen, the ROC becomes much more real.
A few years ago, it was popular for tech visionaries to wax about how the internet was making distance and geography irrelevant. Those people should have been stuffed on a plane and sent to Kinmen. Geography shapes nearly everything about life in Kinmen.
Before I went there for the first time, I imagined that Kinmen was a tiny island with barely enough residents to begrudgingly be called a society. (Now I imagine that about Matsu, which I’ve never visited.) Kinmen is actually a good sized island with a fair number of people. It is 151 km2 with about 132,000 people. (For comparison, if you want to imagine what that is like in Taiwanese terms, go to the northern border of Tainan and combine Xinying 新營, Yanshui 鹽水, and Xuejia 學甲, which have are about 145 km2 and have about 131,000 people.) The most densely populated part of the big island is in Jincheng Township 金城鎮, on the western side. Downtown Jincheng feels about as urban as the downtown of many mid-sized towns in Taiwan. On the northeastern corner of the island, by contrast, Jinmen feels as rural as any township on the Changhua or Yunlin coast. (I have only been on the main island, so I won’t comment on the smaller islands.)
It doesn’t take long to realize that Kinmen has had a very different history than Taiwan. Taiwan’s historical timeline is similar to America’s, which had a long era of unwritten indigenous history followed by a wave of immigrants starting about 400 years ago who wrote their history, pushed the indigenous people out, and became the dominant culture. Kinmen’s historical timeline is more European. A person my wife was chatting with in the market proudly told her that, unlike Taiwan, Kinmen has 1300 years of history. Or maybe it was 1600 years. It went without saying that he thought history started with Han settlement and that this much longer period of recorded history was a source of pride. Kinmen was an ancient civilization long before Taiwan was even a wild frontier.
1895 is a defining date in Taiwan history, since that is when the Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to the Japanese. For the next 50 years, Taiwan experienced a completely different trajectory than China. During this era, Kinmen remained part of China. It’s a little strange to a person like me to look at 80 year-old buildings and see no Japanese influence. While Taiwanese were building “foreign buildings” 洋樓 derived from European styles filtered through Japanese eyes, people in Kinmen were building quite different structures. On the one hand, they continued building regular housing in the traditional Chinese style, and there are many, many more of these still in use all over the island. On the other hand, Kinmen has its own “foreign buildings.” Many Kinmen residents went into southeast Asia as merchants, and those who got rich sent money home to build three buildings, a private house, a clan temple, and an elementary school. The private houses were often built in European style, but these ideas were filtered through southeast Asian colonial eyes, and they often fused a heavy dose of traditional Confucian ideas into the decorations as well. Some of the bigger houses have heavy walls and guard towers to guard against pirate attacks. In Taiwan, the Japanese state maintained a modern, efficient police force. In Kinmen, the republican government pretty much left the people in peripheral areas to their own devices.
Of course, Kinmen’s claim to fame in the modern world came after 1949. While the communists wiped up the republican forces on the mainland, the narrow strip of ocean proved to be just enough of a barrier to allow Chiang’s forces to dig in on Kinmen. The People’s Liberation Army tried to take the island with a clumsy landing in 1949, but the ROC forces managed to surround them at Guningtou 古寧頭 and wipe them out. A few months later, Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, Truman put the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, and CKS decided fortify Kinmen as much as possible. From 1949 to 1992, Kinmen was basically a military base with a captive civilian population. The island was under martial law and on a constant wartime footing. At the height of the militarized era, there were over 100,000 soldiers on the island and only half that many civilians.
The civilians lived under very strict rules. To give some famous examples, basketballs and volleyballs were tightly monitored to ensure that no extras were available for use as floatation devices; residents were not allowed to learn how to swim, and all windows had to be blacked out at night. The military rules may have seemed harsh and capricious, but there were extenuating circumstances. The Chinese mainland is extremely close to Kinmen. In some parts, it is less than two kilometers away at low tide. The threat of invasion by frogmen was quite real. In 1958, the PRC started shelling Kinmen and threatened to overrun the island. Eventually, they stopped trying to come ashore, but they continued shelling for decades. The every other day bombings were a fact of life for two generations of people. On even days, you could relax. On odd days, you needed to be at home and in your bomb shelter by 7:30pm.
There was a shadow-war element to all of this. CKS was constantly threatening both Mao and the USA that his forces might collapse. To CKS and Mao, Kinmen was symbolically important since, as part of Fujian, it linked Taiwan to China. Moreover, since it was so close to China, the heavy ROC military presence on Kinmen, which dominates Xiamen harbor and is inevitably a thorn in China’s side, kept the war hot and helped to prevent Taiwan from slowly drifting off toward a separate future. Mao didn’t want to take Kinmen without also taking Taiwan, since that would have effectively cut Taiwan adrift. To the USA, CKS played a different tune. The USA didn’t really care about separating Kinmen from Taiwan, and many Americans wouldn’t have minded turning the hot war into a colder war by having a larger buffer zone (ie: the Taiwan Strait) between the two armies. CKS countered this by putting so many military resources on Kinmen that he could credibly warn the USA that a defeat on Kinmen would be such a catastrophic blow to the ROC military that it wouldn’t be able to defend Taiwan. The USA was thus blackmailed into supporting the ROC presence in Kinmen. Thus, the PLA did things like cease its attack for a few days in 1958 in order to let the ROC forces resupply. Back in Taiwan, Hau Pei-tsun 郝柏村 rose to prominence for “heroically” commanding the ROC army’s resistance in 1958, but his job was made much easier by the PLA’s fear of actually winning.
After the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the ROC military gradually began reducing the number of soldiers stationed in Kinmen. There were still several tens of thousands there in 1992 when martial law was lifted. Today only 3000-4000 soldiers remain, a mere token force compared to that of the past.
During the military era, the economy was heavily centered on the needs of the military. Countless small businesses were set up to sell things that single men on leave for a few hours might want, such as toiletries, quick eats, alcohol, and so on. (The military also operated a brothel which Kinmen residents were not allowed to patronize.) When I first visited Kinmen nearly 20 years ago, it was a sleepy society that felt about twenty years behind Taiwan’s roaring economy.
As the military pulled out, the economy was forced to transform, and it has met this challenge remarkably well. All over the island, new houses are springing up. It feels as if half the housing stock has been rebuilt in the past two decades. The roads are in fantastic conditions, the schools are all new, and the busses are free for residents, and the county government hands out various welfare subsidies. This might be the wealthiest (or perhaps second wealthiest after Taipei) local government in the country on a per capita basis. Kinmen is also undergoing a population boom, at least on paper. During the military era, the best way to travel between Kinmen and Taiwan was on military ships, and the military didn’t always have extra space. Residents moved to Taiwan and were stuck there. There was a particularly large community in Zhonghe, in Taipei County, where the Kinmen county government actually built some public housing units for its citizens. With the economic boom, many people have moved back to Kinmen to invest in the booming real estate market or to take advantage of the generous welfare subsidies. Many of these people have only moved their household registration to Kinmen but continue to actually live in Taiwan, so that the actual population of the island is probably less than 60% of the official figure. Nonetheless, the official population has grown so much that Kinmen’s population has passed Penghu’s.
I can see three big factors driving this boom, tourism, kaoliang, and trade with China. Kinmen is a beautiful place for a vacation, with lots of interesting villages and military sites. It is fabulous for bicycling, with plenty of lightly traveled roads. I would happily have stayed there for three or four more days just poking around the countryside. It isn’t overrun with tourists yet, but the tourism industry is clearly growing.
The soil in Kinmen is a bright red, indicating a heavy dose of iron. Unfortunately, this soil is too poor to grow highly desirable crops, such as rice or wheat. Instead, farmers in Kinmen were forced to grow sorghum 高梁, a much hardier but much less profitable grain. In the early 1950s, the military decided to set up a distillery to turn that sorghum grain into alcohol. Kinmen’s kaoliang 高梁酒 is strong stuff, 59% pure alcohol. It also has a very distinct flavor that takes some getting used to, though it mellows with age. In the USA, most people have a tequila story; in Taiwan, we have kaoliang stories; in Kinmen, there is only kaoliang. (If a Kinmen person ever says something about selling a fish tail to you, run for your life!) The distillery is owned by the county government, but prior to 1992 the military appointed the county government so that wasn’t an important distinction. After civilians were granted control of the county government and the first elections were held in 1994, however, the ownership of the distillery became Kinmen’s most important public asset. They seem to have managed it well. Profits from the distillery have funded all those roads, schools, and welfare programs. The county has expanded production and aggressively moved into the China market. In fact, they sell so much in China that they are currently experiencing a minor recession due to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. A bottle of kaoliang is a nice gift if you want to curry favor with an official.
Both the burgeoning tourism and kaoliang have heavy connections with China. Since the opening of the three small links 小三通 in the Chen Shui-bian era, it has been easy to travel between Kinmen and Xiamen. (Chinese citizens don’t need a visa for each individual trip to Kinmen, so it is easier for them to go to Kinmen than to Taiwan.) I don’t know quite how much of the Kinmen economic growth is due to this new role as an entrepot between Taiwan and Xiamen, but I imagine it is significant. I also imagine that it could be much larger. Consider Xiamen, a city of 3.5 million people. Roughly 1.8 million live on Xiamen island, which is almost exactly the same size as Kinmen. Let me put this in Taiwanese terms. The old, pre-2010 Kaohsiung City is roughly the same size and population as Xiamen island. If you add together the old Kaohsiung County (except the three mountain districts) plus the old Tainan City (but not the old Tainan County), those are roughly equivalent in area and population to the parts of Xiamen City across the on the mainland. That is a very big metro area, and the wealthiest and most densely populated parts are right on the coast. Now imagine that there is an island three kilometers off the shore of Kaohsiung City that is exactly the same size as (the old) Kaohsiung City, and this island is not densely populated at all. If you could build a bridge, that island would immediately become extremely valuable land. Perhaps wealthy people might rush to build villas there to take advantage of the unspoiled landscape and clean air. Perhaps there would be a flood of Chinese capital investing in the tourism market. Perhaps a new business district would pop up there. That is the promise of Kinmen. Because of its geography, the pull of the Xiamen economy is extremely tantalizing to every landowner in Kinmen. Moreover, that bridge might be under construction already. There is a small island (Little Kinmen) between the main island of Kinmen and Xiamen island. The ROC government is building a bridge between the two Kinmen islands, and pro-independence groups on Taiwan have complained that this bridge seems suspiciously large. Why is such a large bridge needed for traffic between these two islands, since Little Kinmen only has a little more than 10,000 people? They are terrified that the ultimate plan is to build a second bridge between Xiamen and Little Kinmen. If that ever happens, Kinmen will be fundamentally transformed.
From the preceding discussion, you should be able to see why the DPP and its Taiwan-centric platform have so little appeal in Kinmen. It is clearly in Kinmen’s economic interests to be integrated into the Chinese economy. Just as importantly, Kinmen residents have been separated from China for a much shorter time than Taiwanese have, so their affinity with China is naturally closer. They certainly are not Taiwan nationalists. In presidential contests, the KMT usually wins 95% of the votes in Kinmen. In legislative and county magistrate elections, the KMT has often been beaten by New Party or People First Party candidates. The current county magistrate is an independent who was formerly a PFP legislator. This year, the legislative election is between Wu Cheng-dian 吳成典, an old warhorse who used to be a New Party member, and Yang Chen-wu 楊鎮浯, a newcomer whose father was a member of the National Assembly some years ago. I don’t have any idea who will win.
I’m actually more interested in the DPP candidate, who almost certainly won’t come close to winning. The DPP nearly doubled its vote share in the last presidential race, going from 4.9% in 2008 to 8.2% in 2012. I think this is most likely a reflection of the population boom. There are a lot of people who live on Taiwan and vote on Kinmen. They probably aren’t a strong DPP constituency either, but if 20% of these are DPP supporters, that would be enough to raise its overall vote share. The DPP has managed to elect one person to the county assembly, and he is now running for legislator. Chen Tsang-chiang 陳滄江 seems to have two appeals: constituency service and the need for Kinmen to have a conduit to the future DPP regime. This latter appeal reminds me of the old American South. In the Jim Crow era (roughly 1876-1954), the Democrats dominated politics in the southern states. In some states, the Republicans had almost no support. However, even Mississippi and South Carolina had a Republican party organization. These parties barely bothered to contest elections. Their entire purpose was to hope the Republicans could win control of the federal government. The federal government had a lot of money to hand out, and it naturally wanted to disburse this through local Republican operatives. Mississippi Republicans’ entire purpose was to be this bridge between the federal and state levels, so that they could siphon off some of those resources for themselves and their allies. This is almost exactly what Chen Tsang-chiang is telling voters in Kinmen: I’m going to have some goodies to hand out, so you will want to be my friend. I bet he’ll run ahead of Tsai.
Sorghum, the mother grain of Kinmen. My wife kept remarking how much the plant (though not the grains) look like a stunted version of corn. I was impressed by how untidy the fields look in comparison with other grains. They don’t seem to grow sorghum in neat rows. There’s probably a good reason for this, but I don’t know anything about farming.
This is fengshiye 風獅爺, the Wind Lion God. He protects Kinmen from windy storms. You see statues of him all over the island, almost like you see shrines to the local earth god everywhere in Taiwan. This statue is very weather beaten but still has fresh incense. I guess he’s doing a good job.
This beach was a few steps from the Wind Lion God. Who knew that Kinmen had beaches? Probably not the residents. Because of the military occupation, they have been completely cut off from the ocean for half a century. This is the case in Taiwan as well, but it’s more extreme in Kinmen. You can’t really see it in this photo, but we could clearly see the Chinese coastline from this vantage point.
The skyline in Bishan 碧山 village, on the northeast corner of the island. Note all the new houses sprouting up among the traditional architecture.
We stumbled upon this crumbling foreign house, and this may have been my favorite thing I saw all weekend. The house was built around 1931.
It seems to have been taken over by the military after 1949. There are patriotic slogans all over the outside. In the courtyard, the faded characters on the wall say “complete the great task of unifying China” 完成統一中國大業。This is on the main gate, and it says, “complete the mission of constructing the country.”
On the outside wall, you can just make out, “liberate our mainland compatriots” 解救大陸同胞。
Unlike the other slogans, this one is not merely painted, so it might be part of the original house. On the other hand, the translation 團結就是力量 is a favorite KMT slogan (assuming they really meant “unity is strength”).
That’s an impressive tree growing on the building. I think nature is winning.
Here’s the view from inside. Nature is kicking ass!
Right around the corner, here is the school. I didn’t see the clan temple, but I’ll bet the rich overseas Chinese merchant built one of those for his hometown, too.
This is a much better preserved foreign building, which is probably why they brought us to see it on our (very short) tour. Note the tower and heavy walls to defend against pirates.