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Tuesday, April 26, 2005


An island on the front line. This would be an accurate way to describe Kinmen (pronounced Jinmen, which means Golden Gate). With China a short hop away on one side and Taipei less than an hour’s flight away on the other, Kinmen is right in the middle of one of the world’s long simmering feuds. The island has already suffered for its geographical location on more than one occasion. In 1949, China landed troops on the Northeast corner of the island, in an attempt to prevent the fleeing KMT (who had created the People’s Republic of China, or PRC) from taking control of the island. A combined 10,000-15,000 casualties later, the PRC had driven away the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Kinmen became Taiwan’s first line of defense against China.

On August 23, 1958, as Chinese and Soviet relations faltered, Mao Tse-Dong decided to make a statement about China’s strength as a world power. At 6:30 PM, the PLA began raining shells down on Kinmen. For 44 days, they shelled the island. Just under 600 soldiers died. People lived in tunnels. The U.S., which in 1955 had sworn itself to come to Taiwan’s defense, struggled with the prospect of being dragged into another war in East Asia (this was not long after the Korean War, after all). A cease-fire was announced in October. However, the Chinese were not done, and they continued shelling the island off and on until 1978.

As in Laos, the people of Kinmen made the most of the shelling of their land. With so much scrap metal littering their landscape, they began making and exporting knives which became known around the world. While there is no longer enough metal to make knives for export, the craftsmen are still renowned for their skill.

Technically, Kinmen is not even part of Taiwan. It is a county of Fujian Province on the mainland. This fact becomes obvious as soon as one begins walking through the villages and towns of the island. Fujianese style houses abound, some new, many old and crumbling. It was when I saw the first of these small villages that I knew I was in a good place.

It was raining when I awoke Saturday morning. After saying goodbye to Natalia, I went to the domestic airport, which is quite close to my apartment. There I was told that both airports in Matsu, my original destination, had been closed for the morning, and may not be opened for the rest of the day. Despite the hassles and worry that had accompanied my trip to Lanyu less than a month ago, I never considered the possibility that something like this might happen. The next flights were not scheduled to leave until after one. I could wait, I was told, but it looked like the weather would likely stay bad all day.

I wanted to complain to someone, but I knew that complaining would be rather pointless. As I had already arranged for two days off at school on Monday and Tuesday, I knew I had to go somewhere, but where? That was when I noticed that there was a flight leaving for Kinmen in less than a half hour. Natalia and I had talked about combining a trip to Kinmen with a trip to Penghu in a few weeks, but when I saw that this flight was not booked, I knew what I was going to do.

A roundtrip ticket to Kinmen costs about $120 US (3700 NT). I bought my ticket and headed through security. Then I talked to Natalia and tried to spin the fact that I was going to Kinmen instead of Matsu, despite our previous plans. I pointed out that it would be hard to see both Penghu and Kinmen in a long weekend and that now we might be able to combine Penghu with a trip to Kenting. She took the news well, and soon I was boarding the plan.

The largest city on Kinmen is Jincheng (gold city), and it is on the west coast of the island. It is in this city that most people stay. Jincheng is a great place to walk around. On Sunday, when I was there, I passed through several temples where people were worshipping. The market places were busy as well. Set amidst the more modern buildings I came into a maze of older Fujian-style homes, and with people out cleaning or returning home from the market, I felt as if I was already in China. In open areas were basketball hoops and lone benches. Turning a corner I might encounter a group of old men chatting or sitting in quiet, smoking cigarettes and passing time. Or I might encounter a mother and her small children who shout Hello as they walk away, and Good morning! even though it is almost afternoon.

After exiting the maze of the old neighborhood, I went to the most famous street in Jincheng, Mofan Street, which is known for its Japanese-style architecture. All of the buildings on the street are red-brick and their fronts are arched. They were built in 1925, and now most of the buildings house tourist shops and restaurants. As I walked on the street, something in the wind, something about the temperature, something about the make-up of the street transported me once again away from Taiwan, and this time away from Asia as a whole. I found myself thinking of spring days in Praguespent walking the cobblestone streets, and for a moment I suffered a wave of nostalgia that almost knocked me down. Shortly thereafter, I walked out of town and down the coast. I was listening to Abdullah Ibrahim and Ali Farka Toure on my Ipod. The feeling of being in the wrong place, of sad nostalgia had disappeared and been replaced by a combination of well-being, confidence, and happiness. As I walked on to whatever the day might bring (I didn’t yet know that would include a dog bite) I had the unshakeable feeling that the coming year is going to be everything I want it to be, that my future is bright and shimmering and waiting for me to walk into it.

I had decided against staying in Jincheng because Shanwai is more centrally located (convenient for one who fears riding scooters and instead prefers to walk or ride a bike). I found a hotel on the east side of town (Taihu Hotel) for about $20 US a night. I dropped my stuff off and headed out.
As I walked out of town, with no real direction in mind, a contradiction came into focus. On the one hand, Kinmen is far removed from Taiwan. The streets are wide, clean, and tree-lined. As I walked, I felt like I was on some small-town roads in the U.S. Also, the island is quiet. Blissfully quiet. Some highlights:
Walking through an empty main street in a small village, shops shuttered with large double wooden doors or rusted, corrugated metal. The spring couplets hung around the door to ward off evil spirits and to bring luck, slap slap flapping against the building.

In another small village, seeing a bird perched on the rusted remains of an overhang. It flies away at my approach and I hear the metal rebound under the pressure of the bird’s leap.

The wind, never overpowering but always present. Rustling through trees and plants growing in abandoned houses. Blowing loose scraps of trash and leaves across freshly bricked open squares. The wind, in small villages, giving the impression that nothing but nature is present.

Distant sounds of lawn-mowers and weed-eaters and hammering. The sporadic sputtering of an approaching motorbike, building and fading again.

The distant sound of barking dogs. At times, walking through the quiet villages, and the echoing barks carried across the air, I felt as if I was in the Mexican villages of my imagination.

My favorite. Walking through an empty market on Saturday afternoon. Above each of the stalls, meat hooks hang empty. The glow of cats’ eyes as they gaze at me, and the sound of a scurrying insect or rodent. From the market to an abandoned temple. In the temple a hole in the roof, green vines, dark and dust. From above a lone flute, a floating melody being practiced over and over again.

Despite the quiet, despite the cleanliness of the island, the way it is so well groomed, it is impossible to really forget that you are in Taiwan. The presence of the military will not let you do it. There are bunkers everywhere. Camouflaged buildings and military installations, guarded by young conscripted soldiers. In the towns and villages, though you may not see a single person, you are likely to see military uniforms hanging to dry. There are old entryways into tunnels standing near the road, or in the middle of an empty field. Many of the tourist sites are related to the military: cemeteries, museums, and tunnels. There is also an underground military hospital built into the granite rock that makes up so much of the island, as well as an underground theatre that can hold more than one thousand people.

There are soldiers everywhere on the island, most of them young conscripts. Mostly I saw them walking around, taking the bus from one place to another. One soldier started talking to me while I was eating my breakfast on Sunday morning. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was just checking things out. I complimented him on his English and he told me that he had lived in Canada for almost seven years. He had only come back for his two years of service.

How is it? I asked.
Awful, he said. We work about eighteen hours a day, doing landscape and picking up trash. Just doing stupid things.
Do you ever train with weapons? I asked.

A few hours after I had this conversation, I saw some soldiers practicing with weapons, and later I saw some practicing some sort of attack formation, so I guess that some soldiers do actually train to do military things. I have to admit, I was a bit worried for the future of Taiwan’s army if what the soldier had said was true for all soldiers. At least after talking to him I came to understand why the island was so clean.

As I went around the island over the course of the weekend, I could not help but wonder at the peaceful air that hangs over the island. How fragile it is. In various villages around the island, it is possible to see buildings scarred from shells and bullet holes. Perhaps white plaster has been chipped away to reveal the red-orange brick underneath, or gaping holes have been left in the red-tile roofs. Trees grow in wrecked, abandoned houses – in some case jungles of vines and bushes.

When I saw these buildings I could not help but think, of being in Bosnia and Croatia a few years ago, and the very fresh scars that remained from the Balkan Conflict of the early and mid-nineties. In Dubrovnik, despite the rebuilding that had already turned that city back into a tourist paradise, there still existed in the old town black-faced buildings, and when walking along the walls of the city, one could see where roofs had yet to be repaired, destroyed by shells launched from the sea.

It was Mostar, in Bosnia, that I thought of most as I walked around Kinmen. Mostar was the sight of one of the great tragedies of the Balkan War, when the centuries old Stari Most bridge was destroyed by thoughtless Croatian soldiers. Mostar was, and in many ways still is, a town divided by its ethnic heritage. Half Bosnian Muslim and half Croation Catholic, the town was literally split during the war, with people unable to cross the bridges connecting the two sides of the town. Those who attempted to faced the possibility of being gunned down by snipers.

Because of the split nature of the town, much of the fighting in Mostar was done on the streets, with automatic weapons. Along the street that became the de facto front line of the battle for the city, buildings stood riddled with so many bullets that they appeared to be melting away. Where windows once were, it appeared as if mouths were screaming. The buildings were destroyed, but still standing, and inside of their walls, plants grew, and trees grew, and the green seemed to promise a new life. One night I met some young Bosnians (students) at one of the many bars and cafés along the Neretva River. They were singing angry punk songs, and songs of pride. I told them how much I enjoyed Mostar, despite the fact that some streets away from the center of town still lay in rubble, and despite the disturbing number of children and young adults that approached me for money, making sure to demonstrate that they were missing at least one limb. It seems as if there is hope here, I said.

No, one of the students said. There is no hope. There are still two systems for everything. There is still too much hate and too much distrust. No matter how much the young of the country want to help, to make it right, we know that we can’t and so we leave. We will all leave if we can.

As he spoke his companions listened intently to what he said. His beautiful girlfriend stared at him with evident admiration. The group, a mix of Catholic and Muslim all nodded in agreement.

Someday he will be president of this country, one of the others said. And then maybe everything will be all right.

I thought of Mostar as I walked through Kinmen. I thought about the damage I could still see, from weapons used in 1949 and in 1958. Then I thought about the technology that could be brought to bear in a battle now. Suddenly the fields and the farms and the quiet villages around me, despite the strong military build-up on the island, seemed terribly transitory. As if they might be gone tomorrow. Perhaps it was with this in mind that made my enjoyment of Kinmen all the more acute.

Walking through the villages around the island was a true pleasure. I found the walls and the doors to be like canvases, beautiful geometric paintings. I took close to 200 pictures in three days, a majority of which were of homes both lived in and not. The orange-red brick used in the construction of the homes blends right into the soil from which it came. The elements, the wind and rain, the effects of time, have created beautiful combinations of colors on the faces of the walls. As the traditional Chinese style of building incorporates a great deal by way of symmetry, the effect was all the greater.

I often wondered if there was anyone in the villages I was walking through. I might see one or two people out farming, or see a single woman knitting in front of her house. I might also see some clothes hanging to dry, or washed pillows resting on a bench outside a window, but for the most part the narrow lanes and open squares that constituted each village were empty. In many travel narratives, people write of feeling as if they have stepped back in time, of being in a forgotten moment. I will invoke that now, and say that walking through the villages in the countryside made me feel as if I was walking in a ghost town, a long forgotten Chinese town

I have mentioned already walking along a main street of shuttered doors. I will add a few details to that now. A lone man working with metal. Four children standing in the middle of the emptiness waiting for me to take their picture. An open restaurant, and in the narrow darkness of the door a man eating soup. A barbershop open, with no customers and no barber, a TV the only light inside. Somehow, in my memory, these small signs of life amplify the general feeling of lifelessness even more.

The landscape around the villages is, while not as stunning as that on Lanyu or Green Island, lovely just the same. There are lots of wild flowers and open fields of grass. There are several lakes and low, bald granite mountains. Near one village, that of Liaolo on the southwest coast is a stretch of white sand beach that must run for more than a half mile, a gentle curve around the coast. The water there was calm and gray, two fishing boats anchored in the sand, bobbing gently twenty feet out in the sea. There was more life in this village, and the people I spoke to told me that in the summer time, there are people who come to the beach to swim and to play. Even here, though, on the edge of the beach is an abandoned military post and some old boats. Further back, behind a row of pine trees and forest is another military base, this one quite active.

I also saw stretched of white sand beach on the west coast, and I was told there were still more on the east coast. Near the northwest coast, by the village of Beishan, which is near to where the battle of 1949 took place is a lake and some wetlands. I saw several birdwatchers hanging out here as the sun began a slow descent, and as I walked around I saw several birds as well. Of course, I have no idea of what they were.

Finally I must talk about the people on the island. Once again I was the recipient of countless smiles and small acts of kindness. The woman who drove me in from the airport helped me to find a hotel and helped bargain the price down for me. The people at the hotel gave me the use of a bike, free of charge. A man gave me medicine and accompanied me to the hospital after being bitten by a dog ( doctor who helped me there did not charge a single NT dollar. Later, when I wanted to come back to Jincheng from Beishan, a man and his mother offered to give me a lift so that I would not have to wait for the bus.

In Liaolo, a man asked me to hold his daughter and take a picture with her. His neighbors gave me tea and asked me to come stay with them later in June when there is some festival taking place in their village. People wanted to talk to me wherever I went, curious as to why I had come to Kinmen, about where I came from, and what I did in Taipei. People were eager to help me with directions even if meant going out of their way to ask someone else. Old men with bluish cataracts milky in their eyes laughed and joked with me and with each other when I asked to take their pictures, one of them even pulling his friend out of a chair and posing him – the two acting like kids. In the memories of Kinmen that will last, I suspect that this will burn the brightest. It is always the people you remember most.


Anonymous Natalia said...

It gave me a real accurate and vivid picture of Kinmen, especially the houses.
OUCH! I want to go there!

3:22 PM  

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