The former front line off the coast of Xiamen is looking for a new mission. Playing host to visitors from Taiwan may be the best opportunity.
By Brent Hannon
The little island of Kinmen (better known to many Westerners as Quemoy) has an identity problem. In the past decade, its residents have tried one pursuit after another, from tourism to smuggling to small-scale shipping, looking for a personality and an economic niche. Each of these forays has brought Kinmen some revenue, and a dash of notoriety, but none has given it a high profile or sustained prosperity.
Not long ago, Kinmen knew exactly what it was. It was a war zone, manned by soldiers, bristling with artillery, and pockmarked by shell craters, courtesy of an on-again, off-again exchange of bombardment with China over many years. Guns and soldiers and bullet holes -- now that was an identity. Kinmen, 280 kilometers from Taiwan but just two kilometers from China, was the front line in Taiwan's standoff with the mainland.
There was no tourism at all back then -- visitors would have been crazy to go to Kinmen, with its mines and barbed wire and falling shells. But the days of overt hostility are long gone. The shelling stopped in 1978, the conflict settled down, and most of the soldiers went home, emptying the island's karaoke parlors, seafood restaurants, and beaches.
Kinmen blossomed again in the mid-1990s, when it was declared a National Park and threw its doors open to visitors. The tourists came in droves, and repopulated the karaoke parlors and restaurants. But travel to Kinmen has slowed since it hit a peak in 1997, when 530,000 people visited the island. The number of tourists has since declined to an average of 385,000 per year over the past three years.
In the late 1990s Kinmen turned to another pastime: smuggling. This became a popular after-dark activity, as boatloads full of tourists met mainland fishing boats, buying cheap goods from the Chinese. This soon became a problem. While tourists were buying toys and trinkets and T-shirts, Taiwan's gangsters were buying horses, pigs, and other large farm animals. These were smuggled onto Kinmen and then into Taiwan, where they transmitted costly outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth disease.
So the authorities put the brakes on smuggling too. But Kinmen had another ace up its sleeve -- the "three mini-links," which opened in January 2001. They are called "mini"-links because they are scaled down versions of the long-proposed, long politically obstructed direct connections between China and Taiwan for cargo and passenger traffic. The mini-links allow limited shipping between Kinmen and China, and also allow residents of Kinmen to travel to and from China.
At a press conference just before the mini-links opened, a journalist asked what items would be traded between Fujian and Kinmen. "From China, chickens and vegetables," said the man from the Mainland Affairs Council. "And from Taiwan, household goods -- toothpaste, shaving cream, things like that." Not surprisingly, the chicken-and-toothpaste trade has done little to revive Kinmen's flagging fortunes. The scale is just too small. In fact, not long after the mini-links opened, a mainlander cruised over to Kinmen on a jet ski, and was promptly arrested. Now that's a mini link.
So Kinmen remains in limbo, caught between mini links and full-scale direct links, and suffering from low tourism and a shrinking military population. This may not be the ideal situation for Kinmen, but it does make for a very pleasant place to visit. Thanks to the brief tourism boom, Kinmen boasts a brand new airport and a handful of modern hotels. Scooters are easy to rent, and guided tours simple to arrange. The seafood restaurants and karaoke parlors are still there, and finding a table is never a problem. Kinmen has pleasant beaches, some curious sights and souvenirs, and a famous local liquor. It was not dirtied by Taiwan's economic miracle, and has a pastoral charm and well-preserved Fujian-style villages that cannot be found anywhere else in Taiwan.
How rural is Kinmen? There's not a fast-food joint on the island, and residents bring buckets of KFC with them on the plane from Taipei. In a country where the number of 7-elevens exceeds 3,000, Kinmen has just three. The island is filled with traditional villages and old fashioned farms, where animals still plow the fields. Tourists can enjoy the gentle countryside through their bus windows as they take in the island's sights. Most of these are military: Kinmen has tunnels to crawl through, bunkers to peer out of, and various monuments and museums honoring brave soldiers and celebrating glorious battles.
Most interesting are the elaborate networks of bunkers and tunnels, which were carved out of the earth and stone and then fortified with concrete. They have entrances and exits that pop up in odd spots around the island. One of them, Tsaishan, is a hollowed-out mountain that extends right down to the sea, providing an underground shelter for boats.
Soldiers once hunkered down in these deep tunnels, grateful for the thick walls that separated them from a hailstorm of Chinese explosives. In one six-week period in 1958, half a million shells fell on the little island, and altogether, artillery rained down for 30 years. The soldiers of Kinmen shot back: during the 1958 barrage, they fired 75,000 shells at the Chinese.
After a decade of intense bombardment, the two sides began their odd-and-even strategy, shelling each other on arranged days. This gave way to "propaganda" shells, which contained rolled-up pamphlets containing exaggerations about the virtues of each society. The pockmarked landscape of Kinmen has since made a remarkable recovery, and bears few visible scars, although some of the old houses still have bullet holes in them. Kinmen remains home to about 10,000 soldiers, down from the 100,000 level of 15 years ago. Most of them are serving mandatory two-year tours of duty before returning to civilian life on Taiwan.
From one of the deepest bunkers, Ma Shan tunnel, tourists can peer at China just two kilometers away. Indeed, the mainland is visible from many parts of Kinmen -- there it sits, a collection of tile-clad buildings coated in thick brown haze. The tourists gaze for a few seconds, and then they're off to the next sight. And so it goes, for most of the official tour, which includes stops at a ceramics factory, a traditional village, a liquor distillery, and several beaches.
One business that has boomed during war and peacetime alike is the production of Kaoliang liquor. Sorghum, called kaoliang in Chinese, grows luxuriously on the island -- beautiful stalks of grain about a meter high. This is harvested, dried, and turned into a fiery distillate that can most charitably be described as "an acquired taste." There are two Kaoliang factories on Kinmen, and both of them offer tours. The air in the plants is fragrant with the smell of sorghum, which is steamed, fermented, and then distilled. Each factory turns out 50,000 bottles of Kaoliang per day, and the bottles roll off the conveyor belt at an astonishing pace.
Much of the factory output never leaves the island. Kaoliang drinking sessions take place every night on Kinmen, in neon-lit rooms filled with tables and plastic chairs, populated by heavy drinkers who wander from table to table offering red-faced toasts. Kinmen's salty, peppery, garlicky cuisine promotes Kaoliang drinking: steamed clams with red pepper and green onion, crab fried in ginger and garlic and scallions, kelp and oyster soup, beef in black bean and pepper, and so on, are all readily washed down by the clear liquor.
Kaoliang is strong -- up to 60% alcohol -- and it delivers an explosive burn that assaults the tongue, sears the throat, and ends up in the stomach like glowing charcoal. It has a long finish (too long, really), with a persistent resinous aftertaste that smacks of turpentine and ether. Whatever one may think of the taste, Kaoliang is key to the economy of Kinmen, adding more than US$30 million a year to local government coffers.
Aside from this, nightlife in Kinmen is pretty limited. There is not a pub on the island, which limits the choices to eating seafood, drinking liquor, and singing karaoke. Kinmen has these three pastimes in abundance.
The main souvenirs on Kinmen are ceramics -- much of it crafted to hold Kaoliang -- and home-made knives. Local entrepreneur Wu Tzeng-dong uses the spent artillery shells to make meat cleavers and other cutlery. Under his standing offer to the farmers in Kinmen, Wu will pay NT$700 (about US$20) for each shell they plow up and bring to his shop.
Mr. Wu prefers the explosive shells, which make 100 knives each, to the propaganda shells, which make just 60 knives. What does the propaganda say? "China is great, Taiwan is miserable, stuff like that," he says, with a wave of his hand. He's not interested in the wads of paper -- it's the metal he wants. He is not worried about running out of shells: the Chinese army thoughtfully provided enough raw material to last for centuries.
But times have changed in Kinmen. These days, when the 30,000 civilian residents of Kinmen look at China, they don't see danger -- they see opportunity. Some day, probably, full-scale direct trade will begin between Kinmen and Fujian province, and the island will have a lucrative new livelihood and a secure identity. But as it develops, Kinmen will lose its curious martial relics, peaceful villages, and pastoral charm. Visitors should come before that happens.
Travel informationKinmen is a collection of 12 islands that total 150 square kilometers in area. Kinmen proper is by far the largest. The number two island is Little Kinmen, which can be reached by ferry. The others are too small to support tourism.
TransAsia Airways, Far Eastern Air Transport, and UNI Air all fly to Kinmen. A round-trip ticket from Taipei is about NT$3,840 (about US$110). Passengers are required to show passports before boarding for the flight, which takes 55 minutes by jet or 70 by turboprop. Once you are there, scooters are easy to rent and bus tours easy to arrange. Tour companies can provide cars with drivers, and taxis are widely available.
Most people stay in Kincheng, a tidy town with five or six hotels that are essentially similar. All provide reasonably comfortable accommodation at prices that range between NT$1,200 and $2,000 (US$34.50 and $57.50) per night.