There is nothing like decades of martial law to make a community long for the good times. For the residents of Kinmen Island, a frontline in the defence against a communist invasion of Taiwan, those good times were the days of handsome brick villages, a thickly forested landscape, raucous festivals in tribute to protective deities and kilometres of sandy beaches free of terrifying landmines.
had to wait until 1995 -- the year the island was turned into a national park --
but the islanders have been largely successful in turning back the clock, and
even giving it a good polish.
that they had the island’s heritage to work with. Take the villages. For most
of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), Kinmen had grown wealthy with trade, and
clan competed with clan to display status via their homes. While a number of yanglou
mansions fuse eastern and western styles, a typical dwelling is more
traditionally southern Chinese in appearance: one-storey with a red brick
facade and topped with overhanging eaves. It is a good rule of thumb that if
the roof sweeps and tapers out like a dainty swallow's tail, the family who
built it was wealthy. Other decorative touches on posher homes include recessed
lintels with ceramic figurines, glazed tiles, stone relief and detailed
carvings on exposed wood brackets.
events, such as grand, smoky festivals for the gods, have also regained
momentum (or more accurately, funding). The “Welcoming the City God” parade, a mass pilgrimage of costumed
and merry-making devotees across the wooded countryside, is centuries old. But
it was only two years ago that anyone outside Kinmen had heard about it
(through some well-placed advertorials no less). It would be easy to write that
the event is now in danger of losing its authenticity, but for a Taiwanese
community, when the times are good, the festivals should be even better. And the
gods themselves would not settle for anything less.
are understandably less excited about the opening of former military sites,
like the tunnels they used to huddle into for thrice-weekly drills (Kinmen is
one of the most dug-into places in the world). But most will admit that the military presence was not all bad. Idle
soldiers were usually put to use maintaining roads, building parks, planting
trees, landscaping and even collecting trash. And without landmines under them,
Kinmen's fine-sand beaches would not have remained undeveloped for so long.
The island's numerous lakes and ponds are also largely military
creations. Willow-lined Lake Tai, for example, was created when a causeway had
to be built across the mouth of a lagoon to facilitate tank traffic. The tanks
are gone, but today the lake is a migratory bird habitat, and the daily sight
of black cormorants
coming to rest on the waters in the late evening has become one of Kinmen's
the islanders are a content lot these days as they re-familiarize themselves
with the tranquil routines of country life. Their absolute isolation has long
ended, but with their homeland still just remote enough, touristy crowds are
unlikely to ever become a second force to snatch away the peace.
Kinmen is a short flight away from most major cities in Taiwan, or an hour
ferry ride from Xiamen, China. Traffic on the island is light and car, scooter
and bicycle rentals are available and easily arranged through home stays in one
of the old villages.
The article 'Overcoming 40 years of solitude on Kinmen Island' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.