A trip to Taiwan’s outlying island of Kinmen (金門) helps explain many of the convoluted plot twists in the story of Taiwan’s troubled relations with China. An intriguing must-visit on many levels, a lot of evidence of Kinmen’s complex history is available for all to see.
by Stuart Hill
If the over-arching story of Taiwan is about how its people have dealt with its geographic location and strategic position in the paths of far more ambitious global powers, then Kinmen (spelt JinMen in pinyin) epitomizes this perilous state.
Stuck on the doorstep of China’s southern coast, Kinmen has been more heavily impacted by the fluctuating relationships of external powers and international trade than arguably Taiwan’s mainland island has ever been.
At night, the lights of XiaMen sparkle brightly on the horizon. But it’s the flight in from Taipei that highlights just how close Kinmen is to China’s XiaMen.
The group of islands and rock outcrops that constitute Taiwan’s Kinmen have in the last few centuries fallen under the control of China’s KMT, the Japanese, Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, and various families involved in trade before that.
Modern Kinmen is still a relatively under-developed countryside dotted with groups of urban communities and linked by well-constructed cross-island boulevards built primarily as military transport infrastructure.
Today, while direct transport links between Kinmen and XiaMen draw in boat loads of tour groups from the China side, visitors from Taipei can arrive via a 1 hour flight out of SongShan Airport.
Although the local government is doing its bit to expand the appeal of Kinmen as an eco-tourism attraction, in any case, a key reason to visit is the mix of southern Chinese history, culture, architecture, and cuisine, you’ll find all over the island group.
For Taiwanese, JuGuang Tower is arguably the most famous building on Kinmen; it is at least the most over-exposed Kinmen subject for stamps issued by the ROC. As well as viewing the small museum’s artifacts and climbing to the roof balcony, visitors can watch a light show projected onto the building each night.
Here are just 5 of the many reasons to visit Taiwan’s Kinmen:
1. Kinmen’s Role in the KMT’s War History
Given that the battle for Kinmen represented the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT’s, last stand against the communists, it is impossible to avoid the weight of Kinmen’s importance in the KMT’s military legacy. This painting is one of many at the GuNingTou (Battle) War History Museum. From residential bunkers to sea tunnels to anti-ship spikes, and more, there are many other examples of Kinmen’s past military struggles.
2. Kinmen’s Fujian Style Architecture & B&Bs
Kinmen’s excellent examples of traditional Fujian houses are dotted across the island in large ‘clan’ communities. Many have been restored and converted into B&Bs by local families. There is a comprehensive explanation of the architectural styles at the ZhongShanLin Tourism Center that’s well worth a visit.
3. Kinmen’s Long Connection With South-East Asia
Following China’s ignominious defeat in the Opium Wars, Xiamen was opened as a trading port in goods and labor. As a result of this accelerated trade between China and South-East Asia, many Kinmen men sailed south. Of those that made a success as laborers and traders, many repatriated earnings back to their home towns. The result was a boom in construction of Western-influenced residences across the island. This photo is of Chen Cheng-lan’s residence built in 1921, who made money in Singapore and in running shipping between Kinmen and Xiamen. The building was later used as a military hospital and entertainment center.
4. Kinmen’s Locally Produced Sorghum Wine (Kinmen Kaoliang)
Kinmen’s sorghum was originally grown to create a local revenue-generating spirits industry while also helping to reduce the cost of importing alcohol for the resident troops. Today, you can purchase sorghum spirits from the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor company all throughout Taiwan — but you might feel more inclined to visit their factory showroom and store. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised to encounter the strong scent of fermenting crops in various parts of the island.
5. Kinmen’s Wind Lion God Statues of Protection
Reportedly deforested by Zheng Cheng-Gong during the Ming dynasty, Kinmen’s relatively flat and small size make it vulnerable to strong winds that blow across the Taiwan Strait. To help protect their crops, and in hope of tranquil seas, locals have traditionally called on the Wind Lion God for relief. Today you’ll find over 100 statues spread across the island, usually facing the worst wind-affected areas. Finding these statues is a treasure hunt in itself, as their shape, size, style, and locations vary.
Tips on travelling to Kinmen:
- Plan for 2-3 or even 4 nights to cover most of the sights on the main Kinmen island — choosing between your preference of military history, local architecture, nature watching, and local cuisine
- Be prepared for cool nights and scorching day-time sun, especially during summer. Winds can be fierce.
- Avoid planning a trip in April-May when local fog disrupts air and sea traffic
- Stay in one of the many “homestay” B&Bs to get a feel for how families used to live
- Hire a motor scooter from within the airport terminal; you’ll find the company beside the Tourist Information center
- Some areas under Taiwan’s military control are restricted from foreigners, even Taiwan citizens may need to apply online for entry, while areas of strategic importance are still off-limits to non-military personnel.
As you can imagine for an island community, Kinmen’s seafood dishes — including clam noodle soup — are local specialties. There’s a strong influence from Fujian and GuangDong provinces, and parts of South-East Asia. This breakfast selection includes sweet and savory baked buns, rice congee, fried bread sticks and sweetened soy milk.