The World Heritage Value of Kinmen’s Architecture and History

If there is anywhere in Taiwan that might be considered worthy of UNESCO’s world heritage listing, it has to be Kinmen.

By Stuart Hill

Despite the many challenges of Taiwan NOT being a member of the UN, Kinmen arguably deserves a spot on the list of preserved places of international value – not unlike Japan’s Kyoto as an area of historical importance and living culture. Yes, China would need to agree with the proposal. And significantly both sides of the strait would need to cooperate on its implementation.

Kinmen men photo

Portrait of success. Away from home group of Kinmen men strike a pose in a photographic studio. Shots like these were sent back from places like Singapore and Malacca to Kinmen for friends and relatives.

(A note about the image above: it is a group portrait of Xiao Jun-Zhen and friends in Singapore, ca. 1935-1946. Courtesy of Xiao Yong-Ji. The image was displayed at Miracle in Time, an ongoing exhibition about the Kinmen diaspora and the idea of home curated by Local Methodology.)

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Key things of architectural interest on Kinmen:

  • Traditional Fujian houses, featuring horse-back and swallow-tail roof designs
  • Western influenced buildings built around the 1900s
  • KMT-built war infrastructure, including buildings, tunnels and other defenses

The Kinmen island group combines the cultural and economic importance of Taiwan’s old capital TaiNan, with the military and modern geo-political legacy of Taiwan’s other outer island Matsu.

Add to that the architectural history of PengHu, top it off with the contemporary impasse of Taiwan-China relations, and it seems to be perfectly qualified to be remembered AND preserved as a place of significant world heritage.

In that vein, Taiwan established Kinmen as a national park in 1995, in recognition of it military history and the value of its monuments.

Wealthy Kinmen houses

Aging beauties. Many of the houses built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been restored, reflecting the affluence of certain families of the time, with elaborate decorations, bright tiling, and various contemporary references.

It’s geographic location has delivered an unavoidable role in the ebbs and flows of China’s own turbulent history. This front seat view of China – which is literally less the 2 km away and in easy sight – stretches back centuries.

Some key historical highlights include:

  • The Tang Dynasty uses Kinmen as a place to breed horses in 803
  • In 1387 the first fortifications are built for local protection against pirates
  • Zheng Cheng-gong – who played such an important role in ousting the Dutch from Taiwan – establishes Kinmen as his base in the 1640s, and quickly begins felling the island’s trees for construction of his navy
  • After the defeat of China to the Europeans in the Opium war, Xiamen is open as a trading port in 1842, while Kinmen men venture out to make their fortunes overseas
  • Between 1937-1944 Kinmen is occupied by the Japanese
  • In 1949 the KMT and Chinese Communists come to a standstill with a line draw on the map at the conclusion of the battle of GuNingTou

Even up to the present day, this shared history is still being written, as the boatloads of Chinese tourists come to visit, a place that for many must seem “an inalienable part of China”. And relatively speaking, it pretty much has always been.

Kinmen B&B

Many of Kinmen’s historic homes are still being used today. Visitors can also experience a sense of the old times by staying at any one of the island’s B&Bs .

Kinmen is in fact a treasure trove of cultural relics, spanning the culture, cuisine, politics, trade, immigration, agriculture, architecture, spiritual beliefs, and global interactions of Chinese across the last 500 years, and more.

Interwoven into this Chinese tapestry of Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasty origins, are the threads of Dutch and Japanese colonialism and maritime trade, as well as influences from South-East Asia, and the more modern hardships of sustaining the Chinese Civil War.

Some of the most interesting sites in Kinmen are the remains – either restored or not – of western-influenced architecture that dot the two main islands. These buildings – collectively titled “western-buildings” or Yang Lou (洋樓) reflect elements adapted and incorporated from the western buildings of the European maritime colonial era, which heavily impacted South-east Asia and Hong Kong.

The DeYue Tower -- built by the wealthy businessman Huang Huei-huang -- was constructed to defend against pirates. The nearby YouTang Villa dates back to 1766.

The DeYue Tower — built by the wealthy businessman Huang Huei-huang — was constructed to defend against pirates. The nearby YouTang Villa dates back to 1766.

As a testament to the self-reliance of the locals – and the precarious world they inhabited – a local mansion in ShuiTou has a high tower designed to help defend from pirates. The nearby houses have upper stories and easily barricaded doors to ensure safety and allow better chance of thwarting any attackers down below.

You can also see something of this defensive attitude in the labyrinth of tunnels built under each town to resist bombing from China.

Education was also a highly respected investment. The local ShuiTou school, for example, was built on repatriated funds from laborers and traders working across Asia. If nothing else, the school provides an insight into the importance Kinmen families placed on the value of learning.

Local Kinmen school

Valuable lessons. The local school in ShuiTou village was built on the funds of Kinmen men who found their fortune throughout South-East Asia. The local community placed strong emphasis on educating their next generations.

During the Ming Dynasty, the central government provided funds for the building of another school – in Kinmen’s downtown  area of JinChengZheng (金城鎮) — one of only four at the time found across China.

In fact, Kinmen has produced its fair share of scholars and educated government functionaries, with several members of the leading families on the island passing high level examinations for government positions in the Chinese bureaucracy of various dynasties.

CyongLin village scholars

Kinmen’s educated elite. Home to the Cai family, the CyongLin village produced 6 scholars who passed the national exams during the Ming Dynasty.

In downtown commercial areas of Kinmen, the narrow streets of JinChengZhen (金城鎮) are a throwback to parts of old Macao or even the old sections of Taipei’s DaDaoCheng. Although stores start to close relatively early by Taiwan standards (about 8:30 pm), at night some of these lanes have the atmosphere of another age. By day, the medicine and various supply shops still retain a retro feel.

Old Kinmen street

Old-school night market? A night-time shot of the old streets of Kinmen. Many of the shops still have an old-worldly charm, such as the Chinese medicine shops.

Three not-to-be-missed villages on Kinmen are:

  • Shanhou village, and its 18 houses built by the Wang family in the 19th Century
  • Cyonglin village, built by the the Cai family during the Ming and Qing dynasties
  • Shuitou village, one of Kinmen’s wealthiest communities built on the success of overseas Chinese in South-East Asia

An even more impressive example of “yang lou” architecture is the imposing multi-storied mansion of Chen Cheng-Lan, built on the success of his Xiamen-to-Kinmen shipping business.

Yang Lou Kinmen

A room with a sea view. The mansion of Chen Cheng-Lan, the grandest of Kinmen’s European style buildings inspired by similar colonial buildings in South-East Asia, was appropriated by the KMT army and used as a hospital and entertainment center. It was originally planned as Chen’s retirement home.

It’s hard not to feel the importance of Kinmen’s place in the history of China’s interaction with the outside world. How realistic it is to see Kinmen protected and its rare assets preserved as a world treasure is hard to measure. For Taiwan, the ambition is easy to explain and justify.

But for China, while acknowledging Kinmen as something of global significance might be politically sensitive, it is the kind of plan that would be  a highly symbolic gesture in dealing with Taiwan, and the world.

Ming Stone

Fall from Grace. The oldest son of the last Ming emperor held out in Kinmen, hoping to convince Zheng Cheng-gong to help him reclaim his throne. A phrase he wrote “Han Ying Yun Gen” (the shadow of Han in the root of the clouds) was inscribed on a boulder, which later rolled into a ditch (seen above). Today the phrase has been re-inscribed on a more sturdy stone surface nearby.

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2 responses to “The World Heritage Value of Kinmen’s Architecture and History

  1. Hi, I stumbled upon your blog by accident and noticed that you have used a picture in an exhibition my curatorial firm Local Methodology has curated. It is titled “Portrait of success” in your blog. I would like to ask that you to properly credit the photographed picture for accuracy and respect for the owner of the picture. Here’s how you can credit it: Group portrait of Xiao Jun-Zhen and friends in Singapore, ca. 1935-1946. Courtesy of Xiao Yong-Ji. Image displayed at Miracle in Time, an on-going exhibition about the Kinmenese diaspora and the idea of home curated by Local Methodology.

    Thank you.

    • Ting-Chi Wang, thanks for providing this background to the photo. Indeed this Miracle in Time exhibition was an excellent explanation of the history of Kinmen.

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