Chinese Flash-point: Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands

You don’t need to be a military historian to appreciate the part that Kinmen has played across centuries of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Among several good reasons why you must visit, Kinmen’s rich military history and the evidence of war that still remains today are well worth seeing for yourself.

By Stuart Hill

When journalists talk about Taiwan as an Asian flash-point, what springs to mind is a theoretical naval blockade, a high-tech hack, or medium range missile attack from China. What triggers this violence is usually described as the result of Taiwan’s belligerence over the one-China principle.

Chiang Kai Shek Keeps Kinmen

A triumphant Chiang Kai Shek greets the troops after the bitterly fought battle of GanNingTou. The conflict helped re-define the map between Communist and Nationalist China.

But rewind 60 years or so and the context is quite different, and far less diplomatic. By 1949, the Communist Party’s success in consolidating its power and ridding most of China of foreign control was all but complete, with Hong Kong (Britain), Macao (Portugal) and Taiwan (Japan) the main unfinished parts yet to fix.

Kinmen Houses

Kinmen houses – like this abandoned western-style mansion – were retrofitted for use as battlements in case of invasion, with spy holes and rifle holes built into the walls and on roofs. Some houses still show the evidence of being in the line of enemy fire.

Hong Kong and Macau would be left for another day. The only thing stopping Taiwan’s integration was the remnants of China’s Nationalist Party (KMT) and the retreating population of KMT supporters “split” by the Chinese civil war.

The KMT had withdrawn from the Chinese “mainland” across these islands to the larger base of Taiwan. But in the meantime, the islands of Matsu and Kinmen had become the new front lines in defense of the Chinese Nationalist government “on Taiwan”.

Kinmen Anti-ship Spikes

While much of the obvious (and low-tech) defenses built during the 1950s to 60s have been removed, there are still some remnants of the most basic forms of defense, like these anti-ship spikes embedded along the beach.

Dug into the rocks of islands just 2 kilometers off the coast of southern China’s Xiamen city, the KMT military had appropriated Kinmen’s islands, turning them into fortresses from which to block any onslaught from across the narrow strait.

Kinmen tunnels

The KMT soldiers were extremely industrious in turning the Kinmen islands into a warren of tunnels and caves, such as these coastal defenses used to house ships.

In 1949, the Communists mounted an aggressive multi-pronged attack, with the bay around GanNingTou receiving the bulk of the assault. The KMT defended their position. The bloody result in effect drew a line in the sand, marking the political boundaries for what became the separation of “the two sides of the Taiwan strait” which exists to this day.

3 Spirits of Kinmen

The KMT military machine provided lots of reminders about what it meant to defend Kinmen. Inside this local bomb shelter is a sign outlining on the right the “Spirit of Kinmen” in three principles: 1. Don’t fear the bitterness of life; 2. Don’t fear the difficulty of work: 3. Don’t fear death from battle.

For centuries Xiamen’s Golden Gate, Kinmen, had been a form of defense from marauding pirates, a district of FuJian. Kinmen’s local inhabitants had come from China in various waves, and had used the opening of Xiamen to international trade as an opportunity to find new fortunes overseas.

Yet as the KMT retreated, Kinmen was remodeled for a drawn out war, with tunnels, excavated caves, bomb shelters, anti-ship spikes, landmines, anti-parachute spikes, and all sorts of artillery added to the landscape.

Kinmen Bomb Shelters and Tunnels

Based on personal observation, it seems that every second Kinmen house had an entrance to a bomb shelter or a tunnel leading to one in their backyard or basement. This tunnel leads from within a museum building to the other side of the local community, roughly 10 minutes walk underground.

In 1958, the Communists mounted another major assault on Kinmen’s islands,  and the Matsu islands further north as well. For 44 days Kinmen was bombarded with over 470,000 artillery shells.

Generally speaking local life was tough with restrictions in place throughout a roughly 40 year period of martial law. Military regulation was even more severe than that experienced in Taiwan itself.

There were nightly blackouts and curfews, limitations on travel, banning of objects that could be used as flotation devices. In the early days of KMT occupation, soldiers were billeted to families to make up for a shortfall in accommodation.

Food and drink was relatively scarce. Jobs and social responsibilities were geared to the key goal of preparing the island for an imminent communist invasion. There was a booming prostitution business on the island to satisfy the needs of the 30,000 soldiers based there.

Kinmen brothels and prostitution

Government sanctioned brothels or “tea houses” were a booming business from the early 50s right up to the 1970s. Each brothel was classified according to quality, with higher ranking officers able to get the best choice of comfort women. Government regulations limited each soldier to 30 minutes of pleasure.

This tense atmosphere and highly controlled environment was still in place right up to the early 1990s, at which time Marshal Law was lifted. For the decade or so before that, the rest of Taiwan was experiencing its heady boom phase as an Asian Tiger economy.

Kinmen Speakers

This concrete work of art – located in close proximity to the battlefield of GanNingTou – is a massive speaker composed of dozens of loud speakers projecting music across to the people of Xiamen, about 2 kilometers away. In less friendlier days it probably conveyed more strident threats about imminent counter-invasion.

Today, Kinmen still has a lot of its military history intact and on display, which offers a kind of tribute and reminder to the struggles of both the people of Kinmen and the Chinese Nationalist Party.

At the same time, the island’s ongoing role in the strategic defense of the areas of Taiwan, Penghu, and Matsu remains hidden away from public view.

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