The Fujianese island of Xiamen in China, including areas like Haicang on the mainland and the Gulang Yu islet, is a place full of day trips. There are enough places to see and things to do, and to see again and do again, that it could occupy a casual traveller for a very long time. But talk to enough people and you soon learn about another day trip – Jinmen. “What’s Jinmen?” goes the typical conversation.
“It’s a Taiwanese island you can get to by ferry”
“You can get the ferry to Taiwan???”
“Well, Taiwan is a long way away, but Jinmen is an island nearby that’s controlled by Taiwan”.
You see, back in the years following WWII there was a battle for China’s soul. Put simply, it was a civil war between the nationalist Kuo Min Tang and Mao Ze Dong’s communist Red Army. It was a titanic struggle and today, we still don’t have a result. The nationalists, who still claim to be China’s rightful government, were eventually pushed off the Chinese mainland and set up their capital in Taipei, 300km away on the island of Taiwan (as a side note, this explains why Taiwan competes in the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei”). With ambitions to re-take the mainland, they called their country the “Republic of China” (ROC), but most people simply call it “Taiwan”. Mao and the communists called their country the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) and it is that which we now commonly call China.
But as well as the island province of Taiwan, the nationalists managed to keep hold of a few outcrops in the Taiwan Strait, Jinmen and its little brother Lesser Jinmen, officially belonging to Fujian province, being the closest of those to the mainland.
The ferry ride from Xiamen’s Wu Tong terminal to the Shuitou port on Jinmen is a sharp 30 minutes, but enjoys all the formalities of international travel – immigration, customs and duty free stores at either end and a fresh stamp in the passport upon emerging from the rather dilapidated facility in Shuitou. The line of taxis waiting outside belies the sleepy, countryside nature of the island. Either side of the quiet single lane main roads, rocky hills, partly forested sit behind semi-rural vistas of rice paddies and scattered houses.
On the north eastern tip of the island lies Mount Lion, a fortress-come-museum tunnelled deep into a mountain with a 32km range Howitzer cannon pointing out to sea and the PRC. Thirty-two kilometres takes its shells well into enemy territory and so it’s a weapon of which they are rightly proud. The tunnels hewn into the rock are decked out with posters promoting Jinmen tourism and the exhibits along the way to the cannon offer the visitor imitation experiences of the theatre of war. It’s all very theatrical. I passed a mocked up war room where only a grandmother and her grandson sat colouring pictures. The lady, who was from Taichung on Taiwan island, greeted me and we chatted about her time in Australia briefly and then bid each other good day. Continuing up the passage, occasionally I passed a section of the tunnel that was walled off behind which I could hear mysterious voices chattering away.
The cannon is on the seaside of the mountain, dug in behind a lookout and accompanied by a noisy and patriotic video presentation reminding visitors of the times, as recent as the 1970s when the PRC engaged in regular shelling of the island, that Jinmen was the frontline in the battle for China’s identity. In fact it still very much is at the frontline, and it was there I concluded that the walled off sections of tunnel I noticed were for defence purposes and the voices coming from them must have been those of real soldiers. All over the sleepy island of Jinmen there are reminders of how close it has come to invasion and bombardment – the traffic roundabouts have concrete camouflaged pillboxes installed in preparation for invasion, the ports are scattered with sandbags and sea defences, and little Taiwanese toy soldiers are the most popular tourist souvenir.
Descending the tunnels again, the cacophonous cannon presentation fading in my ears, I heard an arresting female voice barking orders coming up ahead and strained to tell if it wasn’t just another recording in one of the war history exhibits. When it became frighteningly loud, around the corner came about 12 uniformed troops marching towards me in formation. Hastily I put my camera away, abandoned the path down one of the long side tunnels and waited for them to pass. When I emerged from my self-imposed exile, the soldiers had stopped in formation a little way up the tunnel, facing back towards me standing alone in the tunnel. They began repeating another aggressive volley of chants as I retreated. Well aware that photographs of the military aren’t usually approved souvenirs, I dared not retrieve my camera and continued calmly towards the fortress entrance, allowing myself one furtive glance back at them as I descended. The tunnels were otherwise empty, as was the war room where I had chatted to the friendly locals, their paper and crayons hastily put away. I wondered if an invasion was under way.
The mystery was solved as I waited outside in the museum cafe for a cab to take me the 6km into the principal town of Jincheng. The friendly grandmother walked in saying “Hi! You missed the demonstration firing of the cannon!”. Distracted and unnerved by the ambiguous nature of the museum & fort, I’d missed the main event, the daily ceremonial firing of the Howitzer cannon.
The eastern side of Shuitou town, near the departure port for Xiamen and the PRC, has a collection of houses built in the Peranakan style, by a Jinmen businessman who migrated to Indonesia and made his fortune in the early 20th century. Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, culture developed in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as more and more Chinese migrated from Southern China and settled in South East Asia before, during and after the explosion of European trade in what was then known as the ‘East Indies’. There the Chinese, a great many from Fujian province, opened businesses in trading ports like Penang, Singapore and Jakarta, cities that were ‘melting pots’ centuries before the term came into common use. They formed large communities and kept their customs and dialects, but a culture all its own emerged under the influence of the Arab, Indian, European and native Malay trading society around them.
Many returned with their riches and built complexes for their families back home like the eighteen-house cluster in Shuitou. These particular Peranakan houses now form a low-key museum that celebrates the South East Asian, particularly Indonesian, Chinese culture. Peranakan dresses hang where the wardrobes would have been and the upstairs dining table is laid out with models of ‘baba nyonya’ dishes, the distinctive cuisine of the Straits Chinese. After the more confined and garishly-adorned local Fujian houses, walking into those airy hardwood spaces felt to me like slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. The furniture made of dark polished hardwood with intricate inlaid pearl designs, the high ceilings and dishes with the words “sambal” and “satay” recall a more laidback, tropical world than wintry, windswept Fujian in February.
The Peranakan houses, these curious South East Asian artefacts transplanted to Fujian by an unwitting pioneer of globalisation, are fascinating to the smattering of mainland Chinese tourists who manage to make it over to Jinmen. And it was these tourists who joined me in the departure hall at Shuitou port, and on the comfortable, half-full ferry back to the PRC and Xiamen. There’s an irony in the truth that Jinmen, this bitterly-contested outcrop on the eastern edge of Fujian, has preserved its precious heritage through the wars and bombardments, while relatively peaceful cities like Xiamen and those on the Taiwanese coast have had much of their heritage erased, not by conflict, but by development. So Jinmen* makes a refreshing way to spend a day away from the the crowds and traffic of Xiamen. It opens the eyes to a world that has stayed quietly hidden away, sedate and unchanged behind the rapid pace of the Chinese economic miracle that has in some way affected every one of us over the last couple of decades.
*Once on the island it’s almost exclusively called “Kinmen”, which is only an alternative way of sounding the first syllable, the Chinese word for “gold” (金 jin/kin)