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Travel & Holiday

Kinmen kinship

The scenic Taiwan island with its war past has much to offer, and there is a Singapore connection
The Straits Times - November 8, 2011
By: Yong Shu Hoong
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Kinmen kinship Gun tower: Built by a local businessman, the 11m-tall Deyue Tower had windows designed for placement of firearms to fend off attacks. -- PHOTOS: YONG SHU HOONG

If you are an adventuresome traveller not put off by visiting an area that was once heavily shelled, or are a military history buff, a new destination has opened up that might tick your boxes.

It is the small Taiwanese archipelago of Kinmen, just off the coast of China's Fujian province.

The area was once a military outpost and came under shelling from China for more than two decades from 1958.

Many journalists on the trip were initially sceptical about Kinmen as a subject for their travel stories. An American journalist wondered, with some trepidation, if there were landmines still buried on the beaches.

Similarly concerned, I asked Mr Li Wo-shih, county mayor of Kinmen, during his meeting with our media group, about potential dangers that tourists may face on the main island of Kinmen.

After all, it is much closer to China's territory than the main island of Taiwan, with its closest point being just 2km away.

To that, the mayor replied - with a smile - that Kinmen could well be one of the safest places on earth.

According to an official from Mr Li's office, 80 per cent of the beaches have been cleared of mines that were deployed as part of Taiwan's defence against China during the Cold War era.

Demining of outlying islands - Kinmen consists of 15 additional smaller islands - and cordoned-off areas on some of the main island's beaches is expected to be completed by 2013.

In addition, there are very few reports of serious crimes in this area now known more for its peace and order, rather than military conflicts.

Since the early 1990s, Kinmen has embraced tourism to enhance its economy. Last year, a total of 600,000 tourists visited the island, including 240,000 domestic tourists, 340,000 from China and 20,000 from other countries.

Indeed, it has much to offer with its beaches and greenery that we could see as our flight from Taipei made its descent to land at Kinmen Airport in the central part of the archipelago's main island.

As our tour bus exited the airport, a sense of relaxation swept over me as I realised just how uncluttered the roads were compared to Taipei's busy thoroughfares.

At 153 sq km, the bowtie-shaped island is around a quarter the size of Singapore and has a population of about 100,000. Covered by swathes of forests and lakes, it is dotted by traditional Fujian villages and modest townships with few high-rise buildings.

Just as how Vietnam is tapping its war past in its tourism development and promotion, Kinmen's important role in war and history has also contributed significantly to the character of the place.

For example, Rushan Old Fort is located five minutes from the airport within the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Forest and administered by Kinmen National Park. Here, war relics such as fighter jets and tanks jostle for attention among majestic pine trees within the park's tranquil environment.

The Zhaishan Tunnel in south-western Kinmen is another popular tourist attraction. Carved into granite bedrock, it provided a waterway for military boats to deliver supplies to a wharf inside the tunnel.

Completed in 1966 for the navy's use and opened to the public since 1997, the tunnel lets visitors walk along dim corridors by its waterway, where coloured lighting and watery reflections add to the sense of mystique.

Taking advantage of the tunnel's acoustics, free concerts by small orchestras and quartets are held on a floating platform on water during Zhaishan Tunnel's annual music festival in October. 

For those interested in delving deeper into Kinmen's war history, the Guningtou Battle Museum is a worthy stopover. The epic three-day battle in 1949, when more than 9,000 communist soldiers landed on Kinmen's north-west coast before their subsequent defeat, is brought to life through informative exhibits and a multimedia presentation.

Located near the Guningtou battlefield is Lake Ci, a prime bird-watching area where cormorants, geese, egrets, pelicans, kingfishers and other migratory birds can be spotted at different times of the year.

The Triangle Fort, situated on the lake's western side, is constructed of stone blocks and concrete. This fortress, along with a straight row of tanks laid out as exhibits along the nearby sandy beach, is another reminder of the island's military past.

Such remembrances were again evoked at the Chin Ho Li Knife Factory (236 Boyu Road, tel: 082-323999), where its current director, Mr Wu Tseng-dong, flaunted his blacksmith skills before a coal oven and, in under 20 minutes, transformed a fragment of an old artillery shell into a shiny kitchen knife.

These Chinese shells, each around the length of one's forearm, were made from high-quality steel in Russia. According to 53-year-old 'Maestro Wu' (as he proclaims on his company's product packaging), one spent shell can yield 40 to 60 knives. He produces about 80 a day.

At the factory's retail shop, eager tourists snap up Maestro Wu knives ranging from NT$950 (S$40) for a fruit knife to NT$1,300 for a cleaver.

Singaporean tourists may also be chuffed to learn of Kinmen's close connection to Singapore. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, many young people from Kinmen travelled to South-east Asia to explore job opportunities in the region.

It is estimated that Singapore has the largest overseas Kinmen population. And at a cluster of Western-style houses in Shuitou Village, visitors can peruse exhibits pertaining to Kinmen emigrants' lives in South-east Asia and their contribution to Kinmen's society.

The 11m-tall Deyue Tower was built in 1931 by a local businessman who made his fortune in South-east Asia. It acted as a 'gun tower', with windows designed for placement of firearms, to fend off attacks by pirates and thieves.

While tourism is still in its fledgling phase in Kinmen, where restaurant and accommodation choices may be limited, the fun is in the exploration to uncover hidden gems.

But changes are already in the pipeline. There are now 42 ferry passages daily between Kinmen's Shuitou Harbour and Xiamen ports in China, and plans are underway to increase the island's capacity to handle more visitors arriving via sea routes.

Infrastructure is also being shored up to eventually elevate it into an internat- ional tourist destination.

Sure, the shadow of war looms large over Kinmen. After all, it came under the control of Nationalist troops as they retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after being expelled from mainland China by the Communist army.

That same year, Communist troops tried to recapture Kinmen, but their defeat at the Battle of Guningtou stalled the intended advance towards Taiwan.

Other military conflicts ensued, including China's shelling of Kinmen.

But now, it is only a matter of time before the small-town feel of the commercial centre of Jincheng gets rejuvenated by the development of new hotels, and luxury resorts start popping up along its better beaches in the south.

Before excessive commercialism takes hold, Kinmen's friendly, down-to-earth people and rustic, laid-back atmosphere provide an intriguing contrast to its turbulent past.

 

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