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Unbeknown to most travelers, Taiwan is actually more than just the one small, sweet potato-shaped island. Taiwan actually consists of over a hundred smaller islands and islets, all uniquely different from the Taiwanese mainland as well as from one another. The Republic of China’s sovereignty actually expands far further than the shores of Taiwan proper, stretching all the way down to Taiping Island (太平島) in the South China Sea, and as far north as Dongyin (東引) off the coast of Fujian in neighbouring China.
Kinmen and Matsu, both lying in the Taiwan Strait, are home to some of Taiwan’s oldest towns and villages dating back centuries, as well as legacies of the Chinese Civil War. Green Island on the other hand holds a much darker past, previously serving as an island prison for Chiang Kai-shek’s political prisoners.
In the second part of this two-part series, we will look more at Kinmen and Matsu, both lying in the Taiwan Straits a stone’s throw from Mainland China, and Green Island located on the opposite Pacific side of Taiwan’s main island.
Green Island (綠島)
Located about 33 kilometres off the coast of southeastern Taiwan, the beautiful small volcanic Green Island has a tragic past, and during the Martial Law years was once home to some of Taiwan most high profile political prisoners. During the White Terror (白色恐怖), under the orders of Chiang Kai-shek a considerable number of political prisoners were sent here to pay for their often non-existent crimes. Furthermore, as the Chinese Civil War escalated in the 1950’s leading to intense military confrontation across the Strait, ideological hostility toward each other made both sides undergo a brutal, unrelenting purge of anyone considered a political dissident. Thus, when Taiwan entered the Martial Law period, the Kuomintang government went all out to arrest all possible “Communist agents” who were alleged to be “enemies of the state” and accused them of being “rebels”. It was under these conditions that the KMT’s it’s “better to arrest one hundred than to let one go” policy saw hundreds of prisoners arriving on Green Island’s shores.
After Chiang Kai-shek’s democratic successors closed Green Island’s political prison in 1988, many of the prisoners jailed there between the late 1940s and the late 1980s became active in politics and helped establish the then newly formed Democratic Progressive Party. Shih Ming-teh, the former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party spent most of his 25 years imprisonment on the Kuomintang version of South Africa’s Robben Island. Notable cartoonist and writer Bo Yang was also incarcerated in Green Island after he translated a Popeye comic from English to Chinese in which he satirised and made fun of then president Chiang Kai-shek. As a result he narrowly escaped the death penalty and served a 10 years sentence on the island for “undermining the affection between the people and the government.” Nowadays, in place of the former prison lies a museum and human-rights memorial, part of which was funded by NT$20million donated as part of the royalties of former President Lee Teng-hui’s book: ‘With the people always in my heart’.
Despite its gloomy past, Green Island is now home to droves of tourists rather than inmates; most of whom come here to enjoy some of Taiwan’s finest diving spots, and one of only three saltwater hot-springs in the world. Diving in Green Island is a particularly renowned past time, and the diving here is considered one of the best in Taiwan. With great underwater visibility, divers can potentially spot over 300 different species of fish, and over 200 different kinds of hard and soft coral. Nanliao, Tapaisha, and Chaikou are the three most popular locations for diving and snorkeling on the island, and you can rent equipment from a number of diving centres in Nanliao Village. Hotels and hostels can also help you organise diving trips around the island upon request. Alongside Japan and Italy, Green Island is also home to one of only three saltwater hot-springs in the world. The Jhaorih Saltwater hot-springs on the island’s eastern side are open all year round, and with its open air pools located right on the ocean’s edge, it’s a fantastic spot to enjoy an evening surrounded by the views and sounds of the Pacific.
Turned into a battlefield during the mid-twentieth century, Kinmen, located at its closest point only 2 kilometres from the Chinese port city of Xiamen, is home to some of Taiwan’s oldest towns and villages. Steeped in historical importance, the island was the launching pad of the legendary Ming Dynasty commander, Koxinga, who liberated Taiwan from the Dutch in the 17th century. 300 years later Kinmen found itself at the front-line of the Chinese Civil War. Due to the island’s proximity to the Chinese mainland, the island was an easy target for communist shells and bombs which dropped on a daily basis throughout the 1950’s. At that time Kinmen was a temporary home to hundreds of thousands of troops, and although there is no more direct conflict between the two sides, their sizeable presence on the island remains to this day.
During the 1950’s when the Chinese Civil War was still dominating over this small and once peaceful island, both Kinmen, and Little Kinmen (the island lying just next to the bigger island), were quickly fortified. Anti tank and personnel barricades scared the island’s beaches, and huge artillery installations were emplaced on strategic high points. A massive tunnel system was constructed to shelter troops, and enormous loudspeakers were built to blare out anti-communist propaganda across the water separating the two sides. Today, these military installations are frequented mainly by tourists, although some military facilities are still used by the army and out of bounds to ordinary visitors. Along with old military attractions, the island’s many beaches which were previously off-limits and riddled with mines have also been cleaned up and opened to tourists. With the warming of tourism ties across the Strait, the number of Taiwanese troops stationed in Kinmen has been greatly reduced and the island is being gradually transformed into a tourist destination making war sites the main attraction.
Alongside the bunkers and observation posts, and growing in almost every available spare patch of land on the island, is Kinmen’s iconic sorghum crop. Planted in regimented plots all over the island, sorghum is the crop used to produce the island’s famous Kaoliang liquor, a type of Baijiu (usually rice wine) which is the world’s most consumed liquor. It is the island’s most important export and is a national treasure sold at restaurants all over Taiwan. The liquor is a pull for tourists from neighboring China too who come to sample some of Kinmen’s finest, and tour the island’s distillery. A remnant of the Civil War, but also home to rare wildlife and bird species, Kinmen remains a great destination for those who want to to get off the beaten track and see Taiwan’s Republic of China side. Only an hour by plane from Taipei, Taichung, or Kaohsiung, Kinmen is also the perfect stepping stone to Mainland China, with the city of Xiamen easily reachable by ferry once on the island.
Lying further north of Kinmen and located off the coast of the Chinese city of Fuzhou lies Matsu, a a small island chain made up of some 18 islands. Like Kinmen, the islands have a military outpost feel, and the casual traveller to the islands does not need to go far to run into someone in uniform. The biggest islands of Beigan, and Nangan are home to some fine examples of Fujianese architecture, with most locals here identifying with their kin over the Strait rather than distant Taiwan. The people of Matsu speak a dialect similar to the Chinese spoken in Fuzhou in neighboring Fujian Province which is mostly unintelligible to speakers of Taiwanese, and the islands harbour a considerable Fujianese influence. For decades the islanders were cut off from their brethren in Fujian, although with recent political agreements ending the islands’ isolation, Chinese visitors once again form a substantial part of the visitor population.
Similar to Kinmen, Matsu has a number of old military facilities turned into tourist attractions, and well worth seeing are the dozens of secret military tunnels once used to repel attacks from Chinese troops. These tunnel have now been opened to tourists and currently serve as a storage facility for locally brewed rice wine. All of the main islands are easily interconnected by ferry and whilst most visitors to Matsu prefer to stay on the larger islands of Nangan and Beigan, the island of Dongyin is widely considered by Matsu locals to be the most beautiful amongst the island chain. With a stunning coastline made up of towering cliffs and caves, Dongyin also produces some of Taiwan’s best rice wine, distilling a local Kaoliang rivalling that of Kinmen to the south.
Part 1 of Discovering Taiwan’s Offshore Islands, featuring Penghu and Orchid Island, can be found here.