A bracing exhibition in Kinmen is an aesthetically and politically gratifying reason to visit one of the most interesting in a chain of islands strung out across the Taiwan Strait and in the wider South China Sea. Kinmen has sandy beaches that compare with Penghu and is larger and more beautiful than Green Island. It's attractions have been preserved, obliterated and scarred by a near 50-year war.
Not far from one of Kinmen's long beaches, with fortifications pointing toward China like raised fingers, is a bomb shelter that has been converted into an art exhibition space as part of the Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) that opened earlier this month.
Eighteen artists, mainly from Taiwan and China and local schoolchildren, have transformed wartime bunkers into galleries of discovery about Kinmen that variously reflect on the island's buffer-zone status. The exhibits also comment on the years of full-scale war, when Kinmen was the battleground between what some locals call two outsider forces. Other exhibits express hope for a future without war. Military rule on the island only ended in 1992.
It is an exhibition of four-poster beds, broken pianos, documentary films and innovative structures. The diverse perspectives have been admirably put together by the Chinese curator Cai Guo-qiang (蔡國強), who lives in New York and is famed for his "wildly poetic" explosions.
Standing outside a reinforced-concrete shelter dug into a small hill, the local artist Lee Shih-chi (李錫奇) said life was like a lottery in Kinmen after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost a civil war against the Communists and "regrouped" on Taiwan in 1949. Kinmen became the frontline between the two armies. It was bombed for 20 years and became the most densely mined place in the world. In 1958, China shelled the village of Guningtou, Lee's hometown, with 470,000 rounds that ended up killing 10,000 locals.
Beneath a canopy of Kaoliang bottles that were made to look like shells, Lee pointed to the clear plastic lottery machine that spat up colored table-tennis balls on a stream of air. It was explained that the white and black balls represented war. Blue and green signified the status quo. A yellow ball meant you were rich and could leave the island to escape the war. These were the choices for people in Kinmen at that time, he said.
Just 2km of water divides Kinmen and China, a distance that appears further reduced when the tide is out. Taipei is over 400km to the east. Of all the islands that belong to Taiwan, Kinmen is the closest to China -- and not only geographically.
Though Kinmen is said to have first been settled 6,000 years ago, unlike Taiwan proper and its nearby islands there is not a strong history of Aboriginal culture. It was populated by waves of immigration from China beginning at least 1,600 years ago and it was China that named the island Kinmen, "Golden Gate," in the 14th century.
There was a brief flirtation in the 1600s with Dutch rule and the legacy is a number of buildings that have a distinct European look, such as in Shuito Village. In the town of Jincheng, Model Street's restored shops show traces of Japanese occupation, mixed with Fujianese styles.
Since January 2001, Kinmen has benefited from direct links with China through the metropolis of Xiamen about 10km away, and there is a steady flow of fishing boats and goods between the two ports. Locals speak what they term "Kinmenese," which is similar to Taiwanese, since both dialects derive from Fujian province in China.