Thu, Nov 25, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Kinmen opens golden gate to past

Kinmen is a rewarding repository of little-known history and some fascinating architecture

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Elaborate frontages were popular with wealthy returnees to Kinmen, which is translated as ``golden gate.''

PHOTO: IAN BARTHOLOMEW

From the air, Kinmen airport looks like a military installation. There are bunkers, pillboxes and anti-aircraft gun emplacements dotted around the airfield. And it is this association with Taiwan's "battle against communism" that first made the island notorious -- and now manages to attract a moderate number of tourists.

Fortunately, defunct military installations are not all that Kinmen has to offer. The island has a long history and its position as a front-line military district from the middle of last century has done much to mitigate the effects of rampant modernization, preserving pockets of community life which remain similar in some respects to what they where over a century ago.

This makes Kinmen an ideal spot for the culturally, architecturally and historically inclined tourist. It certainly pays to have a good guide, whether a book or a person, for Kinmen's monuments are not obviously magnificent, and without knowing something of the story behind them, you are likely to be disappointed.

Kinmen Model Street is as good a place as any, even though attempts at preservation and exploitation of its commercial potential have largely destroyed any period atmosphere. But even here, housewives will sit out front of their homes opening oysters, a local staple. Also on view is the local red brick architecture, which is more austere than anything to be found elsewhere in Taiwan. It is only a short scooter ride from this urban scene to something more redolent of Kinmen's frontier history.

This is De-yue Tower (得月樓), or Moon Plucking Tower, a fairytale castle of a building that was designed for the very serious business of holding off attacks by pirates in the town of Shuitou (水頭). The tower and the attached house were built by Huang Huei-huang (黃輝煌), a dry-goods merchant based out of Indonesia. The tower was designed with an eye for the protection of the town of Shuitou, which contains many other Western-style homes, mostly built by other members of the Huang family -- all integral members of a financial, trading and kinship organization that emanated from Kinmen and spanned much of Southeast Asia. The battlements and grills for dumping burning coals on attackers seem almost medieval.

It is this kind of detail that makes Kinmen a delight, with its memories of a largely forgotten history. Some of this has been recreated in the Overseas Chinese Exhibition Center (僑鄉文化展示館), which provides a fascinating account of how Kinmen people went south to make their fortunes, how clan structures were extended into employment and banking systems of considerable sophistication and also the manner in which the Kinmen Chinese became influenced by the culture of Southeast Asia and the colonial powers that operated there.

You can also hear some of the stories they brought back from their travels at the Travelers' Story House (出洋客故事館), also in Shuitou, with tales helpfully recorded in Mandarin, Taiwanese, the Kinmen dialect and English. While De-yue Tower is one of the most distinctive of the Western-style buildings on Kinmen, it is far from being the only one. Such structures are dotted all over the island and can be found in the most unexpected locations. Many have suffered terribly from neglect, but for those with time, energy and interest, they certainly repay inspection.

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