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 (
You can also hear some of the stories they brought back from their travels at the Travelers' Story House (