Mon, Mar 04, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Carried on the wind

The fascinating heritage of Kinmen’s emigres

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

The gates of Chen Jing-lan Western-style House in Kinmen’s Chenggong Village. The building was later used as a military recreation facility and the sign on the architrave reads “Kinmen Officers Vacation Center.”

Photo: James Baron

For centuries, Kinmen attracted immigrants. An early name for the island was Xianzhou (仙洲) — the land of immortals. While locals claim this refers to Taiwu, the island’s highest peak, said to resemble a reclining deity, it suggests a favorable living environment. Indeed, Kinmen was once flush with verdure. The island’s deforestation was attributed to Zheng Chenggong’s (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga) shipbuilding drive in the mid-17th century, but this was merely the shedding of the undergarments in an enforced, centuries-long striptease.

Heavy logging began during the Yuan Dynasty (1294-1307) when salt production on the island required large quantities of timber. A vestige of this industry, which petered out as mechanization took hold in the late 1980s, has been preserved in the salt fields of Xiyuan (西園), a tourist attraction in the northeast of the island. During the Ming, Japanese marauders exacerbated things — at one stage holding the island hostage for 50 days, during which time they turned their blades to the local populace. Zheng’s forces completed the denudement.

The result was exposure to sandstorms and monsoons. Bare and bleak, a once enticing haven had become a forbidding outpost. Compelling immigrants to return to China’s Fujian Province, an anti-Ming edict of 1679 compounded the isolation. Farmers and fisherman were replaced by pirates and bandits, who terrorized villages, ransacking houses and piling their vessels with plunder, before bolting back to Xiamen. The evolution of the island’s wind lion gods dates to this period. Positioned around the island, these statues were erected to repel brigands as much as storms.

“The pirates kept coming until World War II, when Japan occupied Kinmen,” says Chen Mei-ling (陳美玲), a guesthouse owner in the village of Bishan (碧山) on the east coast. “So, people had to defend themselves,” she adds, recalling tales of elderly relatives organizing armed patrols. “Life in Kinmen was tough.”

DISTRUST OF OUTSIDERS

With villages established along clan lines tracing to ancestral hometowns in Fujian Province, distrust and hostility extended to all outsiders.

“In the old days, you couldn’t even enter a neighboring village,” says Chen, who works as a nurse at Kinmen’s only hospital. “Can you see the secret hiding place up there?” she asks, motioning to the ceiling in the main room of the accommodation — one of the many immaculately maintained traditional abodes for which Kinmen is renowned. “No? Exactly!”

In the courtyard, a discerning eye can spot entrances to the hidey-holes where, says Chen, family “treasures” were stowed. Yet, such safeguards were insufficient for some. Around Kinmen are buildings incorporating more stringent protective measures coupled with ostentatious foreign flourishes. They are a testament to a generation of Kinmenese who took wing on the winds that had propelled their forebears to the island. Their destination was Nanyang (南洋) — literally the “South Seas” but akin to “Southeast Asia.” Yet, no English rendering does justice to the Chinese term, which conveys El Dorado-esque notions of unfettered opportunity that could not be enjoyed in China.

“In addition to a barren living environment and lack of materials, there were political reasons for emigration,” says Lin Chin-jung (林金榮), a local historian. “These included high taxes and restrictions that made it hard for traders to prosper in China.”

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