Sat, Sep 08, 2007 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Taiwan's frontline receives rare visit

ISLAND OF DREAMS A rare voyage was permitted last Saturday when 122 people sailed to the isolated islands of Wuciou each with missions, messages and memories

By Loa Iok-sin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Because of its strategic location, camouflaged military facilities are scattered all over Wuciou. The 133-year-old lighthouse can be seen on the island's highest point.

PHOTO: LOA IOK-SIN, TAIPEI TIMES

Climbing on board a private charter boat, 122 people set off early last Saturday morning from Taichung for Wuciou (烏坵) -- a pair of small islands that remain isolated from the rest of the country because of their strategic location as a military stronghold.

Lying midway between Kinmen and Matsu, Wuciou is approximately 133km from Kinmen, 135km from Taichung, but just 16km from China's Nanri Island (南日島).

Because of its proximity to China, near 400 marines are stationed on the two islands that make up Wuciou Township -- in addition to roughly 40 civilian residents.

In addition to Mandarin, the locals speak a dialect called Wuciou Hua (烏坵話) -- also known as Meizhou Hua (湄洲話) and Putian Hua (莆田話) which are spoken along the coastline of China's Fujian Province and on China's Meizhou Island.

However, since most of the soldiers stationed on the islands are from Taiwan proper and that most locals have lived in Taiwan for certain periods of time during their lives, many are able to converse in Hoklo (or Taiwanese).

For centuries, Wuciou was regarded as the property of the Meizhou Matsu Temple (湄洲媽祖廟), and a place for fishermen from Meizhou to rest, said Kao Yung-chang (高詠章), a native of Wuciou on the way from Taipei, where he works, to Taichung for the trip.

Connections between Meizhou and Wuciou were blocked when the two sides of the Taiwan Strait became hostile, Kao added.

Nowadays, the only way the islanders can connect to the rest of Taiwan is via a six-hour trip on a military supply ship that travels between Taichung and Wuciou once every 10 days -- weather and tide permitting.

Frustrated by the inconvenience and lack of resources in her hometown, Gao Dan-hua (高丹華), a native of Wuciou, decided to organize a trip of 100 people along with non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as Taiwan Peace at Grassroots (TPG) and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU) to raise public awareness of the needs of the frontier islands.

To highlight the transportation issue, Gao and the NGOs decided to hire a boat instead of taking the regular military supply ship.

However, that didn't solve all the problems.

"Everyone -- including Wuciou officials and the company we were hiring the boat from -- wanted us to ask the military for permission to travel first, although there's no law that requires this," Chen Chien-fu (陳建甫), director of TPG's preparatory office, said during a press conference on Aug. 31st.

The permission finally came that afternoon, after intense negotiations with the ministry and help from several lawmakers, Chen said.

Despite the difficulties encountered in arranging the trip, the journey fulfilled the dreams of many of the 122 travelers.

Gao, for her part, wanted the Wuciou Lighthouse to be lit up again.

"My father passed away in March, and it was his hope to see the lighthouse lit up again," Gao told the travelers aboard the boat.

The Wuciou Lighthouse was completed in 1874 by British engineer David Henderson, but was put out of use in 1953 because of military considerations.

Gao's great-grandfather, grandfather and father had all been keepers of the lighthouse, and therefore, seeing the lighthouse lit up again was not just her father's dream, but also hers and her entire family's, Gao said.

Chu Ming-huang (邱明煌), on the other hand, simply wanted to complete his mission to set foot on every part of the country.

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