Kinmen highlights its heritage

While the outlying islands is often thought of as a strategic military post, its architecture displays the unique blend of cultures and influences its residents have brought home

By Chang Yun-ping  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 2

Kinmen Island strikes most people as an armored military fortress situated in the frontline of the Taiwan Strait against China's military threat. Its military legacy is well known, but what lies underneath is a land rich in cultural diversity and architectural beauty.

Lying along the southeast coast of China's Fukien Province, Kinmen is of strategic importance for Taiwan's defense against China.

It first opened to tourism in 1994, which led to a rediscovery of Kinmen's unique mixture of Minnan culture and western influence. Kinmen is a major hometown of many overseas Chinese.

Singapore has the largest overseas Kinmen population. Today, the overseas Kinmen population outnumbers the locals.

Growing awareness of the island's vast Minnan heritage, western architecture and defunct military sites has prompted Kinmen locals and the central government to preserve and renovate the island's precious historical and cultural assets.

The Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) has funds for a series of projects for these historical sites. The projects include cultural education programs and a Kinmen cultural park project. Subsidies available to Kinmen for cultural development totaled NT$428 million last year.

Under these initiatives, the renovation of western style buildings or Yang-lo (洋樓) began, as many of the deserted buildings were urgently in need of repair.

Professor Chiang Bo-wei (江柏煒), an architecture expert from the National Kaohsiung University of Applied Sciences at Kinmen's campus, said "Western styles were absorbed into the hometowns of overseas Chinese in Kinmen.

"They introduced western values, lifestyles and `novel' concepts of sanitation and hygiene to their hometowns. With funds channeled back to Kinmen from abroad, their families were usually better off than other locals," Chiang said.

The western style houses are hybrids of Chinese and western cultures, Chiang said.

Chiang who devoted his academic research to Kinmen's native Minnan Chinese and western style architecture, moved from Taiwan to Kinmen a decade ago.

"They [the structures] were built by successful Kinmen overseas businessmen upon their return from Southeast Asia," Chiang said.

The architectural style peaked in Kinmen between the 1920s and 1930s when there was a surge of funds coming into Kinmen.

The 131 western style buildings are located in some 50 villages and towns in the Greater Kinmen Island area and the Lieh-yu islet on the western side.

Shui-tou (水頭) Village has more of these houses than the rest of Kinmen.

The western style architecture resembles colonial style buildings in Southeast Asia in both the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, Chiang said.

The "five-foot way" verandas, adopted from the British urban planning in Singapore during its colonization period in 1882, is a vivid representation of foreign cultural influence.

The "five-foot-way" refers to a clear passage measuring five feet wide in front of the store along with an attached overhanging roof to keep out rain and bright sunshine.

In Kinmen's Mofan Street (模範街), which gets its name from the uniform hybrid architecture of Chinese and western styles, the shops all have the characteristic "five-foot way" arcades at the front.

The western style can be seen in the one-story "barbarian houses," the two-story "five-foot-way" buildings and the houses with overhangs.

"Barbarian house" is a derogatory term referring to a traditional Chinese house with a western pediment, while the western houses with verandas in Kinmen can be characterized as "five-foot-way" buildings -- structures which have become a distinctive architectural feature in Kinmen.

Most of the western style houses were built with brick and stone. Many of the structures are decorated with colorful Victorian tiles which give many of Kinmens's structures a distinctive appearance.

One can imagine the beauty of these buildings during the island's era of wealth. However, as the owners of these western houses have settled overseas, many of the buildings have been abandoned.

"The structures need good repairs and restoration," said CCA Chairwoman Tchen Yu-chiou (陳郁秀) during an inspection trip there.

"The revitalization of cultural and historical heritage is part of the objective in the council's development scheme for the nation's creative industry," Tchen said.

By recognizing the cultural value of Kinmen, Tchen said the abundant cultural features are a potential tourism attraction for Kinmen in addition to its military attractions.

"But first of all, we need to restore the essence of these cultural and historical assets," Tchen said.

However, for Kinmen, it seems that the island's economic reliance on the "small three links," which also makes Kinmen an important transit stop across the Strait, matters far more to the people in Kinmen than cultural development.

Local cultural workers complain that "the Kinmen government put the priority of the island's development on the opening of the `small three links.'"

"Many of our cultural works have been left in a state of disrepair," a Kinmen's cultural worker said on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the western style houses built by overseas Kinmen people, traditional Minnan Chinese houses -- spread around the villages of Kinmen -- also reflect a sense of antiquity about Kinmen.

Unlike Taiwan, where most traditional houses have been torn down and replaced by modern concrete structures, the Minnan architectural features from the Fukien Province in Kinmen have been well preserved.

Some of the Minnan buildings have roofs that have sharp, pointed shapes, while others display more circular curves. Yet all of the roofs all are designed according to Chinese geomancy on the concept of the five elements: gold, wood, water, fire and earth.

In Kinmen, villages are usually formed by people who have the same ancestral relations. Almost every village has an ancestral shrine bearing the symbol of the village, which is the family name of most of the residents.

Some of these ancestral shrines were built 450 years ago.

Due to a big exodus of Kinmen immigrants in other parts of Asia, and mainly in Taiwan, the old houses are kept up or lived in by the elderly.

Some people have built new antique-style houses to ensure that the buildings blend in with the older structures.

Many old ladies are not shy about inviting tourists in for a cup of tea and snacks.

Many of their descendents moved to live and work in Taiwan, and only during the Chinese New Year or major traditional festivals, do the children return home.

"This big house accommodates all of my children and grandchildren," an old lady said. "But their lives are better in Taiwan," she said.