Kinmen 金門: Transforming War into Peace @ The Home of the Kinmen Artillery Shell Crosses!

My first ever visit to the Kinmen Islands – YES!

Artillery Shells, Kinmen

Kinmen 金門 (aka Quemoy / Chinmen / Chin-men), one of Taiwan’s farthest-flung islands, is where the 823 Artillery Shell Bombardment 八二三炮戰 happened in 1958 as part of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, when an estimated 450,000 artillery shells were fired at the Kinmen Islands. It’s also where the Bishop of Taiwan, David J. H. Lai had his vision in 2016 to transform some of those artillery shells into crosses, a symbol of hatred and war now transformed into a symbol of love and peace.  The Chin Ho Li Steel Knife Workshop 金合利, founded in 1963 in Kinmen, uses the discarded artillery shells to make high-quality steel blades for both kitchen and ornamental use. Maestro Wu, grandson of the founder, now runs the company, and he kindly offered his expertise to work with Bishop Lai on the design and production of the prototype crosses.  To produce lighter-weight crosses, he suggested using moulds, and this was done by sending the artillery shell steel to another factory elsewhere.  This project of the Taiwan Episcopal Church has now been fully realized, and while I was in the UK on home leave this past year, I presented Kinmen Artillery Shell Crosses to many church leaders. This included acting on behalf of Bishop Lai to present one to the Archbishop of Canterbury; Bishop Lai himself led a delegation from the National Council of Churches of Taiwan to the Vatican in December 2017, where he was able to present one to Pope Francis.   This is Maestro Wu’s workshop in Kinmen – the smell of the smelters in the workshop is really strong!

But y’know, until now, I had never actually visited Kinmen.  So you can imagine how excited I was when Bishop Lai invited me to join this church visit to Kinmen for 29 members and friends of the Taiwan Episcopal Church, from May 20-22, 2019!  His purpose on this visit was firstly to visit Maestro Wu to thank him for his help…

Secondly to visit the Zhaishan Tunnel翟山坑道 in Kinmen to sing our specially-composed Artillery Shell Cross hymn, and thirdly to visit Dadan Island 大膽島, open to the public only since March 2019.  This is everyone in the Zhaishan Tunnel….

Thanks be to God that, through His mercy and grace, we accomplished all that we wanted to do in Kinmen!  But as we arrived at Songshan Airport in Taipei City on Monday May 20 at 7:00 am to check in for the 8:00 am hour-long flight to Kinmen, we wondered whether we would even get off the ground.  The Plum Rains were here in full force; outside was torrential rain (in fact we learned later that flash-flooding caused St. John’s University to cancel classes that day), while we also heard that Kinmen Airport was closed and over 1,000 people had been stranded in Kinmen overnight waiting for the weather to improve.  The 7:00 am flight to Kinmen was first delayed, then cancelled, and we feared ours would be next. Down south in Kaohsiung, 7 of our group were already stranded at the airport there as their flight to Kinmen really was cancelled, so all they could do was wait on standby for a spare seat.  Our group at Taipei was 22 people, far too many to all get to Kinmen on standby if our flight was to be cancelled too.  Aaaah!  Then suddenly at about 8:30 am, the announcement came that we could proceed to check in our luggage and onwards to boarding.  YES!

And our group from Taipei have arrived at Kinmen!

The skies were dark as we started to fly west over the Taiwan Strait towards Kinmen.  But as we got closer, blue sky emerged up above, and by the time we arrived, the rain had stopped.  But it did continue to rain on and off all day, mostly heavily.  Fortunately our group from Kaohsiung also all managed to get there in the end, although it took until about 2:00 pm before the last 2 arrived.  Here we all are, united at the ceramics factory – possibly our only group photo of 28/29 of us (taken by Mr. Chuang Hsiao-Wu, one of our group) …

Like many islands in this part of the world, Kinmen has a complicated history.  “Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) under Chiang Kai-shek began withdrawing its forces from mainland China to Taiwan. However, ROC garrisons remained stationed on the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, located off the coast in Fujian Province.”  In fact, the Kinmen Islands were so heavily militarized that, at its peak, an estimated 100,000 troops were stationed there.  Many hundreds of thousands of Taiwan men have done their military service in Kinmen, including our rector, Rev. Lennon Y. R. Chang. For years, military service was 2 years, so Kinmen made a deep impression on those serving there.  These days, the total number of military personnel in the whole of the Kinmen Islands numbers less than 5,000.  What a difference! But there are the remnants of army bases, equipment, museums, guard posts and military memorials all over Kinmen.  Many of these more obvious memorials are standing right in the middle of roundabouts – guess it makes moving military equipment easier if there’s a roundabout rather than a sharp corner, anyway Kinmen has more roundabouts on that one single island than I have ever seen in the whole of the rest of Taiwan. 

Kinmen is located in Xiamen Bay, at the mouth of the Jiulong River, 227 km west of Taiwan, but only 10 km east of Xiamen.  Xiamen is a huge port city in China, population 3,500,000 (census of 2010), and formerly known as Amoy – it was a British-run treaty port from 1842 to 1912.  The main Greater Kinmen Island is shaped like a dumbbell or a butterfly (depending on your imagination); the narrowest part is 3 km wide, and at the widest part, east-west, it is 20 km.  There’s also the neigbouring island of Small / Lesser Kinmen 小金門, and the much smaller islands of Dadan, Erdan and more. 

Sadly Kinmen has been very badly deforested by all the political chaos, civil wars and centuries of pirate attacks, so instead of being protected by its forests, it is now famous for its northeast monsoon winds that roar around all autumn and winter and make cultivation very difficult.  All over Kinmen are Wind Lion God statues, originally installed to protect against wind damage, and now also believed to protect against evil spirits… 

And then there’s the cows – like roundabouts, it seems as if there’s more cows in tiny Kinmen than in the whole of Taiwan.  They’re on every grassy bit of field, all individually tied up and with their own bucket of water, and all with their own personality!

For me, the most interesting things in Kinmen are the old houses.  There’s old houses all over Taiwan, but nothing like the ones in Kinmen. I expected to see a few, but there are thousands.  Most of them are well-preserved and still inhabited, others have been converted to guest houses and holiday cottages. Their style is traditional Fujian, with swallowtail or horseback-shaped ridges on their roofs.  They are stunning – and I couldn’t get enough of ‘em!

Tourism is now a major source of income for Kinmen people, and being so close to Xiamen means that trade with China is booming.  The water supply even comes from there, via a pipeline, installed in 2018. The Kinmen government has invested a lot of money in developing the islands for tourism and trying to attract their people to move back from Taiwan and China. Business is good, and there are supermarkets and department stores, big houses and luxury developments.  Kinmen is also famous for the production of Kaoliang wine, made from sorghum, and at this time of year the fields of sorghum have just been harvested.  Food production also includes oysters, and out on the beach at low tide are vast oyster farms – the sky was hazy, but in the distance we could just see the skyscrapers of Xiamen.

On our arrival on Monday May 20, we went to the visitor centre, to the Zhaishan Tunnel (constructed between 1961-66 to keep military boats safe from attack), where we sang our artillery shell hymn, to the ceramics factory and then to Shishan (Mt. Lion) Howitzer Front獅山砲陣地 where we had a demo of artillery shells being fired from the Howitzer, which has a firing range of 17 km, and was used in the 823 Artillery Bombardment.  In the torrential rain, we also visited the cultural park.  Most of these places were inside – so fortunate – seeing as the rain kept on pouring down!

We were staying at a guest house called 璞真民宿, located in Jinning Township, in the NW of Kinmen and owned by Mr. Kao, a relative of one of our church members in Taipei.  He arranged all our itinerary for us, and we also very much enjoyed his wife’s home-cooked breakfasts – and the chance to use his main room for evening worship. Here he is with Bishop Lai, drinking tea…

Early on Tuesday morning, I was up early to walk around the area. Fields of peanuts, tractors, temples and so many old houses to take photos of – oh yes, and a deer ranch! 

On our third day in Kinmen, I was up early again for sunrise over the fish farms, and walked along to the nearby villages of Nanshan and Beishan…

And the very nearby Li Guang-Qian General Temple 李光前將軍廟. General Li Guang-Qian was the highest ranking officer in the Battle of Guningtou, and his statue is now installed as the main deity…. 

“The Battle of Guningtou 古寧頭之役, also known as the Battle of Kinmen 金門戰役, was a battle fought over Kinmen in the Taiwan Strait during the Chinese Civil War in October 1949. Commanders of the PRC People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believed that Kinmen and Matsu had to be taken before a final assault on Taiwan.  The PLA planned to attack Kinmen by launching a first attack with 9,000 troops to establish a beachhead, before landing a second force of roughly 10,000 on Greater Kinmen Island, expecting to take the entire island in three days”. But the PLA completely underestimated the number of Nationalist ROC troops on Kinmen, and they landed at high tide so their vessels were beached and they couldn’t return for reinforcements. By the third day they had run out of food and ammunition.  “The failure of the Communists to take the island left it in the hands of the Kuomintang (Nationalists) and crushed their chances of taking Taiwan to destroy the Nationalists completely in the war”.   

Just near the village of Beishan, where much of the fighting took place, is the marker for the Battle of Guningtou, in front of one of the houses badly damaged in the battle… 

Nearby is the Guningtou Museum and its famous Peace Bell…

We also visited the oyster farm at low tide and the nearby beach…

And also on our trip, we visited the Deyue Tower, and the old houses belonging to the overseas Chinese community…

Also the Juguang Tower, Kinmen’s iconic landmark, built in 1953 as a memorial for Kinmen’s fallen soldiers in the Battle of Guningtou 4 years earlier – seen as a token of Kinmen’s spirit, and for many years used as an image on Taiwan’s postage stamps. And I just love the Kinmen telephone boxes, with the Chinese characters for Kinmen 金門 above…

We visited Rushan Visitor Centre and the Chiang Ching-Kuo Memorial Hall 蔣經國先生紀念 (ROC president 1978-1988) where there were displays of military might, and quite surprisingly a lovely pine forest to walk around in.  

One of our main purposes in going to Kinmen was to visit Dadan Island 大膽島, located right in the middle of Xiamen Bay, only 4,400 metres from Xiamen – the red dot marks the spot….

If Kinmen has had a tragic past, then Dadan Island’s past is possibly even more tragic. The 823 Artillery Shell Bombardment in 1958 hit Dadan Island hard (over 100,000 artillery shells landed), and ever since then it’s been even more of a major hub of military activity.  It was only demilitarized and handed over to the civilian government in 2014, and now it’s open for guided tours (though not as yet for citizens of China, Hong Kong or Macau).  This is the place where patriotic recordings were broadcast daily across the Xiamen Bay, and the place where the Dadan Psychological Warfare Wall was built in 1986 – the 3.2-meter-tall, 20-meter-long wall labeled with military slogans is a top-rated tourist attraction among mainland tourists. We even saw the tourist boats coming near to check it out. Dadan is also the place where homesick young military conscripts installed 1,473 cement lion statues, shrines and temples to help them survive the rigours of military life amid the uncertainties of not knowing whether they would ever be able to return home alive. 

We had the chance to visit Dadan Island on Tuesday, though our group divided into several mini-groups for the occasion, and we had to go on different days; the tours have to be booked in advance, and numbers are very limited, and it takes 2 boat trips to get there.  Actually it was a fascinating tour, with a very knowledgeable guide, who took us walking up and down on the steep road that winds round the island – fortunately the weather was kind and the breeze was pleasant, in summer it would be really hot, and hard work. The road is marked by artillery shell casings, used as fence-posts. This was the morning part of the tour…

A simple lunch was provided, and we got to keep the lunch containers to bring home.  It is really amazing to see the resilience of nature and how the island has restored itself after being bombarded so heavily by all those 100,000 artillery shells, which left it almost completely destroyed – we saw the video when we first arrived there, and it looked like complete devastation. Instead there are trees, shrubs, flowers, birds of prey, and if you didn’t know it, you’d think you were in a nature reserve.  It’s really quite beautiful, and yet at every turn are the remains of the old military buildings, hospital, barracks, broadcasting station, temples, repair workshops, tanks, jeeps, graves of beloved dogs, tunnels, guard posts and more.  The banyan trees are gradually growing their roots and trunks up and in and through and out of the old ruined buildings, it’s all quite eerie.  Camouflaged khaki-coloured buildings cover up pretty well when nature is allowed to take its course.  Well worth going to see. 

On Wednesday evening, we headed to the airport to return home, grateful to God for His many blessings. It was really humbling the way the whole visit turned out, especially given the weather on our first day and the possibility that we might not have been able to go at all.  The Taiwan Episcopal Church usually arranges one such trip each year, each time to a different place, usually for 3 days.  We are all grateful to Mr. Di Yun-Hung from St. Paul’s Church, Kaohsiung for organizing the trip – this time the logistics were very difficult to work out, but in the end, everything came together. 

Y’know, I really liked Kinmen.  Usually I hate all militaristic stuff, I try to avoid posing for photos in front of old tanks and guns, and I don’t like visiting places famous for battles, wars and military events.  So I was pleasantly surprised that there is way more to Kinmen than just remnants of war.  The traditional culture of Kinmen is really interesting, the countryside is green and verdant, the food is good, the people are warm-hearted, and the place is prosperous. Kinmen’s tragic history is important and we can’t ignore it, but fortunately these days the focus in Kinmen is more on finding ways to make peace and increase stability.  Long may it continue. And now that Dadan Island is open for visitors, it is becoming a popular place to visit. The more people know their history, the better. I was certainly happy to get my ticket!

And, guess what, one of the interesting things about Kinmen is the unexpectedness of everything, you never know if you’re going to come across an old tank, a cow or even a chicken standing on one leg outside a department store!

Our Kinmen Artillery Shell Crosses are one meaningful way to show that hatred and war can be transformed into love and peace through our prayers, through the cross of Christ.  Do come and visit Kinmen, come and see for yourself, and meanwhile do hold the people of Kinmen, Taiwan, China and the whole of the Pacific Rim in your prayers and hearts. 

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