Memories of Trauma & Travel: The Battle of Guningtou and Kinmen’s Path to Military Tourism

by James Alfano

Introduction

In Kinmen (金門) County, sandy white beaches are home to relics of a bloody past. Anti-landing spears and abandoned tanks protrude from the islands’ coastline, serving as painful reminders of prior warfare and present tensions with its neighbor beyond the Taiwan Strait. Just 10km (6.2 miles) at its shortest distance from Xiamen (廈門) City in the People’s Republic of China (compared to 168km away from Taiwan’s mainland), Kinmen’s geographic proximity represents the original dividing line between communist China and democratic Taiwan. Established as its own county in 1914 and controlled by Taiwan’s provincial government since 1928, this small collection of islands served as a prominent battleground between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist (KMT) Party and Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) throughout the mid-20th century. At first glance, Kinmen’s abundant battle memorials of the past and political conflict of the present may signify a growing tension that refuses to be buried.

However, these symbols of war transcend memories of violence and loss. Just beyond Kinmen’s fortressed beaches, music festivals fill now-defunct military tunnels carved from solid rock.[1] Local bars sell specialty cocktails in the shape of grenade casings, while shopkeepers keep a steady supply of old ammunition shells that tourists can purchase as a memento of Kinmen’s battle-hardened past. Despite the horrific events that unfolded decades ago, Kinmen County continues to shape its war memories from a space of trauma to a viable, tourist-centric economic model that serves to commemorate, rather than lament, its military past.

Kinmen’s Military Origins

Much of Kinmen’s war landmarks-turned-tourist attractions come from the Battle of Guningtou (金門戰役) in 1949, a surprise attack on the KMT-controlled archipelago by the Chinese Communist Party’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). Following a navigational mishap, the People’s Liberation Army sailed around Kinmen’s outer islands for hours before arriving close to their intended destination of Longkou (壟口) village, a hamlet located on the north of Kinmen’s largest island. Villagers who elected to stay despite rumors of a PLA invasion hid younger, able-bodied relatives to avoid forced conscription into the KMT Army.[2] The three-day assault on Guningtou devastated families caught in the skirmish. Constant pillaging by both armies robbed civilians of their food, valuables, and ancestral homes. While Nationalist forces ultimately overcame the PLA’s offensive, their victory came at a tragic cost; mass casualties forced villagers to bury their dead in wells and manure pits. When the odor became unbearable, civilians abandoned the makeshift burial grounds, leaving behind unidentifiable bodies without any formal burial procedures.[3] Traumatized and robbed of everything, the surviving residents of Guningtou sought to start a new life in the aftermath of a quick but devastating battle.

From the Ashes

Widespread infrastructural damage and a reduced labor force from the Battle of Guningtou decimated Kinmen’s already struggling economy in the 1950’s. Left with little else but the remnants of war, citizens throughout Kinmen County transformed the islands’ war-torn past into an attractive tourist destination for military enthusiasts and KMT troops. Kinmen civilians looking to pursue new sources of income conducted “G.I Joe businesses” from their residences, selling military paraphernalia left behind by deceased soldiers. While tourist industries typically face criticism for commodifying pristine environments or replicating “authentic” cultural experiences, G.I Joe businesses (and the tourism they promoted) on Kinmen focused exclusively on the “militarized and mobile”.[4] “Kinmen knives” made from discarded military shells are a powerful cultural symbol of Kinmen’s resilience and are fashioned into everything from mock weaponry to sashimi slicers. The county recorded $1 million USD in profits from knives alone. [5] The growing popularity of G.I Joe businesses created an extensive network of storefronts within Guningtou, a far cry from the rubble and destruction that enveloped the village’s streets several years earlier. Through economic development, Kinmen residents sought to reconcile traumatic war memories by transforming mementos of those traumas into profitable ventures that stirred patriotic sentiments in support of the KMT.

By the late 1990’s, war veterans from the Battle of Guningtou no longer flooded to the abundant G.I. Joe businesses across Kinmen’s islands. Instead, Kinmen’s “military tourism” shifted its gaze towards war aficionados looking to pay their respects to the ground zero of Taiwanese resistance to mainland Chinese encroachments. For tourists from Taiwan’s mainland, the one-hour flight to Kinmen represents a historically significant pilgrimage where images of war are ever-present, but distant enough from their own residences to stimulate curiosity instead of trauma. In this spatially immersive environment, tourists are encouraged to visualize the perils of Taiwanese countrymen through their senses. Former trenches and caverns now play host to group tours of old barracks where tourists learn of Kinmen’s military past from enthusiastic guides. By repurposing former scenes of war, Kinmen transformed its historical memories and the landscapes they occupy into profitable ventures emphasizing commemoration rather than suffering.

War & Harmony

Formally a hideout for KMT soldiers to provide solace from constant shelling and explosions, Zaishan Tunnel is now a venue for the Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival, a boisterous, all-day rock concert founded on the 60th year anniversary of the Battle of Guningtou. Ironically, the message behind the music does not harmonize with Guningtou’s bloody past. Concert organizer Chang Cheng-Jieh and the Kinmen National Park aims to promote “peaceful” reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China.[6] For the historically inclined tourist, Kinmen has several museums containing formerly used weapons, military clothes, and documentaries that take the visitor on a visual journey through the former military hotspot. Both Kinmen’s musical festival and military museums signify the county’s utilization of cultural institutions to reshape perceptions of its wartime past into learning experiences, commemorative events, and promises of a peaceful future.

Presently, Kinmen County resembles more of a bridge to mainland China than a barrier from it. On clear nights, Kinmen residents can walk to the coast and see Xiamen’s abundant skyscrapers.  This close geographic proximity coupled with available transit options has transformed former adversaries into mutually beneficial tourists.  Ferry services from Kinmen Port to Xiamen, China operate seven days a week, once every hour. Political agreements established in 2001 allowed for unrestricted, direct entry into to ease tensions between both territories, and residents on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have taken advantage of this opportunity. In 2009, Kinmen County removed some of its anti-landing spears to introduce a friendly “cross-strait” swimming competition from Kinmen to Xiamen. Amidst worsening political tensions, increased mobility and good-faith gestures between Kinmen and Xiamen can help clear the rubble of warfare and promote effective diplomacy for the future. Their efforts to make Kinmen more accessible to the mainland appear to be paying off; entry-records in 2018 show 260,000 Chinese tourists visited Kinmen compared to 230,000 Taiwanese citizens, a 6% increase in mainland visitors from 2017.[7]

Conclusion

Not all interactions between Kinmen and China promote peace and mutual understanding. A 1986 propaganda billboard promoting Taiwan’s “inevitable” reunification on the Xiamen side still faces Kinmen’s northern shores. Refusing to be outdone, the Kinmen government erected a billboard of their own, curtly suggesting China adhere to the Republic of China’s first president Sun Yat Sen’s “three principles” of democracy, nationalism, and “the livelihood of the people.”[8] Despite contemporary efforts to promote a more harmonious relationship between Kinmen and Xiamen, both propaganda posters continue to loom over each island, a jarring reminder that ideological differences, and the conflicts they exacerbate, are never too distant.

As a popular destination for both Taiwanese military enthusiasts and nearby mainland Chinese civilians, Kinmen occupies a unique space within fragile diplomatic environments. For its residents, the stakes have never been higher; airspace incursions and antagonistic behavior initiated by the PROC over the last several years continues to loom over Taiwan, and Kinmen’s proximity to the mainland creates an especially precarious situation in the event of another PROC offensive. Caught in the crossfire of this political rhetoric, Kinmen’s tourism industry continues to promote a paradoxical combination of wartime nationalism and hope for a more conciliatory relationship with its estranged neighbor.


[1] J.J Zhang, and Crang Mike. “Making Material Memories: Kinmen’s Bridging Objects and Fractured Places Between China and Taiwan.” Cultural Geographies 23, no. 3 (2016): 422.

[2] Michael Szonyi. Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008: p. 21-2.

[3]Szonyi, Cold War Island, 23.

[4] Szonyi, Cold War Island, 210.

[5] Zhang, “Making Material Memories,” 427.

[6] Zhang, “Making Material Memories,” 432.

[7] Flor Wang. “Kinmen drawing more Chinese visitors despite fewer visiting Taiwan”. Taiwan News. Accessed January 10th, 2022.https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3530174.

[8] Hsu Ping-Hsiang. “Lodging as a Catalyst for Historical Landscape Preservation: A Case Study of Kinmen National Park, Taiwan.” Journal of China Tourism Research (2020): 372.

Featured Image: Bryan Denton. A woman digging for clams in Kinmen County, Taiwan, among antitank obstacles…nytimes.com. September 2nd, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/02/world/asia/taiwan-kinmen-island-china.html

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