Plastic water bottles, brown medicine vials, and Styrofoam coffee cups wash up on the beaches of Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. This is the daily tide of garbage from the world’s most populous nation, just one mile across the channel.
But it wasn’t always garbage that came floating across from mainland China. Communist troops from China’s Red Army stormed this beach in 1949. Thousands of Chinese soldiers who tried to take this island from Taiwan were massacred.
“You see that well? It’s full of their bodies,” says Song Li Fa, a former Taiwanese soldier who drives his beat-up van through fields of corn and ancient water wells beyond the beach.
Song stops the van with a clicking of a parking brake, steps out of his car, and walks through the corn, his rugby-player frame towering above the lush rows.
“See all these plastic bottles the farmers mounted on stakes?” he asks, pointing his finger all around him. “Those are places the farmers don’t plow because there are dead Chinese soldiers buried underneath.”
More than 100 plastic tombstones rise above the corn in the distance.
“We were willing to leave their bones and not disturb them,” he says. “I think how you treat others is important. Be inclusive. Be forgiving. Be tolerant. Drop the hatred.”
Kinmen Island is heeding Song’s message. Decades after a bloody battle made the island, also known by its historical name Quemoy, the frontline of a long-standing cold war between Taiwan and China, relations are thawing. Its population of 130,000 belongs to Taiwan, but its island motherland is 120 miles away, and the steel and glass towers crowding mainland China’s city of Xiamen beckon to residents of a largely rural island.
A steady flow of Chinese
At Kinmen’s only harbor, hundreds of Chinese tourists disembark a ferry from the mainland, looking for an escape from the big city in the island’s rolling hills, vast beaches, and ancient villages.
“I’d like them to live here, too,” says Kinmen Deputy Magistrate Wu Cheng Dian, the island’s second-in-command. “I hope someday they can buy property here and their children could come to school here.”
He says he’d like to see the island’s population reach 300,000, more than doubling the current number.
Taiwanese laws make it nearly impossible for mainland Chinese to own land on Kinmen Island. But Wu wants to change that. He thinks China’s government should also be able to buy property here, too.
He supports a bridge from Kinmen to the mainland, a cruise ship terminal for Chinese ships, and he wants to allow mainland Chinese to use their own currency on the island.
Taiwan’s national government has rejected all of these proposals.
“We hope both governments can overcome their problems and give Kinmen a chance to grow,” Wu says. “Let’s all take a deep breath. We can develop so fast if they would just let us.”
But Deputy Magistrate Wu’s constituents are conflicted.
At a bohemian restaurant inside the island’s biggest town, Jincheng, ukulele instructor Xu Yi Teng, 26, wants to keep the mainland at more than an arm’s length.
“There are so many Chinese people, and many of them are wealthy,” says Xu with a look of worry. “If they come and buy as many houses as they want, Kinmen’s local culture will be ruined.”
Across the island in the ancient village of Shanwai, local culture is on display each morning as residents burn incense and fake money at a neighborhood Buddhist temple. Yang Yunu says she’s not scared at all about an invasion of wealthy Chinese.
“The more people, the more money they bring,” Yang says matter-of-factly. “I’m not worried about losing our traditional culture. We will influence them, they will influence us. It’s all good.”
But many islanders’ opinions about the mainland are more nuanced.
“We’re conflicted between belonging to Taiwan’s free, democratic system, and the desire to make money,” says Li You Zhong, a popular local television host on the island. “I think one thing we can agree on is that peace is priceless.“
Li speaks from experience. He lived through an era when Kinmen and the mainland fired bombshells filled with propaganda leaflets at each other every — on the evenings of the odd days of the calendar — from 1960 to 1978.
On his first day of middle school, Li remembers, a classmate was killed by one. “They sounded like, ‘Weeeeeeeee — Boom!'” Li screams. “They killed many people. We couldn’t go to the beach because they were filled with landmines. We were always scared and worried about the future.”
A relic from that bygone era stands proud on the island’s western coast: a three-story tall speaker system that blasts Taiwanese songs and propaganda towards the mainland at ear-piercing decibels. A voice proclaims, “Stay healthy and long live democracy!” in Mandarin before launching into a popular ballad from the 1970s.
Below, Song Li Fa, the burly man who gave a tour of the mass grave of Chinese soldiers, stands and smiles. The song reminds him of when he was a soldier decades ago.
“Back then, my mission was to destroy the mainland,” says Song. “When I retired, both sides had begun to make up. Now our economies are booming on both sides, but Kinmen’s economy still isn’t very good. Taiwan still treats us as a frontline in a battle.”
But mainland China, says Song, doesn’t see Kinmen as an enemy at all. Song pauses to ask a question: “Why can’t we put the people’s interest first?”