It looks as if there may be a confrontation. A Chinese boat has strayed too close to the shore of Quemoy, a Taiwanese-held island just a few miles away from China and one of the most heavily fortified plots of land in the world. Some Taiwanese soldiers open fire. Meanwhile, local residents nonchalantly go about their business. The shots are just routine warnings, explains Lin Li-hui, a 25-year-old restaurant manager. "If the soldiers actually hit the boat," she says, "then they would have to pay compensation."
Peace is slowly coming to Quemoy. During the 1950s, world attention focused on it and Matsu, another tiny group of Taiwanese-held islands that Chiang Kai-shek's troops managed to hold when fleeing China in 1949. How to protect them was a major issue in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race. Yet the warming of relations between Taiwan and China is ending the isolation of Quemoy (now known by its Manda-rin name, Kinmen). Taipei, which along with Matsu lifted martial law in November, is reducing the number of troops on the island and--for the first time--is allowing visitors from Taiwan. Kinmen County Magistrate Chen Shui-tsai hopes the island can become a tourist hot spot. "Before we were the front line," the former army officer says. "Now we want to play a different role."
Kinmen's businessmen are planning hotels, amusement parks, and golf courses. Entrepreneurs are eyeing an even bigger prize: The Chinese boom town of Xiamen is just five miles away, and they see Kinmen in the center of "Greater China," a future economic union of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.
While Taipei still forbids direct travel and business links with China, Lee Hsi-min, chairman of Kinmen's chamber of commerce, is preparing for the day the ban is lifted and the island becomes a rest-and-relaxation spot for Xiamen tycoons. The name Kinmen means "Golden Gate," and Lee envisions building a bridge to rival its San Francisco namesake. "The future of Kinmen is with Xiamen," he declares. "That way Kinmen can really be golden."
Until recently, Kinmen has been frozen in time--1949 to be precise. That's when Mao Zedong's forces briefly held the island. The bombed-out husk of the building the communists used for their headquarters stands as a sort of memorial. Mao attacked again in 1958, destroying buildings and forcing some residents to flee to Taiwan, 150 miles away.
Like many things in Kinmen, the bombing was a bit surreal. "There got to be a pattern," recalls Lee Hsi-min's younger brother, Lee Hsi-lung, the 39-year-old editor of the Kinmen Daily News. "On odd days they bombed, on even days they didn't." Both sides bombarded each other with propaganda well into the 1980s, and Taiwanese troops still blast news and pop music from 48 loudspeakers aimed across the strait.
The years of hostility turned Kinmen into a massive redoubt for Taiwan's army, which covered the island with barricades, trenches, and gun turrets. The military even hollowed out the interior of Kinmen's tallest mountain for a bomb shelter. About 100,000 troops were stationed on the island, while most of the 40,000 civilian residents eked out a living raising sweet potatoes and sorghum. The military limited all buildings to three floors, banned all street lights, and fortified the waterfront with metal spikes. Kinmen residents have paid the price: Per capita income today is $5,228--59% of Taiwan's.
KITCHEN KNIVES. The result: Every year Kinmen lost 1,000 of its youth to the bright lights of Taiwan, which devastated many towns. The village of Chushan once had 80 households; now it has 24, says Hsueh Fang-shih, a 65-year-old farmer who lives there with his 90-year-old mother and 3-year-old grandson. "Only the old folks and the kids are left," he says.
A few businessmen managed to make money from the bombardment. Take Lin Yu-hsin. In 1961, he began using metal from the remains of communist bombs to make kitchen knives. Today he owns two stores in the main town of Kincheng, population 10,000. The bombing stopped long ago, but the business goes on. Says store manager Wang Chin-chi, Lin's daughter-in-law: "Whenever people start construction, they find more shells," she says.
Ironically, the attacks helped preserve Kinmen's distinctive architecture--traditional southern Chinese homes with gently curving roofs, elaborate brick designs, and airy courtyards. The threat of communist attacks scared off investment in new buildings, so the island retains hundreds of century-old houses that fascinate city dwellers from Taiwan, where such homes long ago were replaced by nondescript cement housing blocks. Now, the government has set aside one village for preservation.
Kinmen's young people also have caught the entrepreneurial bug. The town of Kincheng boasts a new steak house, coffee shop, and pizzeria, all with chic urban decor and trendy-sounding English names such as "Liquid Tone Caf & Music" and "Eat Me Pizza." Lin Cheng-hsi runs the Liquid Tone, where New Age music plays and Blue Mountain coffee is $3 a cup. Dressed in a pressed white shirt and faded jeans, the 24-year-old says such fashionable hangouts can help reverse Kinmen's brain drain. "Now that Kinmen is open, some young people will return from Taiwan," he says hopefully. "Maybe others won't even leave in the first place."
DEAF EARS. Not everyone is pleased by Kinmen's transformation. Dtente means that only 30,000 "brother soldiers" are left, residents estimate. And merchants are suffering. At Lin Sung-chiuan's hardware store, for instance, business is off by two-thirds. "Everybody operated for generations one way, and now suddenly we have to change," he says. "We don't have enough time to adapt."
The speed with which many businessmen want Kinmen's Golden Gate to open up to Xiamen alarms many old-timers. County magistrate Chen Shui-tsai is trying, vainly, to curtail such enthusiasm by reminding residents of the communist menace. In his office hangs a large map of Kinmen painted in white, with communist-controlled territory, in red, looming on three sides. A bomb launched from Xiamen, he says, would take a mere 30 seconds before smashing into Kinmen. "Some may think that the Chinese communists are cute friends," he says. "But they are detestable enemies."
Chen's warnings may be falling on deaf ears. Eager to develop ties with Xiamen, Chamber of Commerce Chairman Lee suggests that all soldiers should go, leaving Kinmen and Xiamen demilitarized zones. "That way we can all peacefully get along and concentrate on economic development," says Lee. The government may not approve, but Kinmen's businessmen are targeting China. And unlike Taiwan's soldiers, they're not aiming to miss.