Filed for TIME
Atop the battlements of a coastal fort on Kinmen Island, young men in Nationalist army garb take deep breathes before bellowing across the sea: “One day, we’ll go there!”
Less than two miles across the turbid water lies the vast Chinese mainland.
They’re filming the finale of April Rain, a star-studded serial depicting the 1949 Battle of Kuningtou, when Mao’s army tried and failed to take this small island from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Little known beyond these shores, locals laud it as “the battle that saved Taiwan”—a successful rearguard action fought against overwhelming odds, forestalling to this day any Communist attempt to take the main island of Taiwan.
“Mainlanders didn’t use to like coming here,” actor Hu Li-yang chuckles as a Chinese tour group emerging from the memorial hall look on, bemused. “Very few would come here before. But not they’re learning to accept it: they lost.”
Seven decades later, Kinmen is the antithesis of Xiamen, the mainland metropolis just a half-hour’s ferry ride away. It is green, quiet, safe and friendly. An oasis of dense forests, sunbaked beaches and charming old villages where doors are left unlocked and keys hang in the ignitions of parked vehicles. But all of that could be about the change.
On October 28, the people of Kinmen will go the polls in a referendum to legalize gambling. Opponents say their way of life hangs in the balance.
“I don’t want to see my hometown ruined,” says Yang Tsai-ping, founder of the Kinmen Anti-Gambling Alliance. Yang started the group after legislative amendments in 2009 legalized the establishment of casinos on the offshore islands of Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu provided more than 50% of local residents agreed in a plebiscite.
Penghu, the most populous of the island groups and the one nearest to Taiwan, was the first to reject the proposal. Next up was Matsu, northern anchor of the Taiwanese defense chain off China’s Fujian Province. Wind-lashed and ruggedly beautiful, Matsu’s economy was gutted by the reduction of troops after the lifting of martial law and democratization. As young islanders moved away, those left behind became dependent on central government handouts. Hoping that tourists will fill the gap left by the soldiers, they passed the bill.
Yang and his sympathisers fear that prostitution, substance abuse and crime will all rise on the tide of gaming. At it’s core, though, Yang says it’s an existential question. “They say casinos will only take up 5% of the land, but it’s a not a question of area. It’s a question of essence. Take a glass of clean water and add 5% poison. Would you still dare to drink it?”
So far, the only politician to have publicly sided with Yang is Kuomintang county councillor Jessica Chen, who returned to Kinmen after studying abroad in Japan, China and the U.S. Her international credentials belie her hometown pride and 28-generation local pedigree.
“I don’t want Kinmen to become a city like Xiamen or Macau,” Chen says, places that she says are “good for sightseeing but not for living in.”
Chen accepts there are arguments for allowing gaming, and admits the industry may bring more money onto the island. But she doesn’t believe that this would improve people’s lives. If casinos were to open, she says, outside investors and a few locals would get richer. The rest of population may even benefit marginally, but would become poorer, relatively speaking, as inequality worsens and property prices and the cost of living rise.
“Kinmen’s government isn’t poor,” Chen says. “Not everyone here is rich but we’re not poor either. We’re average, and we like our hometown the way it is.”
Unlike Matsu, Kinmen isn’t behoven to Taipei or to tourists. The biggest employer is a factory in the middle of the island that pumps out Kinmen Kaoliang, a fiery 58-proof liquor regarded as the national tipple. An enterprising blacksmith even turned the constant artillery bombardment they endured from China into a booming business, transforming the nearly half a million shells that fell on them between 1949 and 1979 into world-class knives.
To the people in the cities she says are “bad to live in,” Chen’s words may struck a chord. Social alienation and overwhelming inequality have been the price paid by many for breakneck economic development that has left them surrounded by strangers in places where some live in glittering skyscrapers while others languish in cage homes.
But to people like Hu from April Rain, also a student at Kinmen’s recently established National Quemoy University, it just sounds like backwardness. “Kinmen people are too conservative,” he says after a long day of filming on the beaches where thousands of Red Chinese invaders were mowed down in 1949. At a snack stall selling soy milk and steamed buns in the island’s downtown, he’s pining for the bright lights and nightlife of Taipei. Insular locals, he says, just don’t don’t want more outsiders like him washing ashore.
When Lee Jong, a presenter of cultural programs on local TV, hears this, he understands how outsiders can walk away this impression. “But how can you be open-minded and liberal when you’re growing up in a war zone?” he asks. They had to worry about survival.
This year, Taiwan marks 30 years since its period of martial law—then the longest in the world—came to an end. Even as 38 years of intense political repression drew to a close on the main island, the people of Kinmen would have to endure another half-decade of “Battle Field Administration” before control was finally handed back to civilians. For all but the island’s millennials, that meant growing up with nightly curfews, military courts and strict bans on everything from kite-flying and bell-bottoms to virtually any household appliance.
As Lee explains the Kinmen experience outside the island’s history museum, its director Lu Ken-chen nods his head. But he has one important caveat to add. In the days before the war, Kinmen was a prosperous community whose sons sailed far and wide over the south seas. Kinmenese merchants in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore sent remittances back home, which their relative used to erect magnificent ancestral halls and ornate western-style mansions complete with fortified watchtowers to keep pirates at bay. “How could our forebears have been conservative, or afraid of change?” he asks.
Battle Field Administration forbade the islanders from operating watercraft, swimming in the ocean or even possessing buoyant objects like basketballs or tires that could be used to float in the water. Stepping foot on any of Kinmen’s wide, white sandy beaches meant losing a limb to land mines. The seaman’s skillset may have been lost, Lu says, but the blood of these seafaring pioneers still runs through their veins.
Lu and Lee are not fundamentally opposed to casinos in the same way that Yang is. They say they would support the amendment if it set out clearly how the industry would be managed, and point to Singapore as an exemplar of how casino-resorts should be. The vague, open-ended nature of the referendum, however, means they’ll be voting no.
Critics of the proposal accuse it’s progenitors of having no real ambition to kickstart the gaming business. They know the referendum will fail and the lack of effort exerted to map out its future or convince critics is evidence of that. They merely wish to profit off speculation.
In the runup to Penghu’s referendum, land prices on the archipelago bucked a nationwide downward trend, with some properties more than doubling in value. Kinmen’s pro-gaming lobby, their critics assert, want to experience same windfall by flipping their holdings.
The most prominent pro-gambling local and the person responsible for bringing the referendum to Kinmen, Kuomintang county councillor Tsai Chun-sheng, did not respond to multiple interview requests and invitations to comment.
Before Chen Tsang-chiang of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected to the council in 2010, it was composed entirely of Kuomintang politicians such as Jessica Chen and Tsai Chun-sheng. A member of the traditionally pro-independence DPP sitting at the head of Chiang Kai-shek’s beachhead to “reclaim the mainland” was once unimaginable, he says.
“We had no rights, no freedom then,” he says of his hometown when it was under military rule. “Everything was arranged for the benefit of the Kuomintang. Everything was theirs.”
Chen became involved in politics as a doctoral student in Taiwan after 1987, when organized opposition to the government was finally afforded to Taiwanese, yet still denied to Kinmen. He threw himself into a five-year-long movement bring the same long-awaited and hard-won freedoms to the people of his home island. After they succeeded, he came back to participate in the new civilian government.
Although Chen hasn’t entered the debate personally, his party, that of sitting president Tsai Ing-wen, is officially anti-gambling. He also believed that the amendment is unlikely to pass, but says that with the Kinmenese it can be difficult to tell. Too many of his fellow islanders, he says, still behave like the fog of “White Terror” authoritarianism hasn’t lifted from their shores. They are afraid to speak their minds and step out of line.
Over the beaches where the Communists were defeated in 1949 looms the piers of a half-finished bridge connecting Kinmen to its diminutive neighboring island Lieyuh even nearer the Chinese mainland. Lieyuh and Kinmen are separated by a thin channel that ferries take under ten minutes to cross at its narrowest point. But the bridge is going up not there but at the widest point between the two islands.
Many Kinmenese, like Chen, view the multi-billion-dollar project as a scandal-riven white elephant born of the political ambitions of former pro-unification president Ma Ying-jeou. The only conceivable use for the bridge, they say, is if they plan to eventually erect another connecting Lieyuh—and thereby Kinmen—to the mainland.
While they no longer have to fear the arrival of an invading army or death raining from above, the prospect of such strong-armed integration and the advent of legalized gambling have inspired a new set of anxieties for Kinmen. But when he compares the island today to battle field he grew up on, Chen finds it hard to feel pessimistic.
“Our democracy is getting more and more mature,” he says. Chen lost the race to represent Kinmen in the nation’s legislature in 2016, but was amazed and heartened by the results, drawing over a quarter of the votes. The gap between his own generation and young Kinmenese who have grown up free is not just immense, he says, channeling the seafaring spirit that has laid dormant in them for decades: the winds of change should be welcomed.