Out on “Fu-chien” Province’s Horse Ancestor Islands, Where the Strait is Narrow, Plans are Big, and Travellers find Rescue

_DSC3614Fujian Province is kinda like Kansas City: it exists across two separate, higher-level jurisdictions. Except unlike the governments of Missouri and Kansas, with their peacefully state-spanning city, the governments of mainland China and Taiwan don’t officially recognize that any part of their shared province belongs to the other. They don’t even agree on how to alphabetically write the name: to the PRC it’s “Fujian,” while the Republic of China on Taiwan insists on the old “Fu-chien.” Even after the Nationalists lost control of dozens of their remaining island strongholds off Zhejiang and Fujian in the 1950’s, a few pieces of ye olde Fu-chien have remained. The most famous of these is Kinmen, a large island of flat farmland and sleepy villages sitting just a couple swimmable miles away from the giant (mainland) city of Xiamen. Lesser known are the Matsu (马祖) Islands to the north, which are part not only of a divided province but of a divided county, written/spelled 连江 Lianjiang in the PRC and 連江 Lien-chiang in Taiwan. 

马祖 “Matsu” translates literally as “Horse Ancestor,” but the famous legend surrounding these islands is that of the homophonic 妈祖 “Mother Ancestor,” a goddess of the sea known to have saved a drowning fisherman or two in these parts. We could see why her services might be needed. When we boarded the ferry to Mazu in the mainland port of Mawei (马尾, or “Horse Butt”), it was a clear, calm, spring day. But after our trundling little boat exited the mouth of the Min River and hit the open seas, it became evident that weather, like politics, is another conversation topic that must vary considerably between Fujian and Fu-chien. The skies turned dark, the waves grew high, and in my nauseous state I understood one significant factor in why these little islands had remained outside the control of the mainland government.

While the two Chinese governments on either side of the Strait seem of late to be making every effort not to displease each other, the civil war officially continues–sort of. This is perhaps more evident than anywhere else along the twisting lanes of Nangan Island, site of the Lien-chiang county seat and a couple (or more) hilltop missile batteries. Chubby conscripts from Taiwan march to and from their posts, or in their off-time browse the same dozen or so shops located in the minuscule village of Jieshou. The town green remains dedicated to the growing of vegetables for the island’s inhabitants, providing only a symbolic measure of self-sufficiency in the event that supply shipments from Taiwan are interrupted. There are no signs of any warships protecting the waters around these islands, and no sounds of fighter jets patrolling above.

Links between Fu-chien and Fujian are strong, it would seem. Almost everyone here that we talked to has been to the Mainland–most, multiple times–and some practically commute there for business. On the ferry between Xiju and Dongju Islands, the seatbacks display an advertisement for a hospital in Fuzhou. The script is in the stripped-down, simplified Chinese characters adopted by the Communists, not the traditional, full-form characters that are the standard in Taiwan.  This may be by design, as the hospital’s Mainland location may well be a selling point in terms of price or even, these days, quality. Or, the use of mainland characters for an advertisement in Taiwan may reflect the ignorance of the Mainland advertiser. Sitting in my own seat, removed by several empty rows from the nearest group of conscripts—who all have smartphones up in front of their faces—I have no one to point this out to and ask.

There may soon be a whole lot more mainland signage in Fu-chien, if the authorities over in Fujian are willing to go along with the plans being hatched here. Even as conscripts continue to man missile batteries and–quite uncomfortably, on the windy, rainy evenings here–the scattered, forlorn-looking machinegun emplacements, several residents of Nangan enthusiastically told us how they’d approved (through voting) a plan to attract thousands, maybe millions, of Chinese mainlanders to their little island. Next year, they said, construction would begin on a massive casino resort. Once complete, they said, their mainland brothers would arrive in droves. They’d step off the new high-speed ferries and roll right past the machinegun emplacements, all pointed back at where they’d come from, with permission for a good time stamped right on their passports.

During our brief stay, it was hard to imagine how this part of Fu-chien might change in the coming years, assuming the casino plans get off the ground at all, and that relations between the PRC and the government on Taiwan remain cordial. Assuming those big assumptions hold, it’s likely that Fu-chien will start to look a lot more like Fujian, even though casinos are banned in the latter.  For now, though, Mazu’s islands remain in a soggy, windswept, fortified state.

On our last day, I walk out of town along the seaside cliffs for three hours, pausing occasionally at old fortifications, before coming down to the main road and hailing a passing taxi cab to take me back. It rains the entire time I am out, lightly at first and then a sustained downpour. The windshield wipers on the old cab work furiously to let us see the road.  Back in the little village, I find a warm restaurant open for lunch and seek shelter inside. The proprietor is shocked–first, because I can communicate with her, and then, because I’m somehow ignorant of what the “local specialty” is here. She flatters and lectures all in one breath: your Chinese is so good, how have you not heard about our famous beef noodles? Everyone knows about our beef noodles here, she says. Here, sit down. I will bring you beef noodles.

A few minutes later she returns, steaming bowl held with both hands. She places it down on the table in front of me, reaches in her pocket, and holds out something else. I look. It’s a pair of black boot socks, still with the tag on. The kind the conscripts around here probably get issued. Here, she says. Your feet are probably soaked!

She’s right. But now my drowned feet have been saved.


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Filed under Fishermen and Conscripts, Foreign-er Travel

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