You Ask How Deeply I Love You
Kinmen Island, and the Past and Future of Sino-Taiwanese Relations
by Anna Beth Keim / July 12, 2016 /
“Back when I was a soldier on Kinmen, around 1975, the water demons still sometimes killed people,” Xu Shifu (Master Xu) said. The laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes were not visible now, even in the white fluorescent light shining down from the ceiling. “When it was my turn for guard duty at night and everyone else went down into the bunkers, I was scared. I would turn my cap backwards . . . I knew the water demons would approach from behind. But in the darkness, all they could see was a person’s silhouette. I thought that would fool them into coming at me head on.”
Without his smile, Xu was as I had first seen him in Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park in Taipei, wearing the same white T-shirt and black pants as his students but standing a little apart from them. A trim, erect, gray-haired figure, he wore a traditional Chinese kungfu teacher’s expression, stern and observant. He was, in fact, a comedian, who regularly interrupted his own explanations of tai chi moves to tease his students until they convulsed with laughter.
Wonderful, one of Xu’s students, had arranged our meeting in Keelung, a port city northeast of Taipei where Xu and his wife Shimu (our “teacher-mother”) lived. Wonderful—his real name was Huang Defu, but the English nickname had stuck—was a fit and cheerful man in his early 50s. He now sat next to Xu, drinking a cup of apple vinegar and translating for me whenever Xu veered into Taiwanese. (The dialect, like the families of most Taiwanese themselves, had emigrated hundreds of years ago mainly from China’s Fujian province, and is now filled with expressions unique to Formosa.) Wonderful had served as a soldier on Kinmen in 1985, a decade after Xu. The two of them were among the ten million Taiwanese men who have been sent to guard the island since 1949. In that year, after losing the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists had retreated from mainland China to Taiwan, but had managed tokeep hold of Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu—the “coastal islands” which lay between them.
At only 1.2 miles from the Fujian coast, Kinmen was the main theater of a war between the two Chinas: the People’s Republic of China led by Chairman Mao, and the Republic of China led by President Chiang. In October 1949, at Guningtou on the northwest tip of Greater Kinmen, the main island, their armies waged a fierce battle. At least 5,200 young men on both sides lost their lives. The battle marked Kinmen’s separation from the mainland regime. It was a tiny piece of land—its two main islands are roughly 70 square miles, and today are home only to about 130,000 people—but Kinmen would loom huge in the geography of Cold War Asia. (The United States, which knew Kinmen by its name in the local dialect, Quemoy, sent advisors there.) For decades, missiles andpropaganda balloons traveled back and forth. And there were the “water demons”—theshuigui, or frogman teams, that swam between Kinmen and the Fujianese city of Xiamen at night.
“By 1975, the water demons were tired of killing,” Xu told me. “Most of them just fulfilled their duty by taking something, some object or personal possession, as ‘proof’ for their superiors. Their superiors were tired of it, too.” Perhaps the frogmen would take a packet of cigarettes, or a weapon, or a scrap of paper they could call intelligence. The corners of Xu’s mouth were suddenly twitching: the comedian had returned. “In the early days, Anna, the shuigui would cut off an ear or a—”
He was interrupted by squirms and gasps from the others, including his wife. “Why speak of things like that, she doesn’t want to hear them!” she scolded him.
“Both sides used special loudspeakers.” Wonderful stepped in. “They had a longer range than most.”
“What did mainland China say through their loudspeakers?” I asked.
Wonderful, beaming, drew himself up stiffly and expanded his chest. “Dear Taiwanese compatriots!” he boomed, raising one hand to the side of his mouth to amplify the sound. “Hurry and return to the embrace of the Motherland!” Read more…