“Ai ni” (“Love you”) – reads a telegram dated Dec. 13, 1978. It was probably sent by a military wife or girlfriend to her man stationed in Matsu during the time of heightened cross-strait tension.
“Missing Wormhole of Matsu returns to the war zone administration era between 1956 and 1992 on Matsu,” the curators said, describing “the gravity of longing in the stacks of telegraphs, the piles of spent phone cards in the hundreds, and each turn, loop, and stroke on handwritten letters…”
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the outlying islands of Matsu and Kinmen, occupied by the Chinese Nationalists, came under artillery barrage from the Chinese mainland, especially during the so-called Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958. Intermittent shelling continued until 1979.
At its wartime peak, Matsu hosted around 50,000 troops, dwarfing the number of civilians. The tiny islands, just a stone’s throw away from mainland China, served as a buffer zone between communism and Nationalist Taiwan.
“Taiwan’s ‘frontier’ islands were useful from a military perspective — providing both intelligence-collection platforms and also positions from which to threaten a Chinese assault force heading towards Taiwan,” said Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine Colonel who spent a year studying Taiwan’s defenses. “Chinese military planners cannot ignore this threat.”
“And don’t forget the political significance of Taiwan-owned-and-occupied islands anywhere – and especially near the Chinese mainland – that demonstrate Taiwan’s viability and existence as an independent nation,” he added.
Throughout his presidency (1950-1975) the Nationalist party Kuomintang’s leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had to retreat to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated in the Chinese Civil War, continued making preparations to take back mainland China.
Even now, anti-Communist slogans such as “Recover the Mainland” and “Liberate Our Mainland Compatriots” can still be seen on some of the buildings in Matsu.
A New York Times journalist who visited the islands in 1976 noticed the sense of “visiting a living tension point” when he was guided past soldiers carrying rifles and full field packs, tanks and cannons.
“… soldiers on constant alert man radios and telephones, plot coordinates on highly detailed maps – and spring to attention when senior officers walk in them,” wrote journalist Donald Kirk.
Over the past four decades, the military of the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) constructed numerous facilities and dug hundreds of tunnels in Matsu, creating a massive labyrinth that runs across both Matsu’s main islands of Nangan and Beigan.
Many of the tunnels are now open to visitors as tourist attractions, a testament to changing times.
Demilitarization of Matsu
The policy of gradually opening up outlying islands including Matsu and Kinmen “has been in place for almost 20 years,” said Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) in Taipei. “That means the military risk is seen as reducing.”
Taiwanese authorities have moved most of the military personnel from Matsu and “now they just have token forces, along with sensors, radar, and some missile units,” according to Paul Huang, Research Fellow at the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation.
“This reduction in troop level is logical, since China might not bother with invading these outer islands at all as the primary battle for the PLA is in winning or destroying assets and key points on Taiwan,” Huang said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
This trend continues even as China stages large-scale military exercises in the area in response to major political developments such as President Tsai Ing-wen’s transit through the United States or, before that, then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.
Matsu residents hold drills from time to time to prepare for China’s attacks and the military conducts regular patrols around the islands but the sense of urgency and tension has long gone.
Some locals are resigned to the fact that there’s little civilians can do should the Chinese military launch an assault from the mainland, which lies less than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away.
“The islands are indeed difficult to defend, especially given the PLA’s rapid expansion and capability improvements over the last couple decades,” said Grant Newsham.
“But by seizing one or more islands, Beijing would be tipping its hand and would provoke a serious reaction from the U.S. and other free nations, both military, economic and political,” he told Radio Free Asia.
For his part, INDSR’s Su Tzu-yun argued that “a Chinese attack on Kinmen and Matsu will be a political dilemma for Beijing.”
“Since it does not occupy Taiwan, it is meaningless to occupy the outer islands,” Su said. “Therefore, Taiwan should gradually reduce its military strength on the outer islands to compensate for the defense needs of the homeland.”
Since martial law was lifted in Kinmen and Matsu in November 1992, civilians can travel to the outlying islands for sightseeing and visiting family and friends.
As the islands are so close to the China coast of Fuzhou, mainland visitors have been coming, too.
In search of Matsu Blue Tears
Busloads of tourists stream into Beihai tunnel, one of the larger underground passages that the Taiwanese army dug into a hillside in the early 1970s in Nangan Township. With a total length of 700 meters (0.4 miles) and an opening to the sea, it can accommodate up to 120 small naval vessels.
These days though, there are only tour groups paddling around the waterlogged tunnel longing to see the famous Matsu Blue Tears – the glowing sparkle exuded by marine plankton.
Outside, a row of naval landing vessels rests on the sandy beach and above them looms a gigantic statue of Goddess Mazu, guardian of Chinese seafarers.
Fifteen minutes away by ferry lies Beigan, the second largest island in Matsu, where the abandoned Jun Hun (Military Spirit) power station built by the army in a tunnel in 1973 has opened its doors to visitors.
“I don’t feel any sense of insecurity or threat here,” said Wu Qinyi, a 22-year-old artist who was doing sketches outside the station. Wu’s mother is from Fuzhou just across the sea and she said its proximity with Matsu made her feel comfortable.
Many of Matsu’s 14,000 inhabitants have relatives or friends in mainland China, some of them also own properties there.
“We want to boost business and tourism with China,” said Magistrate Wang Chung-ming, head of the local government in Lienchiang County, the official name of the Matsu islands.
A member of the Kuomintang party, Wang assumed office in December 2022 and he has been actively promoting cross-strait exchange and trade.
‘Opportunities and challenges’
Since 2001, the outlying Matsu and Kinmen islands were ofﬁcially opened as pilots for cross-strait communication, trade, and navigation (commonly known as the “small three links”). As a result, the two archipelagos began receiving a large number of tourists from the Chinese mainland, which led to an expansion of services.
“Developing the islands as tourist destinations is a way to enhance and demonstrate Taiwan’s control of the islands, which perhaps offers some political advantage, even as the prospects for successfully defending from an all-out Chinese attack worsen,” said analyst Grant Newsham.
Before the COVID pandemic, Matsu welcomed more than 200,000 tourists a year but the numbers dropped after a cross-strait tourist ban was imposed in February 2020. Only in March this year, travel was resumed for Taiwanese business people and Chinese spouses, allowing transit via the “small three links” connecting China with Kinmen and Matsu.
Wang Chung-ming himself traveled to Fujian Province in December 2022 to discuss the resumption of links.
“Opportunities often come hand in hand with challenges,” said Wang when asked about doing business with mainland China. “Our ideology is aligned with Taiwan but we need to work to improve people’s living standards.”
On Fuao Harbor in Nangan, a statue of the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek casts a dark shadow on the green shrubs around him. Behind the statue, an inscription written by Chiang during a visit to Matsu and carved on the Fushan wall can be seen when you take the ferry to Beigan.
“Waiting for sunrise with a spear for a pillow” – the inscription was Chiang Kai-shek’s instruction to soldiers and residents of Matsu to always be alert.
There has been talk among the public about taking them down given the association to Taiwan’s military past. Matsu islanders nowadays prefer not to have to greet visitors with spears.
Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.