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Tourism should tell Taiwan's true stories

Tourism should tell Taiwan's true stories

During an inspection tour of the Beihai Tunnels on Matsu's Nankan Island, Premier Su Tseng-chang issued a simply phrased but quite profound statement on the principles and purposes of the development of Taiwan's tourism industry.
Rebutting a local government proposal that the tunnels, which Su described as a "unique military relic," be developed into a "little Venice" complete with gondolas, the premier stressed that tourists, both foreign and domestic, are attracted by the potential opportunity to see interesting or beautiful things and scenery, have fun and hear moving stories.
As does the rest of Taiwan, the outlying Matsu island group offshore from China's Fujian Province offers all three aspects, but its most powerful draw to foreign visitors, from the United States to Japan and the People's Republic of China itself, as well to our own citizens, is undoubtedly the role that Matsu and Kinmen played in the decades long confrontation between the People's Republic of China of the late CCP Chairman Mao Zedong and the military forces of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) under the late KMT autocrat Chiang Kai-shek.
Taiwan has many, many stories to tell that can and should attract and move visitors from all lands, but the stories of Matsu and Kinmen, along with all too many aspects of Taiwan's history, sadly remain a mystery to our own citizens and foreign visitors.
The period before the lifting of martial law in July 1987 is especially critical because so much of the history of the period of total political, economic, financial, social and cultural domination by the KMT party state was repressed and little known then and now.
Taiwan's outlying islands, especially Kinmen and Matsu near the China coast and Green Island (Ludao) and Orchid Island (Lanyu) southeast of Taiwan itself, are especially rich in historical significance as they represented two starkly different but intimately intertwined aspects of this history.
Thanks to the efforts of former inmates, human rights activists, Taiwan cultural leaders and the personal intervention of President Chen Shui-bian, himself a former political prisoner, efforts to "tell the stories" of the KMT era's systematic suppression of human rights are now being reflected in the construction of the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park.
Efforts are accelerating to restore at least some of the original face of Taiwan's political prison system along with rich descriptive and personal historical material that can relate to foreign and domestic visitors the record of the suppression of human rights by the KMT regime and the "moving story" of the struggle of the Taiwan people and international supporters for democracy and freedom.
Now the center of programs to develop historical and ecological tourism on the island, the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park can offer a model for tourist development in Kinmen and Matsu.
These two island groups present a starkly different aspect of the history of the KMT party-state, namely life within the military establishment itself at the "front-line" of the decades-long confrontation that was subsumed in the global "Cold War" between the United States and the then Soviet Union and the PRC.
Indeed, many if not most Taiwan citizens may be unaware of how close the world came to nuclear confrontation in the two "Taiwan Straits crises" of 1954 and 1958, both of which were sparked by the bitter rivalry between Mao and Chiang, a rivalry for which untold thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese paid with their lives.
With the lifting of martial law, the expansion of substantive cross-strait interchange and the demilitarization of Kinmen and Matsu, the relics of this dangerous but fascinating period may well become the mainstay of the tourist industries of these former "anti-communist" island fortresses, which now face economic depression from the removal of tens of thousands of garrison troops.
A unique example is Matsu's Beihai Tunnel complex.
Eighteen meters high and 10 meters wide, the Beihai Tunnels were built by thousands of Taiwan soldiers using blasting powder and hand tools, day and night, in 840 days from late 1968 to early 1970 and extend for 640 meters underneath a sheltered cove on the southern coast of Nankan island. When the underground dock and harbor was completed in 1970, it was capable of harboring over 600 small landing craft.
As Su related, these tunnels certainly have moving stories that can attract and inspire foreign and domestic visitors, but it is by no means assured that they will have the chance.
If the KMT Lienchiang County government has its way, the stories of tragedy and bravery in Beihai Tunnel may be buried under kitsch and cement and masked by bright lights, canned music and gondolas.
This all too typical vision of quick but superficial wealth, which was all too politely rebutted by Premier Su, is a staggering insult to the apparently unknown or unrevealed number of Taiwan soldiers who died or were maimed while digging the massive tunnels under barbaric conditions of forced labor.
Indeed, a nagging but yet unanswered question is why were the Beihai Tunnels and their human cost deemed necessary by the Chiang regime. Introductory materials refer to the need to "protect" Matsu's military supply links from PLA artillery, but by the late 1960s, the two sides had settled down into a routine of formalistic shelling with propaganda filled canisters on alternate days.
A more likely explanation is that these tunnels were constructed in haste to prepare for the aborted launching of the quixotic "Kuokuang Plan," drafted by the military under Chiang's orders in the 1960s, to launch a "counterattack" against the PRC, which was then in the throes of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."
The unnecessary sacrifice of hundreds, if not thousands, of Taiwan soldiers for the sake of this fantasy surely must rank among the most tragic injustices committed by Chiang and his regime against the Taiwan people.
We sincerely hope that the Tourism Bureau, which has administrative responsibility for Beihai Tunnels and an associated War Memorial Park, will uphold commitments to retain the original atmosphere of the tunnels and to work with the Council for Cultural Affairs and human rights and military historians to allow the Beihai Tunnels and other similar sites to tell their true stories.


Updated : 2021-06-14 20:08 GMT+08:00