Kinmen: The island that Chairman Mao couldn't capture

The islands are now the perfect destination for the discriminating tourist

Maestro Wu takes his oxyacetylene cutter and peels a narrow sliver off the lump of steel with the delicacy of a French chef cutting a slice of Pont l'Evêque. He combines a restaurateur's touch with the confident power of the blacksmith that he is.

"All this steel was a gift from Chairman Mao," he jokes, as he points to rows of shell cases lying on the floor of his forge. "We've got through all the high-explosive ones. These are just the ones which brought us his propaganda. There are lots of them left."

Within 20 minutes he has made me a nine-inch knife, polished it and engraved my name, along with the date, on it.

"What do these other characters mean?" I ask. "Hero," he says, simply. "Thank you," I reply with like simplicity. The Taiwanese are not given to bombast, and few people call me a hero these days. I realise the maestro is a discriminating judge of character.

Kinmen is a place for the discriminating. At the terminal of the ferry to the mainland, the territory of the People's Republic of China, a taxi-driver waits patiently for his next fare and gently plays his flute as he does so. The humblest café will produce a fine meal using the freshest vegetables for less than £2.

As a result there are no McDonald's burger bars, nor are there ever likely to be. You won't find any Irish theme-pubs here either. The locals favour kaoliang, a type of booze made of sorghum, which is grown and distilled here. It has an alcohol content of 58 per cent, yet three people can down a couple of bottles of Kaoliang over a midday snack. I know, because I've seen them doing it.

The shadow of potential invasion still hangs over this subtropical archipelago. Many of the Kinmen islands' lovely beaches have still not been totally cleared of mines; rusting sea defences still point outwards towards the vulnerable bellies of any invading landing craft that might be sent over by successors to Mao. I've seen the concrete poles which rise over the fields to stop Beijing's helicopters landing. I've tramped through the underground ports carved out of granite by men who toiled, and at times perished, in terrible conditions. There, on those granite quays, weapons, ammunition and supplies can be unloaded safely during any future artillery bombardment by the forces of the People's Republic.

Six decades ago, Kinmen was better known in the West as Quemoy, one of the key locations in modern Chinese history. The nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had deployed his Kuomintang nationalist forces alongside those of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in the "Big Four" fighting the war against Japan. But in 1948 they lost the fight in China to the more disciplined communist forces and decamped to the island once called Formosa. Today, it is known variously known as Taiwan, the Republic of China, or Chinese Taipei. Chiang dug in fiercely in the Quemoy archipelago here and at Matsu, to the north, dreaming that the islands could be the springboard for a reconquest of mainland China. His forces repelled a serious invasion attempt in 1949.

In 1958 Mao started shelling the 150 sq km of Kinmen and its adjacent islets in an attempt to seize them. The shelling continued for 44 days but Mao had neither the air force nor the navy to complete the capture. When the high explosives stopped, the guns continued to fire every day with shells containing propaganda. In a bizarre ritual the communist forces banged away on odd-numbered days of the month, while the Taiwanese did the same on the even days.

Meanwhile massive loudspeakers poured out daily rations of insult and vituperation in both directions. There are no records of anyone being convinced of the arguments of the other side, but the action was enough to keep US aircraft carriers patrolling up and down the Taiwan Strait lest the propaganda war became something graver. Twenty years later the People's Republic called the whole thing off after President Richard Nixon recognised the government in Beijing.

Troops are still to be seen in Kinmen but the garrison is down to around 7,000 (from around 100,000 in 1958). After decades of military rule civilians are now in charge here and are reaping peace dividends. The people are prosperous, but implacably thrifty.

Mr Lee Shuichao, the manager of the state-owned Land Bank told me of the difficulty in finding borrowers from among the 50,000 Kinmenese. "Of every 100 New Taiwan Dollars I take on deposit I can lend out only eight locally," he sighs. Kinmen's discrimination clearly extends to the finance industry.

The man pushing forward Kinmen's main project is an islander too. Chang Kutu, the harbourmaster, has the island's future in his hands as he looks out over the harbour, where vast new breakwaters are being built. They are helping to cater for the astonishing development of Kinmen as the principal physical link between the 22 million Taiwanese and the 1,300 million citizens of the state which started sending over all that raw material for the maestro's knives as a free gift in 1958.

Four or five years back relations between the two countries had warmed sufficiently for a boat link to be restored between this island and the mainland. It runs between Kinmen and Xiamen, formerly known as Amoy, whose towers are plainly visible over the few miles of water which separate them. Kinmen now offers the quickest way to the mainland for Taiwanese tourists (and the business travellers who are pouring techniques and expertise into China). They fly from the main island of Taiwan to Kinmen's spotless air terminal. There they can catch one of the 12 ferries which sail over to the mainland every day from Mr Chang's terminal, replete with sparkling walkways and duty-free shop. The traffic has gone up from virtually nothing in 2002 to 720,000 a year today.

Mr Chang also sees tourists from the mainland coming in and hopes Beijing will allow more visits. It is rumoured that Taiwan plans to build a casino here. If the betting-mad citizens of the People's Republic – who are not allowed casinos at home – were to visit Kinmen, the island would no doubt be swamped by visitors. This is already happening in Macau, which has now overtaken Las Vegas as a centre for gambling.

But Kinmen is more than a series of economic statistics. History is to be seen everywhere. In villages, centuries-old houses and the halls, built – or at least reconstructed – with great taste and harmony to honour a family's ancestors, recall the deeds of eminent Kinmenese. Over the centuries Kinmen cultivated outstanding scholars who coached the islanders to high places in the examinations for the service of the emperor. Kinmenese locals also reached high commands in the imperial armies. One 17th-century general made Kinmen his base for an attempt to put the Ming dynasty back on the throne after its overthrow by the Manchus.

If you don't like knives, are bored with history, and don't appreciate militaria you should still come here. Back when the Taiwanese sent their troops over, they were put to work reforesting what was once a rather bleak archipelago. Most of the trees had been cut down and the only protection from the elements were the granite images of the lion wind-god erected outside every village. Now it is much more verdant: the resident bird population has expanded, with cranes and hoopoes picking their way delicately through the wetlands, which also welcome a great variety of migratory flocks. Bird-watchers from far and near are to be found in the hides which the islands' park authority has put up. If, however, you fail to appreciate birdwatching, then you are perhaps too discriminating even for Kinmen. Maestro Wu will be disappointed.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Kinmen. EVA Airlines (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Thai Airways (020-7491 7953; www.thaiair.com) fly to Taipei from Heathrow, via Bang-kok. Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) has connections in Hong Kong. From Taipei, Far Eastern Air Transport (www.fat.com.tw), TransAsia Airways (www.tna.com.tw), Uni Air (www.uniair.com.tw) and Mandarin Airlines (www.mandarin-airlines.com) fly to Kinmen.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Bed and breakfast is widely available for around TND800 (£12) a night.

MORE INFORMATION

www.kinmen.gov.tw

www.taiwan.net.tw; 00 886 2 2349 1500

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