By KELLY HER
number of soldiers stationed in Matsu has decreased from a peak of 50,000 in the 1980s to about 5,000 today, dealing a serious blow to the local economy. (Photo by Kelly Her)
Over the years, the Matsu archipelago has transformed from a fishing area into a military flash point and most recently into a tourist destination.
“Fall asleep under the starry night sky and cool ocean breeze and wake up amid beautiful sunlight and the sound of gentle waves,” says the website of the Coast of the Dawn, an artistically designed resort hotel in Matsu, an archipelago of 36 islands located in the Taiwan Strait approximately 200 kilometers to the northwest of Taiwan and just some 10 kilometers from the coast of mainland China. Count visitor Wu Su-ying from Taoyuan in northern Taiwan as one who is impressed with Matsu’s charms. “The hotel rooms here have gorgeous views—I can see the ocean at dawn and watch the sunset from my own room,” says Wu, who has come to Matsu mainly to visit her son during his compulsory military service on the island. “And when I take a walk along the beach, it’s easy to see more of the beautiful landscape. The scenery and all the historical attractions in Matsu make it a great place for tourists. I’ll definitely come back again.”
The Matsu Islands are administered by Taiwan as a part of Lienchiang County and include the townships of Nangan, Beigan, Juguang and Dongyin. Lying like a string of pearls strewn in the Taiwan Strait near the mouth of the Min River in mainland China, the island group has been dubbed the “Pearls of the Eastern Min.” The archipelago’s location near mainland China made it a focal point of armed conflict between Taiwan and the mainland, however, and the Republic of China (ROC) government restricted travel to military personnel and residents for decades, giving Matsu an aura of mystery. Martial law continued in Matsu until 1992, with the mystery beginning to dissipate when travel restrictions were dropped in 1994.
gins of a Goddess
Matsu takes its name from Mazu, the deity alternately known as the Goddess of the Sea or the Queen of Heaven. There are many versions of the Mazu legend, but most of them say she was born as a human being during the Song dynasty (960−1279) in Dongluo Village on Meizhou Island, mainland China. Named Lin Mo-niang, she was the sixth daughter of fisherman Lin Yuan and showed exceptional abilities and deep filial piety at an early age.
Matsu, an archipelago of 36 islands located in the Taiwan Strait approximately 200 kilometers to the northwest of Taiwan, features beautiful ocean views. (Photo by Kelly Her) It is at this point that the various legends tend to diverge. One holds that when her father’s fishing boat capsized during a typhoon, the anguished daughter swam straight out to sea to search for him. Sadly, Mo-niang drowned in the effort and her body was washed up onto the island of Nangan in the Matsu archipelago. Local villagers held a grand funeral and built a temple called the Palace of the Heavenly Empress to commemorate her courage. They also gave her the respectful name “Mazu” (literally mother ancestor), and the islands were later named in her honor. To this day, fishermen revere Mazu, crediting her with miracles that occur at sea.
Lienchiang County Government Magistrate Yang Suei-sheng says that the ROC began stationing troops in Matsu soon after the government retreated from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Doing business with the military, therefore, was long the backbone of the local economy. Gradually thawing cross-strait relations in the 1990s led the ROC government to implement a military downsizing policy, however, which has seen the number of soldiers stationed in Matsu decrease from a peak of 50,000 in the 1980s to about 5,000 today, dealing a serious blow to the economy. Due to the poor job market, many locals, especially younger ones, have relocated to Taiwan proper in pursuit of better employment opportunities. Fewer than 10,000 people currently live in Matsu.
The dwindling population and drop in business with the military led the county to search for a new growth engine for the local economy. Fortunately, the natural resources of the archipelago have made developing the tourism industry an obvious solution. The central government got involved when the Executive Yuan designated Matsu a national scenic area, the sixth in Taiwan, in March 1999. In June that year, the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration (MNSAA) was established under the Tourism Bureau to take on management of the area and develop the local tourism industry. The MNSAA has since played an active role in promoting the archipelago’s geographical, historical, ecological and cultural attractions.
The MNSAA has also worked to upgrade facilities and services for tourists. Director Guu Yung-yuan says since its establishment, the administration has built tourism-related facilities including walking trails, interpretive displays and lookout platforms, as well as environmentally friendly visitor centers that offer information and guide services. The administration is also engaged in projects designed to preserve cultural sites such as traditional villages.
A well-preserved natural environment is the focal point of most scenic areas, and Matsu is no exception. Guu says the archipelago features a variety of flora, fauna and unique geological formations, with more than 500 plant species and 250 bird species. Most of the birds are migratory, with some species briefly stopping over during their travels and others living and mating on the islands in the summer. The Council of Agriculture has also gotten involved in the conservation effort by setting aside eight islets in the archipelago as sanctuaries for about 30 rare and endangered bird species, mostly gulls and terns.
The rarest species seen in Matsu, Guu says, is the Chinese crested tern, which was first discovered near Beigan Island in 2000. A number of the terns have since mated and are occasionally seen in the area. The Chinese crested tern is currently listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ Red List of Threatened Species, with a total worldwide population estimated at fewer than 100. Because there are so few records and so little is known about them, they are often described as mystical creatures. For bird lovers who wish to add another species to their “life list,” this makes them extremely attractive, and Matsu has capitalized on the tern’s allure in its ecotourism promotional materials.
During the 43 years it controlled the island group, the military initiated a variety of development projects, Lienchiang County’s Yang Suei-sheng says. Visitors are drawn to the military works that remain—lookout points atop hills, underground tunnels, harbors, fortresses, gun batteries, training grounds and distinctly military-flavored guesthouses—and consider them some of the most unique among Matsu’s tourism attractions, Yang says.
Originally intended for use in the event of an aerial bombardment, the tunnels are a highlight for tourists. There are 256 of them spread across the archipelago, forming the densest underground network in the world, Yang adds. Visitor Wu Su-ying says the tunnels are reminders of the past and reveal the hardships soldiers experienced as they prepared for battle during times of high political tension between Taiwan and mainland China.
Nangan is the main island of the archipelago and the capital of Lienchiang County. Nangan’s military tunnels are particularly famous, the MNSAA’s Guu says. The island’s best known example is the Beihai Tunnel, which was built in 1968 as a protected harbor for navy vessels. Thousands of soldiers excavated the granite tunnel with hand tools such as picks and shovels, as well as with explosives. Today, tourists can view the results of their effort by taking a canoe ride through the 700-meter-long tunnel.
Another interesting military site, Guu says, is Tiebao Fort, which is also called Iron Fort. It sits atop a rocky promontory that is accessible only by a raised walkway. The fort was originally built as a defensive position equipped with machine guns, guard posts, dormitories and offices, and it also served as a training base for special amphibious forces. Guu says the MNSAA is conducting talks with the military to open more disused installations like Tiebao Fort to the visiting public.
Matsu’s unique architecture is also a drawing card for tourists. In addition to two lighthouses that are more than 100 years old, Yang says the island group features many old stone houses built in the eastern Fujian style that have been conserved and restored, with some converted into hostels. The archipelago’s most completely preserved traditional buildings were built during the late 1800s and early 1900s and can be found in Qinbi Village on Beigan Island. Characterized by freestanding outer walls, a square layout and high, small windows, the stone houses spread neatly across Qinbi’s hillsides.
toration in Granite
Chen Mei-ju is the sixth-generation owner of 30 granite houses at Qinbi. After retiring from her teaching career six years ago, she and other family members renovated some of the old structures with the aid of the Lienchiang County Government, transforming them into a hostel called the Mediterranean.
“It would’ve been a great pity if we’d just left those old houses idle, waiting to collapse,” Chen says. “Along with their historical significance, they’re situated beside a beach and offer beautiful views. We hope word spreads and more people get a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature here. That will help build stronger businesses and hopefully create more job opportunities. Those jobs could lure young Matsu natives back from Taiwan proper. Then we could work together for our county’s future.”
Similarly, Wang Chun-chin, a resident of Nangan, renovated the 85-year-old, two-story stone structure that she inherited from her parents with an eye toward the tourism industry. The building is now called the Furen Café and includes a coffee shop on the first floor and a hostel on the second floor. “There were around 30 households in our village 20 years ago,” she recalls. “But living conditions started going downhill and after a while the village was completely abandoned. It stayed that way until I came back to settle down eight years ago.”
The first five years or so were not always easy, as there was no public water and electricity in the area. Furen Café coped by running a generator and transporting water from another location on Nangan. Nevertheless, the business’ revenue began to pick up little by little. “We petitioned the local government for utility access,” Wang says. “They were aware that our business was improving, and maybe that’s what made them realize that tourism could help the area. Anyway, water and electricity service was restored three years ago, and we just got new street signs four months ago. So far, three more families have come back to live in the village.”
Backpackers and students are Wang’s main customer groups. The hostel offers visitors the unusual experience of staying in a stone house that faces the ocean, while rooms are inexpensive at just NT$700 (US$23) per person per night. The café, meanwhile, tempts hungry visitors, as Wang says her mother is known for her cooking ability and helps prepare guest meals including local delicacies like fish noodles, oyster cakes, sweet potato dumplings and sauce made with red vinasse. The word has gotten out about the hostel’s combination of good food and reasonably priced rooms, and the place is usually fully booked during the peak summer season.
“Some customers who’ve visited our coffee shop or stayed in the hostel have told us they felt contented to stay here for most of their visit to Matsu,” she says. “They’ve mentioned the picturesque landscape and traditional Fujian architecture, the local food specialties, the fresh air and the ocean breeze. You could say our place is like a ‘mini-Matsu’—you can experience the best of what our county has to offer here.”
Matsu’s religious heritage also helps to attract visitors. To learn about the religious and cultural traditions in the area, tourists can visit local long-established temples that are boldly and beautifully colored. Religious rites and festivals are another drawing card. The “Burning Pagoda” ritual, for example, is a centuries-old eastern Fujian tradition dedicated to eliminating unhappiness and praying for peace. The ritual is held each year during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Tieban Village on Nangan Island. Another major festival is the annual “Mazu in Matsu: Ascension Day” held on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The event commemorates the day that Mazu ascended to Heaven as a goddess and includes activities such as a fair, ascension ceremony, academic seminar focusing on Mazu, evening prayer gatherings and folk performances.
Inconvenient transportation has long been the main hindrance to the development of Matsu’s tourism industry. Currently, Taipei-based Uni Airways operates 10 flights daily, while the Tai Ma Liner makes one round trip every 24 hours. Uni Airways’ planes can carry 56 passengers on each 50-minute flight. The ferry trip takes up to eight hours one-way with a maximum capacity of 500 passengers. While the amount of seats on the planes and ferry might appear adequate, County Magistrate Yang Suei-sheng says that demand during high season, which runs from May to October, often outstrips supply, particularly for the flights. There are also challenges during the low season, as flights are frequently canceled due to thick fog, while large waves generated by winter storms can prevent the ferry from operating. The number of visitors to Matsu declines in the winter much as it does for many tourist destinations in Taiwan, but the uncertainty about being able to reach their destination during the colder months is an additional deterrent for potential visitors. Not much can be done about the weather, but there are still ways to improve transportation to and from Matsu, Yang says. Enlarging the runways of the two airports on Nangan and Beigan would allow the use of bigger planes, while upgrading air-traffic control systems would allow planes to take off and land when the visibility is less than ideal, he says. As for the ferry, a faster, better equipped ship capable of operating in unfavorable conditions would lead to increasing numbers of travelers choosing that option, he adds.
The Council of Agriculture set aside eight islets in the Matsu archipelago as sanctuaries for about 30 rare and endangered bird species, mostly gulls and terns. (Photo courtesy of Matsu National Scenic Area Administration) Fortunately for Matsu visitors, residents and the local tourism industry, the central government is already working on the solutions Yang mentions. The Civil Aeronautics Administration under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications is currently conducting a feasibility study on extending the runway of the airport in Nangan to handle bigger planes. The government has also allocated funding and commissioned the Taiwan Shipbuilding Corp. to build a new ocean liner to run between Matsu and Taiwan proper. The new ferry is expected to begin service in 2013.
Yang expects the improvement schemes to bring more travelers to the county, which will boost the tourism sector and other industries. In turn, that will create employment opportunities and encourage young people who have left for Taiwan proper to return to the island group, he says.
Transportation issues have hindered but not stopped the growth of Matsu’s tourism sector, as the number of visitors increased from 39,000 in 2000 to 86,000 in 2009. The central government, Lienchiang County Government and Matsu’s tourism sector are committed to maintaining such growth, but not at the expense of the area’s environment and tranquil pace. To that end, MNSAA Director Guu Yung-yuan says his administration will continue to emphasize conservation even as it develops Matsu’s natural and manmade tourist attractions. “We want visitors to explore the diverse range of attractions here, including the architecture, culture, ecology, geology, history and beauty of the area,” Guu says. “Those things will make their stay enjoyable and rewarding. But we also have the goal of making Matsu a place where visitors can experience a simple and slow lifestyle.”