Written by Cheng-Chung Wang
Image credit: The Bade Longshan Temple by Cheng-Chung Wang
There was a period when the most common everyday conversations on the island were “When is the ferry coming?” and “Is there a ferry today?”Quoted from Hong Wen Liu (劉宏文), Sounds of the Hometown in Matsu.
Blue Tears, military, cultural landscapes, and Tunnel 88 may be the first things that come to mind when you think of the Matsu Islands. For some others, they might complain about the draft lottery for young men starting their compulsory military service on Kinmen or Matsu Islands, which is known as the “Golden Horse Awards” in a Chinese play on words. But what comes next? It seems that we know nothing more about the Matsu islands.
In Taiwan, we rarely see Matsu in the textbooks, maps, or other materials we’ve been exposed to since childhood, let alone how much we know about Matsu people. Some of us may be unaware that there are many descendants of Matsu migrants living around us. Their moving and settling experiences are very attractive stories that deserve to be told.
The Ocean as a Path
Matsu Islands are made up of four towns and five islands spread across the estuary of the Min River in Fujian province. Matsu was a rest station for fishermen living along the shore in the past. Hence there is a close relationship between Matsu and China’s southeast coast. Moreover, people on the Matsu Islands inherit culture and customs from the eastern part of Fujian province through blood bonds and geographical proximity.
The connection between the Matsu islands and Fujian Province was not cut until the Chinese Civil War. At that period, numerous people from Fujian province travelled to Matsu merely for daily affairs. However, their way back home was obstructed after the CPC (Communist Party of China) took their hometown, and then they never went home for the rest of their lives. Even though the distance between the Matsu Islands and Fujian province is only a few nautical miles, people living in Matsu were subjected to harsh punishments such as disciplinary confinement, torture, or imprisonment if they were found to contact those from Fujian province during the period.
In 1956, military rule was imposed on the Matsu Islands. The military was keeping an eye on every move. Documents such as household certificates, fishing licenses, and exit-entry permits were required in their daily life. In addition, they needed to memorise all the slogans they were asked to learn when going out at night. The Matsu people’s lives were in jeopardy if they did not comply with the rules. These restrictions, along with the threat of bombs, sirens, and the decreasing yield of fish captures, caused many inconveniences to the Matsu people. As a result, many began to have the idea of leaving their hometown.
Since the 1970s, when the procedure for relocating from Matsu to Taiwan was simplified, a growing number of the Matsu people have worked in Taiwan. As a result, they have begun a new life, and the ocean as a path becomes the most accurate depiction of their experience.
Going to Bade Town
The 1970s was also the time when Taiwan’s economy was booming, and there was a high demand for labourers in numerous factories. Consequently, as soon as they landed in Keelung harbour, the Matsu people were busy adjusting to their new life, hopping on the bandwagon and becoming workers.
However, when they initially arrived in an unfamiliar environment and didn’t have much money with them, they could not find a place to live in big cities. So, most of them relocated to Taoyuan or New Taipei city. They moved to Bade, a small town in Taoyuan, because many factories were nearby. These factories not only created a great demand for labour, but also provided more convenient living conditions. As more Matsu people migrated to Taiwan with assistance from their relatives and friends, Bade has emerged as the primary settlement for Matsu migrants.
Life is harsh, but the Matsu people remain tough. Those who worked in the factories stated that they worked overtime every day during the 1970s. However, they did not see their new life as a challenge but rather an opportunity to reinforce their commitment to live in Bade because they had lived a harder life, and their income in Taiwan was much higher in their hometown.
A dream of these hard workers is to own their own house. Indeed, the Matsu people always bought a home when they earned enough money. However, newcomers often reside in the house of their relatives or friends, so there may be more than ten people crammed into a two-floor building. Some fascinating memories are etched in the minds of the Matsu people who lived in Bade at that time. Every morning, for example, they must wait in line to brush their teeth and wash their faces. Besides, the Matsu people’s inherent loud voice, along with the peculiar Fuzhou dialect, caused them to be misunderstood for a conflict by the Taiwanese when they conversed, and they even called the police to deal with it.
A rising number of Matsu people also brought their traditions and customs to Bade. Hu Zongwei (胡宗暐) and his wife, who own Qing-Xin grocery store, promote military canned food produced by the Xin-Xin company of the Veterans Affairs Council. Military canned food is not only the product in Matsu during the period of Military Rule, but it is also a flavour in the Matsu people’s memories. Many Matsu people in Bade enjoy the military canned food bought from Qing-Xin grocery store. They sense the flavour of their faraway hometown when they take a mouthful.
The scallion pancake that we commonly consider a traditional Taiwanese pastry is a food that the Matsu people introduced to Taiwan to make a life. Since soldiers from various provinces of China were stationed in Matsu during the period of Military Rule, some missed the flavours of home and started introducing their own recipe to make scallion pancakes. Because Matsu does not grow wheat, the government provided flour. They finally made scallion pancakes with a distinctive flavour combined with a long-stamen chive from Matsu. Shortly after, the Matsu people learned how to make pancakes and added them to their cuisine culture. Though there is no record of who initially brought this recipe to Taiwan, “Matsu scallion pancake” has become a well-known pastry throughout Taiwan.
Where Deities Exist, People Feel Safe
How to appease their fear of settling in a new place is more important to Matsu migrants than how to earn money. “If Deities exist, our minds would be stable, and people would feel calm,” the chairman of the Bade Longshan Temple remarked. This emphasises the significance of belief to Matsu migrants who moved to Taiwan.
In the 1970s, the only option for the Matsu people to reach Taiwan was through a navy supply ship. Unfortunately, they could only stay in the tiny cabins, limiting the size of the packages they could transport. As a result, most Matsu people merely carried incense bags to Taiwan at first. Only when they saved enough money did they build temples and make deity statues.
Matsu’s traditional belief was originated from the eastern part of Fujian province. Deities worshipped in their temples are hardly seen in Taiwan, with the exception of Bade. General Chen (陳將軍), White horse prince (白馬尊王) and Turtle Marshal (鐵甲元帥) are a few examples. Aside from the deity statues, the names and architectural styles of the temples built by the Matsu people also remain the features of the Matsu religion. These temples are now a distinct feature of Bade.
New Matsu People
The migrants from Matsu have adjusted to life in Taiwan. They have lived in Bade for about 40 years, and some of the families have a third or fourth generation. However, the attachment to their hometown has weakened. Fewer people visit the Matsu Islands these days, as most of their family members have already relocated to Taiwan. We can notice this weak connection most clearly in the younger generation, who do not speak the Fuzhou dialect. In addition, Matsu customs and skills are dwindling as people who immigrated to Taiwan in the 1970s gradually die off.
Thankfully, a novel binding has been developed. When the Taoyuan City Government and Taoyuan-Matsu Association of Fellow Townsmen (桃園馬祖同鄉會) became aware of the issue, they began to organise activities to promote traditional Matsu culture. Therefore, we can witness Matsu’s traditional ceremony for worshipping Deities in the Lantern Festival in Bade, which arouses the younger generation’s attention to Matsu. These “New Matsu people” will not only carry down the Fuzhou dialect and traditional culture they inherited but will also instil a new Matsu spirit in the Taoyuan City.
Cheng-Chung Wang (王政中) graduated with a bachelor degree from National Cheng Kung University’s Department of History and a master’s degree from National Yunlin University of Science and Technology’s Department of Law. Now he works as a research assistant at National Cheng Kung University. He is interested in the post-war history of Taiwan and Taiwanese legal history.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Matsu Today.