Serendipity: Matsu Islands, Taiwan & Me

Written by Tammy Yu-Ting Hsieh

Image credit: Emma Dusong, Facing You (Měing-hyong nȳ), Video installation, loop, with Cheng Chiao-Ying, Liu Mei-Yu and Liu Hung-Wen, 2021. Photographed by Hsu Po-Yen. Courtesy of Tammy Yu-Ting Hsieh.

It was not until 1949 that the concept of “Matsu” was first established. Before the civil war in China, this group of islands were mostly the seasonal resting stops of fishermen from the south-east shore of China. Residents on the archipelago can clearly see the outline of Fujian, whereas “Taiwan” was an island they hardly knew nor had any relationship with. But suddenly, in 1949, Kuomintang armies arrived at Matsu Islands, and in no time, Matsu became the frontline of the Republic of China, aiming cannons at the opposite bank, a place they used to call “home.” To put it romantically, serendipity is how the “Taiwan-Penghu-Kinmen-Matsu Community” came to be today. And I tend to think that serendipity also guided me, a descendant of Minnan and Hakka from Taoyuan City, to embark on this back-and-forth journey to Matsu since 2020. 

Albeit learning about Matsu in mandatory education, the archipelago remained a distant geographical term to me. I had never met anyone related to Matsu, and it never occurred to me how it was like to live so far away from Taiwan island but so close to mainland China, or how it was like to be at the brink of war. However, this changed when I took a particular course in 2018 while pursuing my master’s degree in museum studies at Taipei National University of the Arts. Matsu writer Liu Hung-Wen and cultural worker Liao Yi-Mei shared their life experiences and observations of the islands: how the never-ending war has shaped the landscape, construction, culture, and social networks of the islands, and how the historical trauma remained unhealed as the islands quickly transforming into tourism spots. The feeling of “I should have known yet I knew nothing” struck me as I investigated the post-cold war difficult histories across Asia. 

Later on, I came across a unique religious ceremony at Beigan, Matsu, the “Dreaming Ceremony.” On the 29th of the first lunar month, people go to the temple to fall asleep and dream with their questions about the future. The images that appear in their dreams are the replies of the gods. Sometimes, when the questioner has difficulty falling asleep, a more sensitive “dreamer” may be appointed to ask a dream on their behalf to help receive the gods’ instructions. I immediately related this concept to the role of artists, who function as integral dreamers to dream wildly and creatively for society. What would happen if artists played the dreamer’s role and dreamed for Matsu? The poet Bai Ling once described the offshore islands as always serving the main island, “seemingly on the border, but always dreaming someone else’s dream, unable to choose their own future.” By inviting artists who are “non-Matsu” or even “non-Taiwanese” to use Matsu as an anchor point for reflection, we attempt to revisit not only the past but also the mental state of the islands. With longer-lasting and harsher martial law than the main island of Taiwan, Matsu endured restrictions on transportation, currency, fishing sailing hours, and even no lights at night. These various sacrifices made at the front line for a long time also made it difficult for the “Kinmen-Matsu Abandonment” stance to be accepted by the islanders after the rise of Taiwanisation. Yet the museums and relics that showcase the history of the “proudly defending the country” rarely touch upon such subtle emotions and ordinary experiences. Is it possible that dreams can be a gateway that allows us to get a little closer and explore the hidden emotions and spiritual states like underground tunnels? Hence, I embarked on the journey of making the exhibition When Islands Dream

To align with the concept of “dreaming,” the five artists I invited all share similarities of dreaminess. For instance, in Winding Islands, Revolving Dreams, Butoh dancer Sean Trudi Hsu wandered on Nangan island, seemingly dream walking, dragging, with a sense of depression loomed over the island. Yannick Dauby’s She heard nothing in Matsu. She heard everything also lets the audience wander on the paths of Matsu through the guide of sounds. A distant “she” overlooks the islands and travels through mundane everyday scenes and nerve-wracking threats from mainland China. Wang Yu-Song’s Days in the Lighthouse, on the contrary, stays mainly at the Dongju Lighthouse, reimagining the life of the lighthouse keeper. Huang Hsiang-Yun’s Memory Punctum: Photography & Cartography Workshop and Emma Dusong’s Měing-hyong nȳ call for deeper collaboration with Matsu residents and the artists. Huang invited workshop participants to transform their living experience and senses of walking in a tunnel blindfolded into their personal mental map of Matsu. And Dusong composes music for three inhabitants of the Matsu Islands in their dialect, singing out their fears and questions. 

The five artists to Matsu respond to the exhibition theme with their unique approaches. They form different dreamscapes that echo one another. Whether they perceive the island in a personal and physical way or collect the memories and perspectives of local residents, the artists try to treat the island as the main subject, while their personal perspectives still intersect with the residents and the place. And this very nature is where the unique value of “dreaming for others” lies. We are allowed to withdraw from ourselves to immerse in the state of the other and then to return to ourselves to convey and interpret the dreams of others. It is also intriguing that it seems easier for foreign artists to dream in place of Matsu than Taiwanese artists, who often doubt they are not eligible to do works about Matsu. Yet this cautious mindset is also valuable as the islands have often been represented wrongly or their opinions ignored. 

The exhibition When Islands Dream can be seen as the first step for Taiwanese audiences to approach the Matsu Islands beyond its perception as a travelling spot. It has also inspired some Matsu residents to take a fresh look at the islands they have taken for granted for decades. And it wouldn’t be possible without the local support to make my “dream project” come true. With the inaugural Matsu Biennale that opened in 2022, continuing this artistic exploration and transformation of the Matsu islands, one can be sure to say that Matsu has begun a new stage of mobilisation. But this time is the soft power of arts and culture. And it will be worth our attention to observe how the islands develop and realise their dreams for the next ten years. 

Tammy Yu-Ting Hsieh is a curator and art magazine editor at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts. She recently curated the exhibition “When Islands Dream” at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Taipei. She is particularly interested in how museums and contemporary art construct and break narratives, especially the complex and difficult histories that are relevant to personal identifications and national identities. 

Here is the video tour of the exhibition “When Islands Dream”:

This article was published as part of a special issue on Matsu Today.

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