KINMEN, May 27 — On an island separated from China by a narrow strip of sea, oyster farmer Li Kai-chen collects molluscs on a shore known for its bloody battle over control of Taiwan.

While the 66-year-old has worked to keep tradition alive in Kinmen, the island administered by Taiwan has found itself on the frontline of Chinese war games.

“These centuries-old oyster beds not only produce food, they represent a culture and a history,” he told AFP.

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This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen using a metal staff to harvest oysters near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic
This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen using a metal staff to harvest oysters near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic

Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te vowed to defend democracy during his inauguration last week.

China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, launched military drills on Thursday to encircle Taiwan and its outlying islands.

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China deployed warplanes, naval vessels and coast guard ships in the latest show of force since several drills in 2022 and 2023.

Kinmen’s oyster farmers said they were accustomed to the shows of Chinese might and would focus instead on collecting as many molluscs as they could.

“I’m more afraid of the tide than of China,” said a woman also surnamed Li, who declined to provide her full name.

“Kinmen is very safe,” said the 64-year-old.

Their historic oyster farm stands less than five kilometres from Xiamen, a Chinese megacity filled with imposing skyscrapers.

Li Kai-chen stood among rows of granite blocks brought from China more than 400 years ago where the oysters grow.

He used a metal staff to scrape them off — a farming method unique from shuckers typically taken off reef rocks.

This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows an oyster farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen, as the Chinese city of Xiamen is seen in the background. — AFP pic
This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows an oyster farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen, as the Chinese city of Xiamen is seen in the background. — AFP pic

Fortress island

The blocks are also embedded on the site of the defining clashes decades ago, when the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek after his forces fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Known as the Battle of Guningtou, they fended off the communist troops under Mao Zedong on those beaches, successfully retaining Kinmen under the nationalists’ control.

“During the war, people fled to survive and the oyster beds were abandoned,” said Li, who is also head of Guningtou village on Kinmen.

At the time, “the soldiers had to take stones (from oyster beds) near the shore to build shelters,” he said.

Until 1979, Kinmen faced regular bombardment from the Chinese military, and it was massively fortified by Chiang’s troops.

Taiwan has transformed over the decades into a vibrant democracy, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has upped the rhetoric in recent years and vows that Taiwan’s “unification” with China is “inevitable”.

Kinmen is geographically closer to China than Taiwan’s main island, which is located about 200 kilometres away.

Today, anti-landing spikes dot the island’s beaches, while abandoned bunkers can be seen along its coast.

Tourists look at the Chinese city of Xiamen from Shuang Kou Coastal Park in Kinmen May 23, 2024. — AFP pic
Tourists look at the Chinese city of Xiamen from Shuang Kou Coastal Park in Kinmen May 23, 2024. — AFP pic

A loudspeaker the size of a building, historically used by the military to broadcast propaganda messages to the communist troops on the other side, is now a tourist attraction.

Down on the shore, Li lamented that their farming method is at risk largely because “young people don’t want to work in this industry”.

He used a puddle of seawater to clean the shells, which are smaller than those farmed industrially in China.

This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen showing oysters harvested on his farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic
This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen showing oysters harvested on his farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic

Kinmen oysters are also distinguished by their light, melt-in-the-mouth texture due to exposure to the wind and sun at low tide on the granite blocks.

They are typically prepared in omelettes slathered with a viscous sauce — a Kinmen delicacy that Taiwanese tourists often seek out when visiting the island.

This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen showing an oyster harvested on his farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic
This photo taken on May 19, 2024 shows oyster farmer Li Kai-chen showing an oyster harvested on his farm near Guningtou village in Kinmen. — AFP pic

But with only a few elderly farmers working on the beaches, not all the molluscs are harvested in time.

Nowadays, Li entertains tourists mostly from Taiwan’s main island, teaching them how to harvest and shuck the oysters.

But Taiwan’s plummeting relations with China have meant that Chinese travellers are no longer among Kinmen’s visitors — something Li hopes will change in the new administration.

“I hope there will be more (Chinese) tourists coming so we will have business,” Li said.

“Then our lives will be improved.” — AFP