The Remote Beauty of Matsu’s Dongju Island

The archipelago of Matsu, which lies more than 90 nautical miles northwest of Taiwan’s main island but less than 10 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland, is attracting growing interest from tourists looking to explore its relatively remote islands and learn about its history and culture. Within the archipelago, one place of particular interest is Dongju Island.

Matsu is the northernmost political jurisdiction administered by Taiwan. It consists of 19 islands with a total land area of 29.6 square kilometers, and is home to 12,500 residents.

The islands are divided into four townships. Furthest north is Dongyin, which is famous for its wildflowers, kaoliang distillery, and military emplacements. To the southwest are the two most populous townships, Beigan and Nangan, which are separated by a mere two kilometers of ocean. Both places have delightfully picturesque villages, as well as airports with flights to and from Taipei. Finally, nearly an hour’s sailing time to the south is rugged Juguang Township, which has two inhabited islands – Dongju and Xiju.

The names Dongju and Xiju are relatively recent. The islands originally bore the names Dongquan (“Eastern Dog”) and Xiquan (“Western Dog”). But in 1971 they were renamed Dongju and Xiju, alluding to a slogan employed by President Chiang Kai-shek, which translates as “Don’t forget you are in Ju!”

This was in reference to the city of Ju, which more than 2,000 years ago was a city in northeast China. It was here that the King of Qi and his followers reportedly regrouped after being overrun by a neighboring state. Thus, Chiang was urging his compatriots to remember the goal of unification, and to use the frontline islands under their control to achieve a victory like that eventually enjoyed by the King of Qi.

Life here has never been easy. On Dongju and Xiju, as in other parts of the archipelago, the growing season is short and there is little flat land. But now that tourism has become a major industry, the breathtakingly uneven scenery has become a definite asset.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the islands were often subjected to pirate attacks, and during the Nationalist-Communist standoff the threat of full-scale war loomed. Until the confrontation between Taipei and Beijing began easing in the late 1970s, Matsu’s civilian inhabitants were outnumbered by military personnel. In recent years, the number of soldiers has declined and many military installations have been decommissioned and opened to tourists.

Initially, peace was bad for business. With fewer soldiers stationed in Juguang, there were fewer business opportunities for residents. Between 1981 and 1991, the township’s population halved to a mere 545 people. The entire archipelago suffered from a human outflow.

Fortunately, tourism has helped Matsu as a whole – and Dongju in particular – bounce back. Juguang Township’s population is now more than 1,500, higher than it has been for 40 years. Many “newcomers” are actually individuals with strong family ties to the islands. Some have returned to claim the houses in which they grew up, or which their parents abandoned long ago, in order to convert them into quaint homestays or charming cafes.

Travelers heading to Dongju must first fly or take a boat to Nangan from Taiwan. The Taima (or a replacement vessel) sails from Keelung every evening and arrives in Matsu the following morning. Those coming from the Chinese mainland can board a ferry in Mawei or Fuzhou in Fujian province, and reach Nangan or Beigan in as little as 25 minutes.

To transfer to Dongju, visitors should catch the thrice-daily boat service from Nangan’s Fuao Harbor. The first ferry sets out at 7 a.m. Those unable to spend a night in Juguang Township can try to cram every sight into approximately seven hours and get back to Dongju’s Mengao Harbor before 3:10 p.m. for the final return voyage.

Staying overnight is a much better option, as it allows you to explore the area at a relaxed pace. There are accommodation options in every part of the island, but the main village of Daping offers a little more convenience. That said, Dongju’s dimensions – it is 3.506 kilometers in length but nowhere more than 1.16 kilometers wide – and lack of traffic mean it does not take long to get anywhere. This is especially true if you do what the vast majority of Taiwanese visitors do, which is rent a Vespa-type motor scooter at Mengao Harbor.

Hanging around after dark and having your own set of wheels opens up an additional exciting possibility: searching for “blue tears” and “blue sands.” Both of these beguiling natural phenomena are caused by bioluminescent microorganisms.

Visiting Dongju during the summer boosts your chances of seeing “blue tears.” If the sea is calm and the wind is blowing from the south, so much the better. It goes without saying that the darker the environment, the easier it is to see fainter glows, so seekers should get away from buildings and streetlights.

“Blue sands” are light-blue footprints that can sometimes be seen on Fuzheng Beach or on the crescent of golden sand at Mengao Port. This very unusual sight – which is difficult to photograph, but may remain in your memory forever –comes about because dinoflagellates, a category of plankton washed onto these shores in the warmer months, emit an eerie light when disturbed by people walking across the sand.

Dongquan Lighthouse

The settlement behind Fuzheng Beach has some of Dongju’s most charming traditional stone dwellings. Nearby stands Dongquan Lighthouse, which was built in 1872-75 by the English firm Chance Brothers and Co. Ltd. at the behest of the British Empire. The British were among the Western powers who in the 19th century forced China to open its ports to foreign trade, and the lighthouse served as a navigational aid for vessels approaching Fuzhou.

Visitors cannot go inside the lighthouse itself, but from its base they can enjoy superb views of the cliffs that dominate Dongju’s eastern coast. Erosion by wind and waves has created a number of spectacular scenes, of which some of the finest are at Mysterious Little Bay, a bit over 1 kilometer from the lighthouse.

To properly appreciate this place, linger first at the pavilion to the south for a bird’s-eye view. Then make your way down to the secluded beach at the northern end of the covering. Here, as at many places in Dongju, it is well worth taking your time.

For detailed information about Dongju and other islands in the Matsu archipelago – including how to get there and how to travel between islands – visit the website of the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration. For general travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).