The Lighthouse in Wuchiu (Ockseu) Island (Wuqiu in Hanyu Pinyin)
Wuchiu, or Ockseu as previously spelled in English literature because of its pronunciation in the local Puxian (莆仙) (also Xinhua興化) dialect, lies off Fujian Province of mainland China opposite to Meizhou Island by 20 nautical miles. Designed by British engineer David Marr Henderson in 1874, the black granite lighthouse’s inauguration on 3rd December 1875 was reported by the London Gazette on 1st February 1876. The lighthouse was erected after the Chinese imperial government opened treaty ports for trade with western powers after losing the Opium War (1839-1842) and the Second Opium War (1856-1860).
Like the lighthouses built around the same time on small islets along the Chinese coast, the lighthouse in Wuchiu fell under the administrative responsibilities of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service (IMC) headed by Robert Hart. The lighthouse significantly contributed to the safe navigation from Guangdong Province and Xiamen to Bay Xinghua in Fujian Province, as well as for sailing through the Taiwan Strait. Its imperial origin is marked by the carving on the lighthouse of ‘D.M. Henderson Engineer 1874’, who was the IMC’s head engineer until his retirement in 1889. Also visible for its European link is the tomb of H.J. Jacobson, a Norwegian native who was the IMC’s experienced lightkeeper for nine years until his death in Wuchiu on 3rd October 1899.
Its connection with the East-West trade aside, the lighthouse itself became an object of war during the Second World War. Being an important node for radio communication, the Japanese army raided the island in 1943 and occupied it until 1945, which subjected the island to US bombing towards the end of the war. With the assistance of the Chinese intelligence service, the motivation for the US attack on the lighthouse in April 1945 was also to obtain detailed hydrological records of the surrounding waters. The end of World War II did not bring peace to the island. In 1948 the lighthouse was damaged again due to guerrilla warfare during the Chinese Civil War, which resulted in the exile of the defeated Nationalist government under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC).
After 1949, the Civil War was prolonged across the Taiwan Strait, now against the backdrop of the unfolding Cold War. Wuchiu further witnessed the ROC’s clandestine military operations for the purpose of raiding the Chinese coast as part of Chiang Kai-shek’s war to retake China. Arriving at Wuchiu in 1950 and formally reorganised as the Anti-Communist Salvation Army (fangong jiuguo jun, 反共救國軍) in 1952, these military personnel took part in the irregular warfare initially supported by the US government in attacking China, although such past events have nearly been forgotten, except by those who were directly involved, including a group of US special forces personnel. Evidenced by the archives of the ROC Navy Command, the lighthouse ceased to function as early as on 21st December 1950. Although then being subordinate to the ROC Customs Administration, the lighthouse was under the tight control of the local Wuchiu Command.
In 1954, Wuchiu was made a township within Kinmen County. With Kinmen falling under the strict implementation of martial law in 1956, Wuchiu not only became a war zone between Taiwan and China but also, together with Kinmen, Matsu and other islands in the Taiwan Strait, stood on the frontline of the Cold War in a bid to contain the expansion of communism from mainland China. Lifted in 1992, the decades-long martial law significantly changed the lives of the few dozen civilian residents, who were fishermen originating from Meizhou Island. For local residents, the Cold War and the military stand-off across the Taiwan Strait was lived as the separation of families between Meizhou and Wuchiu. They were so close to each other but the antagonism between Taiwan and China made contact impossible.
The inactivation of the lighthouse notwithstanding, the last lightkeeper Kao Chin-chen continued to serve in his post from 1959 to 2001. As a matter of fact, not only Koa himself but also his wife Tsai Yu-lian was born into a lightkeeping family. Kao’s grandfather participated in the construction of the lighthouse. From 1914 to 1959 both Kao and Tsai’s fathers worked as lighthouse keepers, and when they retired, Kao and his brother-in-law maintained the tradition and continued to work there for the next 42 years. Reactivating the lighthouse was Kao’s wish before he passed away, particularly after the resumption of contact between Taiwan and China after 1987. Kao’s wish partially came true in November 2017 when the Taiwanese government recognised Wuchiu Lighthouse as part of the National Heritage, after years of campaigning and petitioning by his daughter.
Wuchiu Lighthouse, its keepers, and the local residents, over more than a century, have seen numerous conflicts fought based on greed, ambition, nationalism and ideology. Finally it is permitted to stand as a symbol of the arrival of peace.
Source: Kao Tan-hua