Across the river from Taiwan's hurried capital, Taipei, Li Mei
Ling wanders under a canopy of banana trees in the Air Force First
Village and points out the landmarks of her childhood. A shallow
bomb shelter lies buried under weeds. Narrow alleyways where the
neighborhood kids once played hide-and-seek stand damp and forlorn,
clogged with rusty bicycles and other castoffs of those who have
"This was the kind of place where your neighbors took in your
laundry for you if they saw it was raining," says Ms. Li with a
wistful smile. "The mothers ran open kitchens, and the kids would
come running if they smelled something good.... I'll miss everything
Li and her neighbors, residents of one of Taiwan's "military
dependents' villages," are among the last denizens of a disappearing
subculture that arose out of wartime chaos and became a touchstone
for relations between native Taiwanese and Taiwan's mainland Chinese
immigrant community for nearly 60 years.
The low-slung villages, built in the late 1940s and early '50s to
house some 600,000 nationalist troops who retreated to Taiwan from
the Communist advance in mainland China, are currently being
demolished under a government directive to relocate residents to
modern high-rise housing.
Taiwan's national legislature enacted a plan in 1996 to upgrade
housing conditions and open large swaths of increasingly valuable
urban land to redevelopment.
But the policy is erasing a pivotal chapter in Taiwan's history:
Of the approximately 900 original military villages that once dotted
the island, about 140 are standing today. All are due to be razed by
2009, dispersing tight-knit mainlander communities as residents
choose to buy into new, government-subsidized housing or accept a
compensation package and move elsewhere.
More Taiwanese, fewer Chinese
The end of a decades-old way of life for mainlanders in Taiwan
comes as the island redefines itself in relation to China. Since the
mid-1990s, Taiwan has begun to forge a new national identity -
emphasizing its own language, culture, and history - apart from its
Recent public opinion polls show a sea change in how Taiwan's
residents see themselves. A 2004 poll conducted by Taiwan's National
Chengchi University found that 45.7 percent of respondents
identified themselves as "Taiwanese," compared with only 13.6
percent in 1991. About 6 percent identified themselves as "Chinese"
in 2004, compared with 43.9 percent in 1991.
Along with this shift, social divisions between descendants of
Chinese immigrants of the late 1940s and the Taiwanese - long
intertwined with the island's politics - have lost currency,
particularly among those younger than 40.
"Barriers between mainlanders and Taiwanese have declined over
the generations," says Chang Mau-kuei, research fellow at the
Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's leading research
Mainlander footholds after the war
The military villages - called jiancun in Mandarin Chinese -
played a unique role in giving Chinese immigrants a foothold in
postwar Taiwan. …