Movie still via YouTube user Ablaze Image
Paradise in Service is a brand-new Taiwanese movie about the adventures of some Cold War-era soldiers in a state-sponsored brothel. Though it may sound like the plot of a porno or some shitty, post-Superbad teen comedy, the movie is in competition at festivals and—more to the point—the Taiwanese army really did create a military-run network of brothels on the island of Kinmen, and I went there.
Kinmen is so close to the People’s Republic that on a clear enough day, you can easily make out mainland China. Kinmen was made the first line of defense against the Communists during the Cold War. At one point, it was the most heavily militarized spot on the planet, with over 100,000 active soldiers stationed there. It was a fortress of cramped bomb shelters, hidden land mines, and regular shelling from the mainland—not what most would call a fun place.
Original photos by the author
For some quality R&R, soldiers could visit one of the conveniently located cat houses there and rub uglies with any one of the state-sanctioned prostitutes. Unit 381, the bureau in charge of managing the brothels, oversaw 11 locations on the island. It was a policy put in place to solve a problem: The pent-up stress from living under threat of swift death was affecting discipline and military efficiency. There were incidents of soldiers raping local girls, and regular visits to the whorehouse was ostensibly a way of alleviating such issues.
Unit 381 was in operation on Kinmen up until 1990, when pressure from local feminist groups finally forced the last bordello to close.
Today, the legacy of 381 is a mixed bag. While some locals are ashamed of the brothels’ legacy, some in Kinmen believe the prostitutes were necessary. “I think they are nameless heroes,” said Hung Shu-Ting, a 23-year-old graduate student at National Quemoy University. “The soldiers needed them; it’s instinct." Locals often spoke of the women in this way, as though they were a necessary commodity, and whatever their intentions, it could be pretty off-putting.
Chen I Chieh, a 25-year-old Kinmen tour guide, had similar feelings, though her expression of said feelings was a little problematic: “Every day I see the news that somebody’s been raped. It’s sick. If [the soldiers] didn’t have 381, then they would have had a reason to rape," she said, then transitioned into familiar praise for the prostitutes themselves: "I think they are heroes because many women don’t like to do this kind of job." She also pointed out that if each of the 100,000 soldiers could have had their own girlfriends, it would have been "more simple."
Syril Hung is a local business owner who grew up on the island, and his views on Unit 381 are probably meant to sound blithely pragmatic. “The brothels were part of the military system. They existed from the needs of young adults,” he said. Syril’s cafe is on the grounds of the Military Brothel Exhibition Hall, a museum about Unit 381.
The museum itself is a former brothel. It consists of a breezy courtyard surrounded by simple rooms, each with a bed, cabinet, mirror, and bathroom. The exhibit halls’ informational placards are peppered with information about the soldiers’ struggles. I couldn't tell if the wordings on the signs were intentional double entendres:
- “The soldiers who had come to Kinmen from Mainland China continually ‘waited for war’” (note the oddly-placed scare quotes).
- “On a strange island far away from their homes, they anxiously waited for war to break out. The waiting must have been unbearable."
- “So that the men would not tire themselves out traveling down the mountain to meet their sexual needs, the tea house was opened to bring the services they needed right next door."
- “These women were not forced into prostitution… They came and went silently."
- “Young daughters, devote yourself to the home country and open up your humble abode."
In the aforementioned movie, Paradise in Service, such double entendres provide the movie's comic relief. “I have two guns of varied length. One for the ladies and one for the Commies," carols a marching group of privates.
The virgin protagonist, Pao, is determined to save himself for his girlfriend back home, a goal made all the harder while surrounded by sweaty, loud, and constant copulation. The film touches on issues of national identity, filial obligation, separation, loneliness, military infighting, political propaganda, and gender roles. It is the first production of its kind to take a swing at this controversial period of Taiwanese history, and Niu pulls it off with subtlety and style. The film has been well-received and was recently chosen to open the 19th Busan International Film Festival in early October, one of Asia’s top film festivals.
Despite its weaponized past, Kinmen today is solitary and rural. Its bomb shelters are abandoned, and its military tunnels are now tourist attractions. Old tanks rust away in weedy plots of grass next to lonely barricades overgrown with moss. A seven-year demining campaign has rid the island of dangerous explosives, and clam diggers search at low tide without threat of death.
Unit 381 has, until recently, been collecting dust right alongside these archaic parts of old Kinmen. But the museum and especially Niu Chen-Zer’s film are doing some dusting. Says Chen, “People may not want to talk about 381—Chinese people don’t like to talk about sex. But it’s true."
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