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Sanmen Island is one of the larger islands belonging to the Wanshan Archipelago, which is located in the South China Sea just beyond the mouth of the Pearl River estuary (if one draws a large "V", each "leg" about 35 kilometers long, beginning with the city of Zhuhai on the left and ending with the city of Hong Kong on the right, then Wanshan Archipelago will lie at the bottom of this "V").
The island is one of the few ecologically unspoiled islands of China, thanks, paradoxically enough, to the island's military history which prevented the island from becoming developed. Today, Sanmen Island, though developed as an idyllic South Sea island getaway, remains relatively unspoiled.
One would hardly believe it, but this beautiful and tranquil escape spot has a history that is anything but tranquil. It was once the scene of a David & Goliath-like sea battle that pitted a simple gunboat against a fleet of battleships, where the gunboat methodically targeted the decks and superstructures of the battleships with what little firepower it could marshal. Yet, it managed to cripple the entire fleet of enemy warships by taking out the bulk of the seamen on deck, including the commanding officers. It was a piece of military genius as well as an act of personal bravery that exceeds even the most heroic scene in a Hollywood movie.
Sanmen Island has historically been seen as a strategic military asset. Imperial forces during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) occupied the island, recognizing its strategic naval value at a time when China was being besieged by the military forces of certain Western powers, most notably those of the British and the French. For most of the Cold War period, Sanmen Island was an off-limits military base.
The background to the sea skirmish in the waters around Sanmen Island begins when the nationalist naval forces, the 3rd Fleet, was driven from Hainan Island, which the communist forces then occupied. The nationalist 3rd Fleet, realizing that the next strategic target was the waters of the Pearl River estuary, moved its forces to the collection of small islands that lay in the South China Sea just beyond the mouth of the Pearl River estuary. Thus it guarded the entranceway to the Pearl River estuary and the important port of Guangzhou (formerly Canton), which lies at the upper navigable reaches of the Pearl River estuary on the mainland.
This collection of islands is known as the Wanshan Archipelago. It is a natural chokepoint between mainland China on the one hand, and Hong Kong and Macao on the other. Were the nationalists to succeed in holding this strategic asset, it would deprive the communist side of mainland waterway access to Hong Kong and Macao, and could cripple all the shipping between the important mainland port of Guangzhou and the outside world. Sanmen Island was the key to holding the Wanshan Archipelago.
On the eve of the arrival of the communist forces to the Wanshan Archipelago, a nationalist gunboat captain by the name of Lin Wenhu "defected," taking his gunboat and crew over to the communist side. The day was May 25, 1950. Taking advantage of the darkness and the fact that the 3rd Fleet was huddled closely together in relatively shallow water where maneuverability was restricted, Captain Lin Wenhu, quite aware that his tiny slingshot of a gunboat was no match for the heavy firepower of the Goliath he was pitted against, decided to use his "slingshot" to best advantage by deliberately targeting the vulnerable superstructures of the warships of the 3rd Fleet.
The captain was aided in this endeavor by the curtain of darkness and by the fact that the enemy warships lay in tight formation in shallow waters, where energetic attempts at maneuverability might well result in all of the warships colliding into one another. In the chaos that ensued, Captain Lin Wenhu and his gunboat crew managed to cripple every warship of the nationalist 3rd Fleet, killing or wounding the majority of the personnel who had naturally been summoned on deck to answer the communist challenge, including the commander-in-chief of the 3rd Fleet himself, Qi Hongzhang, who was gravely wounded and thus incapacitated.
The 3rd Fleet apparently believed that it was under attack from a large communist sea contingent, but when dawn broke and it became clear that the chaos that had ensued the night before had been perpetrated by a single gunboat—and, to make matters worse, one of their own that had defected to the other side—the furious nationalist seamen were bent on exacting revenge on the gunboat that had shamed them and incapacitated their commander-in-chief.
Unfortunately for the nationalist 3rd Fleet, it was being lured into a well-devised trap: Captain Lin Wenhu lured the bulk of the 3rd Fleet after him as he sped as far away from Sanmen Island as possible. In the meantime, a communist landing ship, the Guishan, began to approach Sanmen Island to offload its cargo of nationalist soldiers on the now vulnerable island. The 3rd Fleet, realizing that it had been duped, reversed its direction and headed full speed for Sanmen Island, where it managed to damage the Guishan, but could not prevent it from off-loading its "cargo." There was indeed a large contingent of nationalist soldiers stationed on Sanmen Island, and they too joined in the fray, but, like their compatriots at sea, were unable to prevent the Guishan from landing.
What ensued next was surely the result of a lack of proper command among the decimated nationalist forces of the 3rd Fleet, for the remaining battle-worthy seamen of the bloodied 3rd Fleet, with damaged warships and severely wounded fellow seamen on board in need of emergency medical attention (it was believed that the commander-in-chief would not survive without immediate hospitalization), decided to leave their compatriots on Sanmen Island to fend for themselves as they themselves sped away to seek medical attention for their wounded fellow seamen, especially for their commander-in-chief. Seeing themselves being abandoned by the 3rd Fleet, the nationalist defenders of Sanmen Island soon surrendered, believing their cause to be lost.
There were further skirmishes in the days that followed between nationalist naval forces and the communist occupiers of Sanmen Island, but in the end, the communists, though outgunned in terms of naval firepower, cleverly deployed their meager forces to best advantage and eventually managed to occupy each and every island of the Wanshan Archipelago, thus preventing the nationalists from taking this important lynchpin in the war. Captain Lin Wenhu's gunboat, which had been christened the "Dancing Phoenix" by the nationalists side, was subsequently renamed the "Liberation" by the communist side.
Sanmen Island as a Modern-Day South Sea Island Getaway
Sanmen Island, also known as Tuoning Island, covers an area of some 5 square kilometers with a coastline of about 13 kilometers. The island is located roughly 10 nautical miles from the port city of Hong Kong. The island can also be reached from other major cities such as Shenzhen (north of Hong Kong), Guangzhou (at the upper navigable reaches of the Pearl River estuary), Dongguan (on the Dong River estuary, a tributary estuary to the Pearl River estuary), and Huizhou (farther up the Dong River estuary in a northeasterly direction).
The most beautiful and idyllic natural highlight of Sanmen Island is a bay dubbed Moon Bay by grateful tourists. From its center, Moon Bay radiates out roughly 300 meters in either direction. Its fine white sands are like perfect crystals, its seawaters clean and transparent, with a visibility of 5-8 meters, depending on wave conditions, making the waters of Moon Bay perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Since the waters surrounding Sanmen Island are warm, moonlight swimming is possible, and on a clear night with a full moon, the reflection of the moon on the dimpled surface of Moon Bay is right out of a romantic movie. On the beach itself, you can sunbathe, enjoy beach volleyball, or search for exotic seashells, colorful stones, or fossils such as sea urchins.
You can also take a hike up to Haishishanmeng Peak, the island's highest at about 300 meters above sea level. From here, you can view most of the waters surrounding Sanmen Island. On the way up the mountain, you may participate in a lovers' ritual by planting a Tongxin Tree on the ascent up Tongxin Road, and upon reaching the peak, one will want to make a wish at the Tongxin Stone, then throw a Tongxin Lock, which stands for faithful love, into Tongxin Tower, and in so doing, be forever blessed by the mountains and the sea.
If you are into yachting, then you can find yourself even more secluded spots to enjoy with friends or loved ones by renting a yacht at the island's yacht club, which has some 10 yachts in various sizes and designs to choose from. Your rented yacht can of course also be used for fishing or for diving. The yacht club has a professional diving coach with internationally recognized credentials to help you get started. There are designated areas for diving where, among the beautiful corals, you can view lobsters, starfish, and various other coral fishes in their natural habitat. You can also rent a yacht with a "chauffeur" if no one in your party is licensed to sail a yacht.
At Sanmen Island, you are sure to enjoy a fulfilling, active vacation, whether you are with that special someone or with others who, like you, are looking for a bit of sun, sand, and sea fun and relaxation in the company of like-minded souls.