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The Remote Taiwanese Islands Where It Takes a Village to Keep Democracy Alive

Wuqiu villagers board a military transport to the Smaller Qiu Island to vote in the 2024 Taiwanese Presidential Elections on Jan 13. Credit - Mike Kai Chen for TIME

As the world held its breath Friday night, on the eve of Taiwan’s pivotal 2024 elections for president and parliament, a small group boarded an overnight ferry to Taiwan’s most isolated territory.

My father and I—along with several cousins, aunties, and uncle—were sailing six hours across the Taiwan strait to the Wuqiu Islands, just miles off of China’s coast. It was here that my father was born, and Taiwanese are required to return and cast their ballot in a person’s registered hometown.

My father, Shaw-Farn Chen, right, recognizes a cousin, Chu Lin Tu, and his daughter, on Jan 12. He had not seen them since his last return to Wuqiu 42 years ago.<span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
My father, Shaw-Farn Chen, right, recognizes a cousin, Chu Lin Tu, and his daughter, on Jan 12. He had not seen them since his last return to Wuqiu 42 years ago.Mike Kai Chen for TIME

The Wuqiu Islands sit not just on China’s doorstep but also at the frontline of what could be the next major global conflict—yet the location remains unknown to most Taiwanese people, let alone the world. Identified as the first target of a Chinese attack during the 1996 missile crisis, the remoteness and perceived irrelevance of Taiwan’s Wuqiu Islands puts the rural community at the very forefront of the tensions between Taiwan and mainland China.

Wuqiu consists of two tiny islands totaling 1.2 square kilometers, with a Marine Corps military base and 18th century lighthouse built by the Dutch on the Greater Qiu Island and a small fishing village on the Smaller Qiu Island. Unlike Taiwan’s other offshore islands, Kinmen and Matsui, which have thriving tourist industries and direct flights, Wuqiu is cut-off and isolated from the main island, with access limited to members of the military as well as the approximately 500 registered residents. It can only be reached via a boat run by the military every 15 days from Taiwan, which also transports the only available food and drinking water to residents. When the wind comes in too strong, the boat is canceled, and villagers are left to fend for themselves for another 15 days.

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Once a fishing village, Chinese military and fishing fleets dominating the Taiwan strait have pushed Wuqiu’s residents to Taiwan to find work, leaving behind a small elderly population of less than 50 people. Wuqiu’s former residents, however, make the long journey back during Chinese New Year and elections to hold onto their homes.

A military patrol drives around Greater Qiu Island on Jan. 14. Chinese boats are seen in the distance.<span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
A military patrol drives around Greater Qiu Island on Jan. 14. Chinese boats are seen in the distance.Mike Kai Chen for TIME
Cai Fu-qiang's sister—Lin Yu-mei, who returned to Wuqiu to vote and visit her mother—looks off at mainland China just miles away, on Jan 13.<span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
Cai Fu-qiang's sister—Lin Yu-mei, who returned to Wuqiu to vote and visit her mother—looks off at mainland China just miles away, on Jan 13.Mike Kai Chen for TIME

The son of fishermen who fled communist persecution during the Chinese Civil War, my 66-year-old father was the first of his family to receive education beyond elementary school, and the first of his village to experience the American dream after our family immigrated to Canada and then the U.S., where he was able to pursue his career as an engineer.

Read More: Taiwan’s William Lai Faces a Balancing Act With China

Hearing about his childhood trapped on this frontier, awaiting invasion while being battered by typhoons, I saw how Taiwan provided him a lifeline to stability—similar to the lifeline that democracy provides for Taiwan. It had been 42 years since my father’s last return to Wuqiu, and while he didn’t want to see the ruins his childhood home had fallen into, this year’s pivotal presidential election gave him purpose and determination to return. I jumped at the opportunity to accompany him and witness the lengths some 100 people are willing to go to cast their ballot and make their tiny island—where it actually does take a village—count.

My father arrives to vote at the polling station in Smaller Qiu Island on Jan 13.<span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
My father arrives to vote at the polling station in Smaller Qiu Island on Jan 13.Mike Kai Chen for TIME
Mao You-lun (毛佑倫, 20), middle, and her mother (my cousin), left, aboard the military transport after voting for the first time on Jan. 13. Residents had a total of 45 minutes on the island to cast their ballots. Chairperson of Township Council Chen Xing-de stands on the left.<span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
Mao You-lun (毛佑倫, 20), middle, and her mother (my cousin), left, aboard the military transport after voting for the first time on Jan. 13. Residents had a total of 45 minutes on the island to cast their ballots. Chairperson of Township Council Chen Xing-de stands on the left.Mike Kai Chen for TIME
Wuqiu residents board a six-hour overnight ferry back to Wuqiu to vote, on Jan. 12. Only Wuqiu residents are permitted to access the military Islands. <span class="copyright">Mike Kai Chen for TIME</span>
Wuqiu residents board a six-hour overnight ferry back to Wuqiu to vote, on Jan. 12. Only Wuqiu residents are permitted to access the military Islands. Mike Kai Chen for TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.