Taipei's finger in the eye of China

Overshadowed by China, Taiwan built the world's tallest skyscraper. But Shanghai has plans to take that honor.

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When you've shot to such a spectacular vantage point in such a spectacular manner, it's a pity about the view.

Atop the world's tallest building (at 1,667 feet), reached by the world's fastest elevator, the Taiwanese capital of Taipei unfolds beneath you as a disappointing collection of mundane office blocks, apartment buildings, and homes topped by pastel-painted roofs of corrugated iron.

But the toy-town view from the summit is not the point of "Taipei 101," opened three years ago in a blaze of celebratory fireworks. The purpose is to make a very pointed gesture to mainland China.

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Constantly overshadowed by the giant People's Republic, which regards Taiwan merely as a breakaway province to be recovered, tiny Taiwan has to work overtime to hold its head above water diplomatically: Only 24 countries recognize it as the sovereign Republic of China, and their ranks are shrinking.

"We wanted the world to see Taipei and Taiwan, and having a tall building here has achieved that," says Cathy Yang, vice president of the company that built and owns the 101-floor tower. "It lets the world know about Taipei. It makes a difference."

For the time being, Taipei 101 does the trick. The elegant, deep aquamarine skyscraper rises in sections said to have been inspired by bamboo canes and pagodas.

The elevator rises at a literally breathtaking speed of 3,313 feet a minute, though you don't feel you're moving at all. The only indication in the darkened elevator cabin that you're going straight up at about 40 miles an hour is a small blue dot on an illuminated wall panel that tracks your progress during the 37 seconds it takes to get to the observatory.

But glory is ephemeral at these elevations. In Shanghai, long-delayed plans to build a World Financial Center are underway again – this time, for a structure 100 feet higher than originally conceived. Perhaps coincidentally, but almost certainly not, that extension will make the new building slightly taller than Taipei 101.

Time was, a world-beating skyscraper could relish its uniqueness. The Empire State Building, raised in 1931, ruled the roost for 43 years before the Sears Tower rose above it. That Chicago landmark held the record for another 24 years before the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, heralded Asia's domination of the skyscraper stakes.

Taipei 101 will enjoy the honor of being the world's tallest building for only four years. In Dubai, a behemoth nearly half a mile high is under construction, due to dwarf its nearest rivals by nearly 1,000 feet. And if structures planned in Russia and South Korea are actually built, Taipei's pride will have been relegated to sixth place by 2012.

Diana Chen, CEO of the Taipei Financial Center Corp., which owns Taipei 101, says she is unfazed.

"You get attention when you are the tallest building, but more important is how you make people remember you," she says, pointing out that Taipei 101 is distinctly Chinese in a cultural sense. "When you see Taipei 101 you know it comes from China. Even when we are not the tallest, we will continue to be one of the most special buildings in the world."

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