Visible from almost any part of Taipei is the mammoth Taipei 101 Tower – the world’s tallest building, and a towering symbol of Taiwan’s colossal economic growth over the years. To put that achievement in perspective, only two U.S. buildings make it to the top ten list of the tallest buildings in the world – Chicago’s Sears Tower and the Empire State Building in New York. Impressive indeed for a city that has always been in China’s shadow.
Straddling the heart of Taipei’s business center, the tower was originally intended as a mere 66-story building. But hectic lobbying by the then-mayor Chen Shui-bian expanded the structure into a $1.8 billion, 101-story giant. It quickly became a symbol of pride to the Taiwanese – a vivid representation of all that this tiny island nation has achieved in the past few decades. In fact, it is almost a miniature Taipei in itself with securities, financial, (the Taiwan Stock Exchange rents seven floors) and business headquarters, plus entertainment and shopping.
Extraordinary as the building is, it is now struggling to inspire Taiwan’s economy, which is expected to follow Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore into a recession this quarter. Unemployment is at a three-year high, and the Taiex Stock Index is already down 52% this year. Export orders are falling as demand for its laptops, phones, and other electronics plummets.
Such news is grim for the Taipei 101 Mall situated at the base of the tower – a plush, posh five-story shopping center with almost 800,000 sq ft of retail space. Opened in 2003, the mall, targeting mainly high-end customers and brand-conscious tourists, narrowly escaped Taiwan’s last recession of 2001. In the midst of this global economic downturn, it remains to be seen if consumers are still willing to spend in shops like Louis Vuitton, Celine or Prada.
Taiwan’s new government though, is taking no chances, and is desperate to boost spending, no matter whether it attracts high-end or low-end shoppers. A special cabinet meeting recently in November approved a plan to hand out NT$3600 ($107) in consumption coupons to every Taiwanese citizen. It is hoped that the Legislative Yuan may pass the NT$483 billion ($14 billion) project by the end of December. Why the hurry? So that the coupons can be distributed on January 18 – one week before one of the biggest shopping periods of the year – the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
These are challenging times for the tiny nation. The Taipei 101 Tower, since its inception, has seen Taiwan through years of constant growth. Now though, its light has to shine brighter amidst a fading economy.
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