It should take less than two hours to fly from Shanghai to Taipei. But there are no commercial flights between the two cities. Coming from mainland China, I had to go south to Hong Kong in order to reach Taiwan’s capital, and the trip took almost a whole day. So close and yet so far; and every hour I spent getting to Taipei—at airports, on flights—heightened my sense that I was traveling to a remote place that had dropped out of time.
Taiwan’s giant neighbor certainly helps create that impression. I had been to China many times but, gripped by the sheer energy and scale of the country’s modernization, I had paid little attention to the small island off its southeastern coast.
Of course Taiwan, which parted ways with Communist China in 1949, has been modern for a long time. It had built an industrial economy by the 1970’s, when China was still a largely rural and poor country coping with the devastation caused by Mao Tse-tung. Very prosperous in terms of per capita income, Taiwan does not suffer from the extreme economic inequality and environmental devastation that increasingly darken China’s future.
Culturally and politically, too, Taiwan is in some ways ahead of China. Taiwan’s pop music is hugely popular and influential across East Asia, and filmmakers like Edward Yang (director of Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai) are revered around the world. After remaining politically stagnant during 40 years of continuous martial law, Taiwan experienced a popular citizen’s movement that turned the island into a democracy in 1987—the first anywhere on Chinese soil. Today, its population of 23 million contains a large and well-educated middle class.
Yet Taiwan has no place at the United Nations or any other international organization. Even countries that maintained diplomatic relations with it for decades have abandoned it for China; Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders are unwelcome in most countries.
The Taiwanese I have met in the United States and Europe often lament their country’s exclusion from the international community. Shortly before leaving for Taiwan, I spoke to Lung Ying-tai, one of the island’s leading writers. Lung spent years in Europe and America before returning in the 1990’s to participate in Taiwan’s democratization. “We used to think of China as a backward and isolated place,” she said. “But it is Taiwan that is now isolated, through no fault of its own. It really makes me very sad.”
I remembered her words as I journeyed to Taipei. Arriving late at night, I prepared for a melancholy city resigned to its marginal status. But there was nothing mournful about the garish thickets of throbbing billboards I saw as I drove in from the airport. Passing the crowded night markets, through the smells of seafood and the sounds of good-humored haggling, I felt as though I had arrived in another great Chinese city, a counterpart to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Opening the curtains in my room at Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel the next morning, I saw a sprawl of utilitarian concrete blocks enclosed on all sides by green hills. Compared to the slick kitsch of Shanghai, Taipei’s modernity initially seemed a bit dated, belonging to the 1970’s. But within this aging cityscape stood Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. Resembling an elongated pagoda at the top, it rose shiny tier by shiny tier out of a haze of pollution into the blue sky. It dwarfed the landscape.
Self-consciously grand architecture usually leaves me cold. During the days that followed, I made no attempt to get to the top of Taipei 101. Yet I often found myself standing at my hotel window, arrested by the big, beautiful apparition above the gray city. It spoke eloquently of Taiwan’s prosperity, and I came to see that it represented the national ambition of a fascinating country and people that had been unfairly shunned by the world.