Imagining Urban Community: Contested Geographies and Parallax Urban Dreams on Cheju Island, South Korea

Tommy Tran, University of California, Los Angeles
T’amna Culture Plaza project billboard. Cheju City, 2013.
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Abstract

This article examines how urban space in Cheju City can be imagined as a site of experience and identity. The rapid development of Cheju City on Cheju Island, the Republic of Korea’s prime resort and ecological heritage destination, has foregrounded tensions between global tourism and local identity. How people experience cities physically has an intimate connection with how they imagine and represent urban space. Cheju City, which has transformed from being the modest seat of a long-marginalized periphery into a burgeoning tourism hub, is a battleground on which differing visions of urban space as the location of culture are staged. Such debates are as much about the right to represent identity as about the right to use urban space. While urban redevelopment in Cheju City erases entire city blocks for tourist facilities and elaborate monuments to distant pasts, emergent social movements are rearticulating sites of memory to recover a sense of a Cheju-specific landscape and to redefine local identity. Using ongoing ethnographic and archival research conducted since 2012, this article demonstrates how a new urban heritage paradigm is emerging in Cheju. Heritage is no longer confined to essentialist conclusions drawn from rural folklore but now directly addresses urban experience.

Keywords: Cheju Island, South Korea, globalization, tourism, heritage, urban development, urbanization, symbolic ecology, memory, space