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Whither Jeju: art or capital?Concern about large-scale investments and conservation has led artists to seek a middle way for Jeju Free International City
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승인 2015.02.12  16:39:35
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▲ An image by artist Agne Latinyte shows "dolhareubang" (stone grandfathers) are celebrated in art at one end while being chipped away for development at the other. Image by Agne Latinyte

Jeju Island’s original blueprint for Jeju Free International City was known as “Hongapore,” seeking to fill the void left by Hong Kong returning to China and benchmarking the glorious development of Singapore.

Despite fears to the contrary, Hong Kong is now widely regarded as Asia’s center of global finance with as many as 73 of the 142 foreign banks there in the world's top 100. It is not much of a stretch to say it sits alongside New York and London as one of the world’s financial hubs.

Functioning as an “offshore financial center” where the Yuan is freely traded, the city is home to the local headquarters of more than 1,300 multinational companies and benefits from China’s rapid economic growth with strong finance, trade, logistics and tourism industries.

Singapore, about two-thirds the size of Hong Kong in both population and area, is very similar in boasting world-class logistics, trade, finance and tourism sectors. Both once under British colonial rule and using English, Singapore is now on the path to India while Hong Kong is the gateway to China.

The two cities have been in fierce competition for 50 years and Hong Kong’s reversion to China provided Singapore with a chance as global banks — foreign banks in Singapore now number 113, fourth behind London, Hong Kong, and New York — fully utilized both in the two-tier system of international finance.

Jeju’s unsure path
Returning home, Jeju Free International City is far from such a “Hongapore” model. The central government not only ruled out the island as a financial center but also as an “offshore financial centre.” Even the creation of a logistics hub “free trade zone” at Jeju International Airport was suspended.

To compensate the island has continued its six “leading” projects: Jeju Science Park; Resort-type Residential Complex; Myths and History Theme Park; Jeju Healthcare Town; Seogwipo Tourism Port; and Jeju Global Education City.

It is assumed that “leading” implies that infrastructure development is paramount and the “Hongapore” model was premature in being applied to Jeju, as was possibly understood by the research team which put together the 1st Jeju Free International City Master Plan (2002-2011), mostly consisting of scholars from the University of Oxford.

The 2nd Master Plan 2012~2021 makes little mention of the “Hongapore” model, but does continue to pursue tourism infrastructure and high-tech knowledge-based development.

To crown it all, open economies are increasingly becoming the norm on the back of rapid globalization, making even the concept of a “Free International City” seem somewhat quaint.

A flowering of the arts
On Nov 21 last year, “Artists Who Love Jeju Island” was launched at a press conference in downtown Seoul by 48 famous artists — none of whom claim Jeju as their hometown — concerned about reckless development on the island.

Members include writers Kim Hoon, Yoo Hong-joon and Jo Jung-rae, as well as Korean film industry maestro Im Kwon-taek, actress Son Sook, pianist Paik Kun-woo, Korean classical musician Ahn Suk-seon, and popular singer Kim Jang-hoon. There are also architects, sculptors, art photographers and more.

Although long renowned as a tourist resort, the island has been often overlooked in the cultural sphere due to its perceived artistic poverty — until now.

Domestic and foreign big capital is flooding into Jeju and it is the urgent diagnosis of those who truly love the island that its bright future, glowing with its UNESCO Triple Crown, might become very dark if the natural environment is sacrificed for concrete in the name of “development.” Thus the group was born, committed to artistically reviving and healing Jeju in the shape of the “Jeju Art Island Project.”

In addition, Jeoji Culture and Art Village in Hangyeong-myeon, Jeju City was established in 2001 and includes 30 uniquely designed creative spaces for 50 artists to occupy for extended periods.

These spaces have been home to a galaxy of artists in various genres such as calligraphy, Western painting, woodcraft, sculpture, design, photography, embroidery and many more. Among these, the great leader in Korean art, Kim Heung-su, donated his work and joined the village, as did Chinese modern artist Feng Zhengjie when he set up a studio and built his nest there last year.

This Culture and Art Village is just an early humble attempt to ensure Jeju is not bent solely toward short-term big capital development, balancing this with the longer-term project to make Jeju an “Art Island.” After all, reconciliation between development and preservation, and harmony between nature and the arts, is of ultimate benefit to all, including big capital.

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