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10.00  Liminality and Existential Authenticity in Themed Environments: A Case Study of Thames Town, Shanghai

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Expanding the literature on themed environments by drawing from the discourse on authenticity in tourism practices, this paper will explore the ways in which people attach meanings to transplanted heritage. Liminality has a crucial role in this process, as the conscious transient experience of the pastness informs the users’ construction of existentially authentic feelings.  

Over the last three decades, heritage has become understood as a ubiquitous phenomenon that serves economic interests, ideology legitimization, and ethnic cohesion purposes worldwide. The political power of heritage lies in its ability to convey some sense of the past; one that is ever less linked to the materiality of goods. Transplanted cityscapes can be considered a particular case of heritage: fake ancient settlements have spread globally, conveying pastness through the exploitation of an alien historical imaginary. The proliferation of transplanted heritage is one aspect of a wider phenomenon: the relevance of theming strategies in shaping cities all over the world. Originating in postwar USA, the theme park urban model has recently spread worldwide offering market driven places to an increasing number of citizens/consumers. While themed settings please their audiences with the safe, compressed, and sanitized experience of some otherness, scholars tend to label thematic milieus as inauthentic environments that are embedded with hegemonic power dynamics. Despite the scholarly legitimate concerns, the global success of themed setting calls for a reflection on why—and how—people increasingly enjoy these fake milieus. Especially in the case of transplanted heritage, the diffusion of the theme park model implicitly challenges the universality of authenticity values.  

While authenticity has been largely discussed in the fields of anthropology and cultural studies, its subtleties are not as systematically investigated in the urban planning discourse. Drawing from the literature on authenticity in tourism practices, this paper will explore the ways in which the users of transplanted heritage attach meanings and develop a specific politics of belonging to these places. What does the users’ appreciation of transplanted heritage tell us about the notion of authenticity? How is existential authenticity constructed and negotiated in these settings? And how does the experience of liminality contribute to create a specific politics of belonging in transplanted heritage?  

Seeking to answer these questions, this work is organized in three sections. In the first part I will frame the theming phenomenon within the debates on hyper-reality. While unquestionably captivating, the post-modern discourse on simulacra seems not to adequately consider the role of materiality in shaping peoples’ real appreciation for fake heritage. For this reason, in the second section I will relate the controversy of theming to the notion of authenticity, and its relevance in occasioning place attachment. I propose to use the notion of “existential authenticity” as conceived by Ning Wang (1999) to explain why, and how, the users of themed settings construct their sense of belonging to themed milieus. In particular, I will give importance to liminality as a crucial component of this process, as it defines the tangible and intangible boundaries of the existentially authentic experience. In the third section I will look at these issues by drawing from the data collected through qualitative fieldwork in Thames Town, Songjiang New Town, Shanghai. The English-themed village built within the Fifth Shanghai City Plan (2001–2005) offers the ideal context to study the crucial role of liminality in producing levels of existential authenticity in themed settings.  

By exploring the controversy of theming through the lens of the discourse on authenticity in tourism, this paper ultimately challenges the reprobation of transplanted heritage. Specifically, existential authenticity and the role of liminality within it are crucial in allowing people to develop a politics of belonging to historically themed settings.

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