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Analog communications offer ‘heartfelt sympathy’ : Rethinking mailboxes and phone booths in 2017

Aug 17,2017
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University student Cho Hyun-sik stands next to his “Mailbox of Warmth” which has been installed near Jungdok Public Library in central Seoul. Anyone can write a letter about their concerns and deposit it into this mailbox. Cho and a group of volunteers write back and offer “heartfelt sympathy.” [CHOI KYU-JIN]
이미지뷰
Left: A public phone booth near Gyeongbokgung Station in central Seoul has been turned into a special space for people to volunteer and record their voice to make an audio book for the blind. Right: Park Dae-su, a 31-year-old artist, launched a project that invites people to write to him by depositing letters into a mailbox. He then sends them postcards with an illustration of a mailbox. [CHOI KYU-JIN]
A small wooden mailbox titled Mailbox of Warmth stands on a walkway outside of Exit 1 of Anguk Station in central Seoul, near the Jungdok Public Library.

“If you write me a letter about what troubles you are facing at the moment anonymously, I’ll write you back a handwritten letter - although it may take a while,” reads the notice on the mailbox.

Half in doubt as to whether one would really get sent a handwritten reply, this reporter deposited a letter about the worries of an anonymous man in his 30s in this Mailbox of Warmth. The letter was written in anonymity but an address was included in the hopes of receiving a reply.

The letter reads: “As I entered my 30s, I can’t help comparing myself with my friends who started their career earlier than I did.”

Two weeks later, after forgetting about the letter, a reply arrived. It was written anonymously.

“There’s no answer to the next chapter in life,” said the handwritten letter, “and each person takes on a different road. You, trying to be at your best today, is already enough.”

It seems like analog sentiment is making a come back. In a digitalized world where everyone can be connected 24 hours a day, there is an increasing number of people who have begun to treasure the value of the non-digital, trying to spare what is left of the analog era.

There are people going back to writing with pen and paper, and going back to vinyl for listening to music. Writing to the Mailbox of Warmth is perhaps also one of those efforts to bring back an old world sentiment to the highly digitalized world.



Forgotten value of a handwritten letter

The man behind the Mailbox of Warmth is a 27-year-old man named Cho Hyun-sik. The university student said he wanted to offer “heartfelt sympathy through a handwritten letter, although it may only be few sentences, to those who have a lot on their minds or trouble in their hearts that they feel difficult to share with others.”

Cho is not alone in this project he started. There are about 60 so-called “mailmen” across the country, who write replies to others. These mailmen are volunteers, who share similar sentiments with Cho. In order to send a heartfelt reply to those who have opened up to the Mailbox of Warmth, Cho came with several guidelines, such as only allowing mailmen in their 20s to reply to teenage students agonizing about entering college and taking their next step in life.

According to Cho, there are about 200 letters inserted into the Mailbox of Warmth a week.

“It seems like the word spread quickly about the Mailbox of Warmth because I get a lot of requests from those asking to volunteer as a mailman,” said Cho. “Those living in other parts of the country have also asked if it will be possible for the Mailbox of Warmth to be established there as well.”

“There’s something about a handwritten letter that an e-mail or a text message doesn’t have,” he added. “Maybe it’s that heartfelt sympathy. I want more people to be able to feel that through my Mailbox of Warmth.”



Reviving mailboxes

Coming across a red mailbox on your way to school or work wasn’t that difficult back in the day. To revive the habit of writing physical letters and depositing them inside red boxes that mail carriers pick up throughout the day, a group of young Koreans got together and started a project called “Save the Mailbox.”

Park Dae-su, a 31-year-old artist, initiated the project in 2013 in the art village that has been formed in Mullae-dong, western Seoul. According to the Korea Post, a mailbox that does not receive any letters for three months gets removed from the street. On average, it takes down 1,734 mailboxes throughout the country each year. Currently, Korea only has 14,026 mailboxes across the country.

Park’s project is simple. Anyone can write a letter and send it to Park by depositing it in a mailbox around them.

“The letters can be about anything,” said Park, “about your thoughts, your dreams, what’s bothering you at the moment or just anything.”

Once Park receives a letter, he sends them a postcard he designed with a cute illustration of a red mailbox on the front.

Mailboxes have a special place in Park’s heart. As a young boy who lost his father, a mailbox was “a window for me to talk to the world,” and “a comfort.” Whenever he felt lonely and needed to talk about his feelings, he says he wrote a letter to himself and dropped it in the mailbox, addressed to himself. That is why, Park explains, he draws little mailboxes on his postcards.

“I found out that there are so many people who have never written a handwritten letter,” said Park. “They told me that I was the first person they ever wrote to using a mailbox. I hope more people could be involved in this project so they never forget the beauty of analog communication.”

From phone booth to recording booth

As mobile phones became a staple to people’s daily lives, public phone booths slowly lost their appeal on the streets of Korea. There have been numerous attempts to make use of abandoned phone booths, such as one near Gyeongbokgung Station in central Seoul, which has been turned into a public space for recording audio books.

Outside the phone booth, there is a sign that reads: “We all have the right to read books.”

Here, passersby can come in anytime and donate their voice by recording themselves reading books or any literary works they know. The recording gets turned into audio books for the blind.

There’s a small desk and a chair for one person to sit inside the phone booth. After writing a short introduction in a notebook that sits on the desk, you can then begin to record yourself over the phone’s receiver. There’s no restrictions to the content. According to Kim Min-kwan, the 31-year-old novelist who launched this project, he collects the recordings and edits them before turning the collection into a compilation of audio books for the blind.

“I came to learn that the blind people prefer listening to audio books over using braille books and decided to launch this project,” he said. “I hope more people can participate in this good deed by sharing their time and voice.”

While thinking about how to start his project, Kim said he walked by an old public phone booth that had been abandoned, which sparked his imagination.

“Phone booths are already located on streets and are passed by [a lot of people each day,] so I didn’t have to go around looking for places to establish this space for people to come in and record books,” Kim said, adding that he also wanted to revive the culture of using phone booths. Kim got rid of his mobile phone many years ago and doesn’t own one anymore.

About 30 people come into Kim’s special phone booth to record their voices per day. He says more people need to participate in order to produce a good compilation of audio books before he can distribute them.

“I hope people can recall memories of the old days while volunteering in this special space,” he said.

The government plans to reduce the number of public phone booths by half by 2020. According to KT Linkus, which manages public phone booths across the country, there are about 62,000 phone booths left in Korea, down 39 percent from 2007 when the number reached 102,000.

Kim says it is his wish to “give new life to abandoned phone booths by turning them into recording booths so that people can learn about the beauty of sharing their talents while treasuring the analog culture that we once had.”

BY CHOI KYU-JIN [sharon@joongang.co.kr]