▲ Fred Dustin’s Kimnyoung Maze Park is enjoyed by thousands of visitors annually, but he rarely goes there himself, he said. Photo by Marcie Miller
Kimnyoung Maze Park owner Fred Dustin says his heart is in Jeju, but it definitely wasn’t love at first sight.
Dustin, now 79, was just a youngster not long out of the U.S. army when he first set foot on the island, and as he recalls, “I hated the place. It was not a place I would ever want to live.”
The year was 1958, and he was visiting the island with the Royal Asian Society. They stepped off the boat at Sanjicheon in old Jeju, and into a sea of squalor.
“There were no roads,” he recalls, shaking his head and taking a drag on one of many cigarettes. “We walked up this gulch into town.”
Sanjicheon has since undergone a renaissance and is now a favorite spot for visitors and locals to stroll along the inlet that first repelled Dustin. His impression of the island began to change when on the same trip they were treated to a barbecue of steak and lobster on the black sand beach at Seongsan, in the shadow of Sunrise Peak.
“I’ll never forget that. It was so beautiful.”
As Dustin takes visitors on a stroll down his memory lane, it is a journey as circuitous as the maze he now owns and operates near Manjanggul Cave. And yet, for all its twists and turns, it seemed to always be leading toward Jeju.
When he joined the U.S. army in 1952 he wanted to go to England. He was sent to Japan. When he later wanted to take Chinese studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, he was told it was too difficult. Instead, he got a masters in Far Eastern Literature and Language, with an emphasis on Korean. He later took a TESL course, with the intent of going to Taiwan. He ended up teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul.
During the late 1950s he taught at Yonsei and Joongang universities, then, because of what he simply calls a “girlfriend crisis,” he left the academic life to become the manager of a gold mine in southern Korea.
Mines and caves play a big part in Dustin’s life path. His property encompasses a lava tube, part of the adjacent World Heritage Jeju Lave Tubes system. He bought the land with a Korean partner in 1968 with an eye toward using the cave for a mushroom growing operation.
He recalled that at that time foreigners couldn’t own land in Korea, so technically the land belonged to his Korean partner. Still, Dustin continued to work in Seoul while he built a house on the property in Jeju.
In 1971 he married and the couple moved to Jeju full time. “That was a life decision deal,” he said. “My body was in Seoul but my heart was in Jeju. I thought, I’ve got the house here, I love Jeju, I think I’ll stay.” And stay he did. Unfortunately his wife, Marie Louise, died of cancer just two years after their marriage. They had no children, and he never remarried.
Dustin taught English in the tourism department at Jeju National University for 23 years. “We called it ‘the terrorism department’,” he said.
In 1981 he had what could be called an “aha moment” – he was looking at a landscaping magazine and saw a feature on British landscape maze designer Adrian Fisher.
Jeju now has no shortage of amusement parks and wonderlands, but at that time it was virtually tourism development-free. The timing was perfect for Dustin to start his maze. He and Fisher designed it as a “walk through Jeju history,” he said.
Of course mazes made from living hedges don’t spring up overnight. It took Fisher three years to design the maze, and five years to prepare the rocky soil. The first of more than 2,200 evergreen Leylandii Cypress trees was planted in 1987. It was another eight years before the maze park was opened to the public. Dustin had retired from the university the year before, in 1994.
He bet the success of his maze on its proximity to Manjanggul cave, but it is a major tourist draw on its own, and a financial success story.
The Kimnyoung Maze Park Corporation, under Dustin’s guidance, has given more than 100 million won to local groups in the neighboring village of Gimyeong, according to Maze Marketing Director Hyun-mi Park.
Recipients include the Gimyeong elementary and middle schools, youth and womens’ groups, and a class for village seniors called “Seniors in the Schools.” The corporation also donates funds to Dustin’s former employer, Jeju National University.
Dustin doesn’t miss the old days on Jeju, before the tourism boom. Of all the changes on Jeju he proclaims, “I love ‘em. I hope it develops more.”
While Dustin is pro-development, he also approves of a recent low-impact tourism project, the Jeju Olle Courses. “I think the Olle trails are fantastic,” he said. Dustin assisted in translating the Olle course guide into English. Jungmun is now considered the premier luxury destination on Jeju, but Dustin remembers it differently.
“Jungmun – I remember when there wasn’t even a toilet there,” he said. “It’s better now – at least there’s a toilet.”
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