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'Frontier spirit' helps build Jeju’s largest tourist attractionAn interview with Hallim Park founder and octogenarian, Song Bong Gyu
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승인 2012.03.09  14:50:47
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▲ Song Bong Gyu Photo by Angela Kim

The octogenarian founder of Jeju’s largest tourist attraction has spent his life thinking big.

Song Bong Gyu created Hallim Park on a vast 300 km2 expanse of empty, sandy land on the northwest of the island beginning some 50 years ago. He used “frontier spirit” to transform it into a destination of nine gardens with unique themes that attracts an average of 1 million visitors a year.

But his contributions and community spirit began long before the idea of the park.

“I’ve done everything to better Hallim,” Song told The Weekly at his office in the park.

Like many Koreans born in the early part of the 20th century, Song has a long and storied past.

During the Second World War, he went to elementary school in Japan. When the war ended, he returned to Jeju and graduated from Jeju Agricultural High School (now called Jeju High School). He entered Sungkyungwan University in Seoul to study political science, but then in 1950 the Korean War began forcing him to drop out.

Looking for ways to contribute to the community, he took up teaching science at Hallim Middle School in 1951.

“I was teaching a chapter on electricity, but then realized that there’s no electricity in Hallim. It was impossible for students to understand the concept of electricity without seeing it,” he recalled.

His frontier spirit saw the light.

With a group of students, he began to collect recyclable waste to raise money to buy an electric generator. In the end, he and his students not only managed to buy a generator, but also to purchase equipment for the school broadcasting system.

▲ Tulip at Hallim Park
As a new teacher, he proposed to his colleagues the idea of building a technical high school in Hallim. All 15 teachers at Hallim Middle School thought Jeju first and foremost needed an agricultural high school. To persuade students and their parents, he paid a visit to each house every day after school.

A year later, with the support of students, parents, and the governor, Hallim Technical High School was built.

“To this day, alumni of the high school play key roles in Jeju’s development,” said Song.

His active participation within the community led him to be elected in August of 1956 as the youngest provincial assemblyman.

In the summer of 1970, as a member of the governor’s advisory group, he was given a chance to go to Osaka, Japan. Coincidentally, “Expo ’70” was being held there at the same time. Among many exhibitions, Japanese-style gardens drew his attention. He took hundreds of photos.

“I knew what Jeju needed.” He was confident back then, and he is still.

A year later, he poured all his money in the purchase of 29 hectares of land in his hometown.

“I bought the land only to realize that it was wasteland. Everyone said I was out of my mind, even my family,” he said. “There was nothing here, but I knew it would be a great spot for a park.”

One of Song’s fellow octogenarians and friend, Kimnyoung Maze Park founder Frederic Dustin, witnessed his plan for the park when it was still a dream. In an email to The Weekly, Dustin described Hallim Park as “undoubtedly Jeju’s crowning achievement for one-stop floral diversity, meandering pathways ... and eye-catching beauty almost any time of the year.”

But this wasn’t apparent in 1963 or ’64 when Dustin, Song, a US Aid officer, and an official from the Cultural Properties department of the Jeju Education Office visited the site by Jeep.

“Arriving in a wild, vast, wind-blown expanse of sand-dunes, some dwarfing the Jeep and even Mr. Hyon — who must have been at least a full six feet tall — we were met by Mr. Song and off we went, trudging for some time through the white, clinging, wind-driven sands,” Dustin recalled. “Mr. Song quietly exclaimed, sweeping his arms to include all that was visible, ‘I will make this whole area into a beautiful, landscaped park’ and I thought to myself ‘utter madness!’”

▲ A waterfall on the grounds of Hallim Park Photo by Darryl Coote

With a truck, Song went to the park everyday and one by one picked the black basalt stones from the sandy soil. Then he bought some land near Isdore Farm where all farm animal excrement ended up. He drove to Isdore Farm several times a day to bring fertilizer back to the park.

The toughest part of all, he said, was to provide enough water for the vegetation at a time when there were no waterworks. He had to manually pump water from a well and carry it over to the plants every day.

“I could only sleep well when it rained,” he said. But Song believes that he was “lucky.” When the plants needed rain, like just after the planting of flowers or trees, he said it would usually rain.

He also cited his luck when, in 1983, no one on his team was injured while they tried to link the Hyeopjae Cave and the Double Dragon Cave.

“I would have quit the whole project if someone got hurt. But I knew that god was on my side,” said Song.

“There were other obstacles on the way, but I overcame all of it. After the park officially opened to the public in 1982, everything went very smoothly,” he said. At one point, the visitor count for a single day hit 13,600.

“By 2001, the [operation of] the park was stable. I wanted to give something more to society,” he said, referring to his establishment of a scholarship foundation. In 2001, celebrating his 70th birthday, he established the Jaeam Culture Foundation to help those in need. Every year he donates 100 million won to the foundation, which then distributes the funds to scholars, students, and organizations on Jeju.

“It is my way of paying back to those who helped me. I could not have done it alone. Countless people have helped me through the process,” Song said, pointing out that many people have donated their rock and bonsai collections to the park, among other philanthropic gestures.

As a strong believer of frontier spirit, Song expressed concern about the younger generation, their place in society, and the status quo.

“Many people settle too easily, and do not challenge themselves enough,” he said, adding that “frontier spirit does not mean abandoning your hometown to be a greater person. Everything has to come from and go back to the community.”

To learn more about Hallim Park, go to
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