The Japanese novel Miracles of the Namiya General Store tells the story of Yuuji Namiya, who replies to letters sent from someone from the past. Inspired to do the same, Cho Hyun-sik of Hanyang University, brings the novel to life by receiving letters and replying to them through the Ongi Mailbox, which translates into “Warmth Mailbox”.
Located in a peaceful area near the Samcheong-dong stonewall walkway, the Ongi Mailbox is open to anyone who wishes to share their story and unwind themselves to a mystery individual.
“People mostly write letters in a quiet place where they can look back at themselves,” Cho said. “For me, the stonewall walkway at Samcheong-dong is the very definition of a peaceful area, thus a fitting place to install the Ongi Mailbox. I started this project in hopes to support those in need of consolation.”
The letters that Cho receive range from people who confess deep worries such as unemployment, family problems, and relationship problems to a kindergartner’s adorable story written in wobbly handwriting. When writing back to the people, Cho never considers any piece a ‘casual’ letter. Even though a letter may sound light, it might not be a minor problem for the writer.
“I once had a seven-year-old who wrote to me about feeling sad because of his appearance,” Cho said. “Although the child’s worries may look trivial to an adult, I tried my best to write an earnest reply. Another memorable letter was the one I received from a woman in her thirties, who was soon getting married. Both her parents passed away, which meant that she had to walk down the altar alone. One of our older volunteers wrote back a reply as if she was her mother by starting the letter off with ‘Dear my beloved daughter.’”
Only three months have passed since Cho put up the Ongi Mailbox on Feb. 28, but Cho has been continuously receiving up to 200 letters a week. Even though he is grateful that a lot of people come looking for comfort, Cho never expected Ongi Mailbox to grow as big as it is today. Despite being able to help many people as he wanted, financial issues have begun to burden him.
“I started the Ongi Mailbox with my own expense,” Cho said. “As more and more people visited the Ongi Mailbox, the financial burden also grew because I provide all the post stamps, letter stationary and envelopes. Even though the budget became a problem, I still want to keep going regardless of the hardships.”
Fortunately, as much as Cho helps many, he states that he also receives valuable help from others. People send in post stamps and other necessities anonymously and people who fund and support him online through Kakao’s Story Funding. Both assist him greatly in running the Ongi Mailbox. Also, the 60 volunteers who help to write back replies are also a huge help for Cho.
“Nowadays, there are even people who reach out to us after reading articles about Ongi Mailbox,” Cho said. “Ranging from people in their twenties to sixties, users are able to receive diverse answers by these various volunteers. They are all so eager and passionate that they inspire me to work harder.”
With further plans to install more mail boxes at Noryangjin, Seoul Forest, Seokchon Lake and Dream Forest, and more, Cho wishes to extend the Ongi Mailbox into a non-profit organization before the end of this year.
“My ultimate goal is for Ongi Mailbox to be recognized as a place where one can whole-heartedly pour out their heart,” Cho said. “As society becomes more and more competitive, places where we can genuinely talk with others are disappearing. I want to provide a place where people can feel that they are listened to.”