중앙데일리

Mr. Yoon’s Water World
Famous Fish of the Seoul Subways
Except for the drunks, life is good

Nov 10,2003
Every Thursday at 11 a.m., Yoon Gyu-un slips on yellow rubber gloves, takes Windex and a rag out of his bag and starts cleaning out a giant fish tank for the next hour with such vigor that sweat streams down his face. He looks up only when a woman approaches him and asks for directions to Deoksu Palace. He smiles, says, “Go straight and take exit No. 2,” and returns to his cleaning. It doesn’t bother him at all; it happens all the time when your office is the subway.
Seoul’s subway system is literally swimming with fish. Scores of bubbling tanks have been spread around the stations from City Hall to Yoeksam in trendy Gangnam.
The ostensible purpose of the underground, underwater habitats is to bring a bit of contemplative calm to city dwellers who are in the single-minded rush to go someplace. In the bright fluorescent glow of the hallways, the fish seem oblivious to it all. Mr. Yoon’s unlikely job is to make sure the fish are well cared for.
At the City Hall station the fish tanks cannot be missed, lined up in a row in the middle of the corridor that connects lines No. 1 and No. 2. At least five fish per tank swim leisurely among the water plants and pebbles, offering an odd contrast to the elbowing crowd.
The fish in the subway are an extension of a family aquarium business that has been in existence for more than 20 years. The idea for placing the tanks in the underground tranportation system came from Mr. Yoon’s cousin, who thought the business could prosper by selling space for advertisements on the tanks. The Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corp. could not see the harm in populating the busy pedestrian tunnels with fish and approved putting in the tanks.
The cousin handled the ad sales, while Mr. Yoon focused on the fish. It’s probably a good thing money doesn’t matter as much to him, because since the fish tanks appeared in 1998, only two ads have been sold, one for a security company and the other for opticians. On the other tanks, Mr. Yoon has put up photos from tropical beaches. In the meantime, he forks out 1.5 million won ($1,300) a month from his own pocket to maintain the tanks and feed the schools of fish.
Looking after the creatures is almost an around-the-clock job because of the fragility of fish and the brutish behavior of some subway riders, like the late-night drunks who think it’s entertaining to pound on walls of the tanks. Sometimes the tanks break from the abuse or the fish get so stressed they go belly-up. Sometimes people call the phone number Mr. Yoon has posted on each tank and alert him when a fish appears to have died. Mr Yoon takes the calls 24 hours a day. Since he has started looking after the tanks, he hasn’t had a vacation longer than a week.
The subways pose special hazards for fish. Vibration and noise coming from the trains can affect the more sensitive, and more expensive, Amazon species, which have gray bodies and orange around the tails. Each costs 80,000 won ($68) and several have died from severe stress. Not all of the fish, however, come all the way from Latin America. There are simple goldfish, too.
Lee Dam-hue, head of the Korean Aquarium Committee, a group of private pet fish dealers, offers assurances most of the fish aren’t suffering from their life in the subway. “The water plays the role of a buffer, making it easier for the fish to survive against the unfriendly environment,” Mr. Lee said.
However, not everyone thinks fish in the subway have a real purpose. Lee Sang-yeol, a City Hall Station official, says, “Fish tanks are supposed to serve as a rest place for citizens, but I doubt whether they are actually noticeable. But at least it’s better to have something other than gray cement walls.”
Mr. Yoon, however, shows pride in his job because he has seen people admiring the tanks. “I sometimes get many phone calls and letters from subway passengers, who give me feedback as well as compliments. Some ask me for tips on keeping pet fish,” Mr. Yoon said. The happiest moment for Mr. Yoon came when fish at Isu Station laid eggs and hatched babies. Watching a mother show the fish to her child, Mr. Yoon smiled and said, “You know, there are things you do to make others happy, not because you have to but because you want to. In my case, that’s keeping underground fish tanks.”


by Chun Su-jin


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