[In depth interview]Easing worries on a commode
Sim, a lawmaker and former mayor of Suwon, heads the organizing committee of the five-day inaugural General Assembly of the World Toilet Association, which opens in Seoul today. The house was built to commemorate the occasion. During a recent interview with the JoongAng Daily, Sim spoke about why we have to talk openly about toilets, which most people regard as a topic not entirely suitable to discuss in public.
Q. You’ve been an avid advocate for toilets for the last 10 years. Why?
A. I would say that it is the most important part of my life. I was born in a bathroom in the1930s. Since my older brother and sister died early, my mother didn’t want to lose another child. That’s why she chose the bathroom as a place to deliver me because she believed, as many old Koreans do, that the smelly and damp place would help her baby to live longer. It was a superstitious thing, though.
I’ve been working to raise public awareness about the importance of clean toilets, but people just laugh at me. Still, you have to take toilets more seriously. About 2.6 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, live without toilets. Due to the lack of proper toilet facilities, four people, especially vulnerable children, die of water-borne diseases every minute. If we can work on this issue, more people can also have access to clean drinking water and even save their lives. The toilet movement is a new type of humanist movement. The United Nations Development Program has started to recognize this, and designated next year as the International Year of Sanitation, with a goal of building more toilets in developing countries through 2015.
What led to your toilet campaign?
Like anybody else, I was ignorant about the importance of toilets until I met a Korean who worked for the United Nations in 1996 when I was serving as mayor of Suwon. I hosted a luncheon with businessmen and key leaders of the local community to promote Suwon as one of the host cities of the 2002 World Cup. We talked about this and that, and the lady from the UN blurted out, “What is your plan about those dirty toilets if you really want to host the festival?”
In those days, people hardly breathed in public toilet areas because of the bad smell. Her question struck me, and I decided to build the most beautiful and cleanest toilets before the World Cup. That’s how I developed an interest in toilets. I established the World Toilet Association one year later. [The Seoul-based WTA is different from the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization.]
You tore down your home of 30 years and built Haewoojae.
With the upcoming first General Assembly of the WTA here in Seoul, I wanted to let people know about the event as well as a toilet expo, which will be held in COEX, southern Seoul, through Sunday. I also hope Haewoojae becomes a historic landmark because Korea is leading the world’s toilet market, even though most people don’t know it.
Tell us about some of the features of Haewoojae, apart from the fact it looks like a toilet bowl.
Since the house has no roof and its shape is a bit different from ordinary houses, the hardest thing was figuring out a way to manage rainwater. That’s why I decided to build it in an environmentally friendly way. When it rains, rainwater is stored in a water tank which is used later when I flush the toilet or water the garden. Haewoojae features four luxurious toilets from which you can enjoy views of a mountain and a nearby stream. The view is extraordinary. As its name suggests [Haewoojae comes from the Buddhist term haewooso, which means either a toilet or a place where you solve your worries] you can ease your worries while sitting in any of the four toilets. In fact, we spend about three years of our lives on a toilet; it is a place where we can meditate or reflect.
What are your plans for the house?
Haewoojae is my family’s private residence, so it is hard for me to open the house to visitors 24/7. Instead, there will be open house days for those who donate $1 to the toilet movement. I’m also looking for our first houseguest. Once a guest is selected, he or she will be asked to donate $50,000 per night, and the money will be used for people who have no proper toilet facilities in developing countries. When I die, I want to use this place for a good cause, so I will donate Haewoojae for use as a museum about toilets.
Who is going to be the first guest?
So far, three people have contacted me and said they’re interested in donating $50,000. They are a businessman, a politician and a person who made fast money. But I refused their proposals because they wanted publicity and to use this chance to raise their own profile. Someone who has a reputation for humanitarian work, such as Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey, would be appropriate as the first guest.
You mentioned that Korea is leading the world’s toilet market.
That is true. Japan used to lead the toilet industry, but Korea has passed Japan. Last year, a local company, H&G, located in Chilgok, Gyeongbuk, exported $10 billion worth of portable toilets to China, which will later be used for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, beating other competitors from Germany and France. Another company named Nuri Clean, which specializes in disposable toilet seat paper, won numerous awards and patents from Switzerland and Germany. The company has signed a $20 billion contract with Russia. The toilet industry is estimated to grow to about 104 trillion won ($113 billion) in the next 10 years.
Does your toilet work help in your political career?
Not at all. When I was serving as mayor of Suwon, I built more than 50 toilets. My motto is a toilet should be a beautiful and comfortable place. I spent 100 million won each on 50 toilets, and some people called me crazy. I also started a toilet tour for people who visit Suwon. That’s how I gained my nickname, “Mr. Toilet,” from a foreign reporter from The Associated Press.
By Sung So-young Staff Writer
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