In 2005, three workers who had been hired to clean out the Trevi Fountain in Rome were arrested for pilfering 110,000 euros worth of coins that visitors had thrown into the fountain over the course of several weeks.
The world's most famous fountain collects some 3,000 euros or around W4.5 million worth of coins every day because of a tradition which holds that if visitors throw a coin into it, they are sure to return to Rome. The money collected from fountain is given to a Catholic charity.
The legend began in the 18th century when the children of European nobility visited Rome on sightseeing trips. The 1954 Hollywood film "Three Coins in the Fountain" made the coin-throwing a rite of passage for all visitors to the eternal. The movie is about three American women who throw coins into the Trevi Fountain wishing to find love and end up realizing their dreams.
In the Songgwang Temple in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province sits a wooden rice container 5 m long and 1.2 m wide that was made 300 years ago from a dead Zelkova tree and is said to have held enough rice to feed 4,000 guests during royal ceremonies. One day people started throwing coins in the container. The monks at first tried to stop them but eventually decided to use the coins for a good cause. They even put up a sign next to the trough telling visitors that the coins will be sent to a welfare center in Suncheon.
After the restored Cheonggye Stream opened to the public in 2005, people started throwing coins under the waterfall at the start of the stream. In 2008, the Seoul Metropolitan Government placed a round, metallic dish in the water for people to throw the coins into. Two years ago, the dish was raised to the surface propped up by a granite support, and a sign was put up telling visitors that it is a wishing well.
As of last week, 1.2 million coins had been thrown into the dish, totaling W80 million (US$1=W1,173). By August, a total of W100 million worth of coins will have been collected. Seoul city donates the Korean coins to the Community Chest of Korea, while foreign coins are given to UNICEF. Coins from 51 different countries have been thrown into the dish, most of them Japanese, followed by Thai, Chinese and American ones.
It costs the Bank of Korea W70 billion a year to make new coins as many more sit idling in drawers and piggy banks in people's homes, so wishing wells could help the BOK reduce the cost of producing new coins.
Writings by visitors to the Cheonggye Stream collected by the Seoul city government show that most of them wished for their family's health. Foreigners usually hope that the pleasant memories of their trip to Korea will last a long time or that their friends will live happy lives. The more foreigners want to return to Seoul and Korea, the more coins will pile up in the stream.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Oh Tae-jin