LOS ANGELES — Over the years, what's known to some South Koreans as the West Coast Statue of Liberty had fallen into disrepair. The Korean Friendship Bell was a gift from Seoul to the American people for the U.S. bicentennial. It's become a source of pride for the area's Korean-Americans.
Now, thanks to a team of artisans, the bell has been restored to its former glory.
The restoration of “The Korean Friendship Bell” is long overdue, if you ask Los Angeles resident Angelic Lee.
“I’m so happy. Good to see again,” she said.
In 1976, to mark the U.S. bicentennial, the Republic of Korea presented the United States with the 18,000-kilogram bronze bell.
“Many Korean American immigrants who come here, often tell me, when they feel homesick, this is the place that they think of and come and visit,” said Ernest Lee, a member of the Korean Friendship Bell Committee.
Lee says this home away from home for many Koreans living in Los Angeles began to deteriorate after years of winter rains, exposure to salty ocean air, and improper maintenance. Korean Consul General, Yeon Sung Shin, remebers when he first saw the bell three years ago.
“The bell was not in good shape. The bell was on the ground," he said. "Disconnected. It was not properly cared for at all.”
But thanks to a large donation and artistic support from the Republic of Korea, the city of Los Angeles was able to restore the bell to its former glory. Korean Bell Master Chai Dong-Hey and several South Korean artisans worked on the project for months.
“My portion is only a very small portion," Hey said. "After today, the Korean Friendship Bell committee will be responsible for its safety. Each and every day.”
For the Korean Bell Master, hearing the bell ring during the rededication ceremony is personal.
“It’s very great to hear because my teacher created it 38 years ago," he said. "And now I am able to fix it. It makes me very happy.”
Bells are symbolic in Korean culture, says Consul General Shin.
“This is the soul of Korean people. The history of Korean people. Heart of Korean people," he said. "Whatever issues you may talk about patriotism, respect for parents, friendship, whatever this can be symbolized through the sound of the bell.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made a personal commitment to ensure the Korean Friendship Bell never falls into disrepair again.
“We put up some physical barriers for birds. We’ve made sure that there is maintenance that we can have around," he said. "So I feel very confident that we will. And it’s the very least that we could do for the kind gift, a second time, from the Korean people.”
The Korean Friendship Bell rings only five times a year - including America's Independence Day, July 4 and August 15, Korean Liberation Day.