Return to sender: Giant Santa’s mailbox benefactor back in Longyearbyen, bewildered at rejection of gift to community

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Santa’s Little Helper is back in town – and says she doesn’t understand why her gigantic gift to the community is causing such a huge fuss.

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Po Lin Lee, seen here during a crafts workshop when her mailbox was unveiled in December of 2013, says she plans to keep the mailbox the city is ordering removed from its current location. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Po Lin Lee, a Hong Kong native, said she returned to Longyearbyen last week and is bewildered so many people are asking where’s she been and what she plans to do with the nearly 10-meter-high Santa’s mailbox at Sjøområdet the city ordered her to remove by last Nov 1. She’s been fined 500 kroner a day by the city ever since and was sent a notification that if she didn’t remove it by June 1 the city would do so and bill her for the costs – but her whereabouts and intentions have been a mystery all these months.

During a brief encounter Tuesday afternoon when she was spotted walking near the center of town, Lee seemed unaware of much of the controversy. She said, for example, she has not seen an article published in Svalbardposten last Friday updating the situation and quoting officials who said the mailbox will likely be torn down as soon as it can be legally authorized.

As for her plans for the mailbox?

“To keep it,” she said.

While that’s possible, it definitely won’t be where it’s standing now, said Sofie Grøntvedt Railo, a construction lawyer for the city.

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Po Lin Lee’s giant mailbox, seen here during its unveiling in December of 2013, remains a constant object of attention for visitors to Longyearbyen. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“Of course she can keep it, but not in that place,” Railo said. “She cannot have it stay here without finding a new place for it. If she takes it away now and puts it in storage somewhere that’s up to her.”

The Governor of Svalbard served Lee with an official notice on June 15, which means she has 30 days to remove the mailbox before the city is authorized to, Railo said.

Lee has sent e-mails twice in recent weeks requesting meetings with city officials, but failed to show for both, Railo said. Lee wrote she cancelled the second meeting scheduled for June 12 because she was ill and wanted to meet late this week, but Railo said she has heard nothing from Lee since.

Attempts since Tuesday by Icepeople to contact Lee with follow-up questions have been unsuccessful.

But while contacting her may have proved troublesome for officials, plenty of locals have been at least generally aware of her whereabouts and kept in touch with comments on her Facebook page (for which she uses the name Lin Pauline). Her last post from Svalbard was last August, followed by mostly Christmas- and holiday-themed posts during the winter from east Asia, and a post May 26 announcing “I am coming back soon. Miss you all!”

During Tuesday’s encounter, Lee said she is in town indefinitely and is still planning to pursue a large-scale tourism operation, including a hotel and adventure center next to Sportscenteret aimed at attracting Asian tourists.

Lee attracted widespread attention when she paid 500,000 kroner to build the giant mailbox in secret, which was unveiled just before Christmas of 2013.

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Po Lin Lee reads a giant handmade Christmas card to Santa left in the “world’s largest” mailbox she had built for him. Lee estimates up to 10,000 letters were deposited in the box in 2015. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The Hong Kong native now living in Longyearbyen estimates as many as 10,000 letters were deposited this year in the “world’s largest Santa’s mailbox” she donated to the city during the 2013 Christmas season. at the time she said she felt the mailbox offered a universal way for for people to express their thoughts and hopes.

“Why not send a letter to Santa Claus to tell him they’re happy, to tell him they’re sad, to tell him their dreams?” she said. “Everybody likes Santa Claus.”

The mailbox has since been an object of much admiration and controversy. Lee, in December of 2015, said up to 10,000 letters were placed in the mailbox during the year. But the heavy volume resulted in complaints from local post office officials, who said many people mistook it for a real mailbox and Lee’s frequent absences from town meant letters were sitting in the giant box for months at a time before she brought them to the post office.

Lee initially obtained a two-year permit for the mailbox, but when she applied for a renewal in November of 2015 the city told her the application was incomplete because she failed to notify neighbors of her intentions.

The application remained incomplete and the city ordered her to remove it by Oct. 31 or face daily fines. As of Tuesday, the cumulative fine is 116,000 kroner.

The city’s declaration it would take down the mailbox by June 1 ran into legal complications, due to questions about whether she had been properly notified. Railo said Lee now has until mid-July to remove the mailbox.

The Longyearbyen Community Council approved the removal of the mailbox this spring, with some saying its for cosmetic as well as legal reasons.

“I would like to see the mailbox disappear,” said Deputy Mayor Eirik Berger during a meeting of the council’s Technical Committee in April. “You can place something very odd in an urban landscape that tourists will take pictures of. But that does not mean it should be there.”

Nearly all visitors interviewed about the issue in recent weeks about the dispute say they think the mailbox should remain.

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