F-Mart’s Mural Provides Beacon for Asian Community in Lawrence

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Being noticed is different than being seen. More than a year ago, F-Mart’s south-facing gray concrete wall wasn’t worthy of much attention. Passersby saw nothing eye-catching about the East Asian food market’s nondescript building located next to Hertz Car Rental. Now the wall is covered with a mural featuring renderings of local landmarks and Kansas sunflowers alongside images of Taiwanese bubble tea, Korean gimbap, Chinese moon cake, Japanese mochi, and other food iconography.  

Japanese-American graphic designer and illustrator Emmi Murao created a digital layout of the mural in the summer of 2022. Her sister Juna Murao, also a graphic designer, teamed up with other artists to bring it to life, painting the wall white to create a blank canvas. Then they added the colorful imagery using blue, green, yellow, orange, and pink paint.

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Owned by Endi Shengcao Chen, F-Mart sells an array of fresh vegetables, meat, fruit, live seafood, spices, dumplings, snacks, beverages, noodles, vinegars, soy sauces, seaweed, and other goods to customers like the Murao sisters. 

Meant to be noticed, F-Mart’s mural is one of five public art projects in Lawrence that are part of the People’s Market Program. Kansas Healthy Food Initiative and other area partners developed the program under the purview of the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Ethnic Markets Initiative. The city-wide project paired different local artists with five culturally specific food retail shops. Beyond adding aesthetic value, the program highlights ethnic cultures, local food policy, and the effort to strengthen equitable food systems in Douglas County through the lens of art. 

Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, a community-based public art organizer and muralist, invited Emmi to create the mural. Fitzpatrick served on the Douglas County Food Policy Council for four years and has been actively involved with local mural projects. 

“Connie and I were vendors at a craft event in Lawrence several years ago and kept in touch through social media,” said Emmi. “When Connie approached me about the project, I was still living in Kansas but knew I would be moving soon. I asked Juna if she would be interested in painting the mural in my place.”

Born in Japan, Juna and Emmi moved with their family to Lawrence years ago when the sisters were children. Emmi now lives in Boston and works full-time as a product designer at Converse and illustrator. Juna studied typography at the London Royal College and graduated from the University of Kansas. 

F-Mart’s long wall inspired Emmi to design a horizontal landscape. 

“With uneven ground and deep textures on the wall, I wanted to keep the design pretty straightforward and simple to execute, especially since I would not be there to direct it,” said Emmi. “It was also my sister’s first time painting on such a large scale. I wanted the icons to be simple and do the storytelling.”

Inspiration for the food icons came from data collected by surveying people in the community on their favorite East Asian food and dishes. 

“Overall, I wanted the colors and theme to be happy with all the icons and elements working and co-existing,” said Emmi.

Co-existence underscores an important aspect of the People’s Market Program. As the only East Asian supermarket in town, F-Mart serves as more than a destination to purchase weekly groceries. Standing out from others shapes one’s outlook and existence, internally and externally. 

“Whenever we feel homesick, we would go there to shop. I believe grocery stores like F-Mart are important for immigrants to feel at home in an unfamiliar place through food and community,” said Emmi. “It’s also an accessible place for people to explore and learn about cultures they did not grow up in.” 

Sustainability and Community

The 2019 Ethnic Food Retail Study, prepared by the KU Center for Community Health & Development for the Food Policy Council, reported on “the place of local ethnic food retail stores in Douglas County and helps inform priorities for promoting a sustainable food system.” 

Findings from the report helped shape the People’s Market Program and Ethnic Markets Initiative. The report indicated that regular customers shared details about ethnic store locations, goods available, and other information with other potential customers in their community. 

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Ethnic businesses must spread awareness through personal networks if they hope to sustain growth. These stores typically lack an advertising or marketing budget. They cannot compete with national grocery stores and retail chains that advertise weekly promotions and offer coupons in local newspapers. Instead, they must rely on word of mouth and social media to attract customers and build community. 

In return, ethnic retail stores play a crucial role in community food systems, helping to ensure food access, foster health, and reduce the likelihood of food deserts in underserved areas. 

Customers have a stake in these stores not only for easier access to food that’s connected to their culture, but also as community building blocks.  

Six local ethnic food store owners and regular clientele were interviewed about the retail businesses. Over 60 percent of the customers surveyed shop at these stores for daily meals that they cook at home. The report’s findings also confirmed that “the stores and the goods they offer are important to customers in supporting, celebrating, and maintaining their cultural identities.” 

Douglas County, the fifth-most populous county in Kansas, is predominantly white (83.4%). Asians comprise only five percent of the county’s population. Overall, nearly 6.5 percent of the population in Douglas County is foreign-born. Lawrence, the seat of Douglas County, is home to the University of Kansas. Whether or not community members are affiliated with the university’s diverse campus population, the city’s ethnic residents, Asian and otherwise, are a visible minority.

As the report points out, stores like F-Mart draw people who are looking for more than frozen soup dumplings, lumpia wrappers, or daikon. 

Customers “feel a sense of community and culture when they enter the stores.” They’re united by similar customs, language, values, and world views. The stores “honor the diversity and cultural uniqueness of their customers” and provide a safe space for Asian clientele “to celebrate their diversity, not just shop for the next meal.” 

Ethnic food retail stores function as a beacon for the Asian community. These stores are the modern equivalent of trading posts in the early 1800s. Westward-bound pioneers sought these outposts in Westport, Missouri, before heading to the Kansas Territory, home to many indigenous tribes before colonization, and upon arrival in frontier towns. For minorities, ethnic food retail shops offer their customers relatable identities, cultural touchstones, and goods that can ease existence in the Midwest without fully abandoning native customs and culture. 

F-Mart image by Pete Dulin
Photograph: Pete Dulin

The F-Mart mural is a lighthouse signal for new and returning customers who can “read” painted imagery that transcends native languages. It communicates what people of Asian descent in particular might find on the other side of that wall – food, culture, acceptance. F-Mart and other ethnic stores provide a hub of social, educational, and community services.

“I hope F-Mart will be a place for East Asian people and allies to meet, learn, and connect through food and culture,” said Emmi. “I hope this mural celebrates and energizes the cultures that F-Mart and the community represent.” 

To truly be part of a community requires more than being seen and noticed; it means being welcomed and accepted.

Creating the mural also offered Emmi an opportunity for introspection.

“I was surprised at how much I learned about myself. I realized I had a lot of unpacked trauma growing up as a Japanese-American,” she said. “This project helped me heal by confronting the past. I was able to make something fun with these sad memories. I’m so thankful to be able to work with Juna on a project in our community where we grew up together.”

This story was commissioned by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, Kansas Department of Commerce. Food and drink journalist Pete Dulin was one of ten writers selected for the 2022 Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission’s inaugural Critical Writing Initiative.

Photography by Chikara Hibino.

Kansas City Star Reviews Expedition of Thirst

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A couple years ago, author Pete Dulin hit the winding roads of eastern Kansas and western Missouri in his red Ford Focus. He visited 150 wineries, distilleries, and breweries to research his fourth book, a travel guide titled Expedition of Thirst. Writer Anne Kniggendorf’s reviewed Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries Across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri for The Kansas City Star.

She shares facets of the book’s dive into the winemaking and grape-growing culture in Kansas and Missouri. Kniggendorf chose this quote of mine that sums up how much there is to explore in Expedition of Thirst which was published by University Press of Kansas.

“We think of wine and terroir in France, but the bi-state area also has these distinct regions and climates and types of soil that will have a significant impact on the flavor and aroma of wine and the grapes that are grown,” Dulin said during a recent phone interview from Thailand, where he was visiting family.

The review shares how I drove more than 2,000 miles across eastern Kansas and western Missouri to visit multiple businesses in a day. After a long day of driving, talking, and tasting wine, beer, and spirits, “taste-bud fatigue” can set in, Kniggendorf wrote.

She cites some of the many off-the-beaten path destination featured in the book, such as Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in Sylvan Grove, Kansas. Those looking for a day trip might consider a jaunt to Columbia, Missouri, where the city has a distillery and multiple breweries.

Kniggendorf does a fine job of capturing the spirit and intent of Expedition of Thirst. It’s a fine, thorough review. Visit the link to read the full review of Expedition of Thirst.

The 288-page book has many color photographs that I shot to accompany the travel guide entries on the 150 breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Signed copies are available by ordering directly from my site. The book is also available at local retailers and major online retailers.


Essay Excerpt: When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

“When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley” is the title of an essay I wrote for the series What It Means to Be American, a project by The Smithsonian and Arizona State University in conjunction with Zócalo Public Square.

Los Angeles-based nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, an ASU Knowledge Enterprise Magazine of Ideas, syndicates journalism on its site to media outlets worldwide. Zócalo editor Eryn Brown contacted me in October 2017 and commissioned an essay for the series, What It Means to Be American. After discussion, we decided on a topic that would explore the history of winemaking and grape-growing in Kansas before and after Prohibition. I wrote the essay over a month’s time, building on research I had unearthed while writing Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri.

Below is an introductory excerpt from the essay. Visit the links below to read the entire essay.

When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry in production. Bold entrepreneurs, industrious Kansas farmers—many of them German-speaking immigrants—produced 35,000 gallons of wine in 1872. That volume jumped more than six-fold by the end of the decade.

But the growth in Kansas’ wine industry (and its sister industry, brewing) coincided with dramatic changes in the state. From 1860 to 1880, Kansas’ population mushroomed from 107,206 to nearly one million people. Kansans battled over slavery in the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and again during the Civil War (1861-1865). Kansas vintners faced a dynamic and challenging moral, social, business, and political climate. The region’s civic and religious leaders railed against the use of alcohol, which they believed contributed to moral decay and spiritual rot, leading them to implement the first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in the United States in 1881. For more than a century, this ban caused a slowdown from which the Free State’s winemakers are only now beginning to emerge.

Read the entire essay.



Image caption: Still photograph of teetotaler women from the satirical short film Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), which spoofs the Wichita temperance activist Carrie Nation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.