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.
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.
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.
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.