The bolted doors of the former Ho Toy Noodle company now split a painted fortune cookie. A golden strand from the cookie wraps around the building’s corner and flows into bowls of noodles. The mural, “Where We Belong” by Thai artist Ponnapa Prakkamakul, stretches 150 feet across the walls of 79 Essex St. in Chinatown. Oxford Properties Group, in partnership with the Asian Community Development Corporation, commissioned the mural and unveiled the finished piece on July 14.
Noodles, a symbolic dish in Chinese cuisine, represent a sense of belonging for the Chinatown community, whose residents are working to preserve its history and culture against displacement and gentrification. The mural’s Chinese name — “Gui Shu, Gui Su” — means to belong to a place of return, destination, and support.
“The meaning behind the name is in response to the gentrification in Chinatown, not only to the Chinese community, but all nationalities — that this is a neighborhood where they belong,” Prakkamakul said in a statement.
Prakkamakul collaborated with the Asian Community Development Corporation’s A-VOYCE program, asking youth in the Chinatown neighborhood to share their favorite traditional noodle dishes. At the workshop, they drew pictures of wedding noodles, New Year noodles, birthday noodles — comfort foods from their childhood. Each responded to the prompt with their own take, drawing curvy, comingled bowls, or crisscrossed lines topped with scallops.
Judy Wong, calligrapher and chairperson of the Chinese Calligraphy Association of Boston, translated their stories of family traditions and childhood nostalgia into Chinese and English texts. “We would have noodles every single week,” reads one strand on the mural. “I got hungry so I drew more noodles,” reads another from a student in the workshop.
Prakkamakul also used reviews of the Ho Toy Noodle company as inspiration for the project and noticed themes of sharing, generosity, and trust. These keywords have been painted in small golden bulbs along the edges of the noodle strands. She wanted to highlight the importance of family-owned businesses in upholding the Chinatown community.
When she started the project in June, pedestrians seemed not to notice the artist working around the clock. She said people were using the road as a shortcut, rushing past the building. But as she added more colors and text, people began slowing down, “similar to when you walk in a museum.” And if they were walking in groups, they stopped to talk about the mural.
In an interview last week, Prakkamakul said: “I feel almost like the street transformed from a shortcut into a space where people can hang out.”