Tammy Wong, chef-owner of Rainbow Chinese at the far end of Eat Street, has seen her fair share of changes in Minneapolis since moving here in 1983.
“Of course, people still think that coming to this neighborhood is scary, not safe,” Wong laments.
And yet, flanking her esteemed restaurant for just a few days more is one of the most welcoming sights imaginable—a family of pandas reaching two stories tall, frolicking over windows, backed by shades of sea foam green and coral. Rainbow’s panda mural dates back to 2013, when Wong tapped artist Erin Sayer to do something a little different in the south Minneapolis dining corridor.
Funded in part by the Whittier Alliance, Sayer’s panda mural was part of Wong’s plan to make art part of the neighborhood experience. “It’s such a unique neighborhood. We want people to come here and remember that.”
But her vision didn’t stop at pandas. “I wanted it to make it a destination for people to come to the neighborhood, that they will enjoy the mural, and hopefully that other business owners in the neighborhood will follow—just like when I put plants in. Years ago, you didn’t see any pots outside. We thought it would be a nice way of softening up the neighborhood, of welcoming and not intimidating, you know?”
From her perch at the end of the Eat Street corridor, Wong knew she was onto something, when other businesses followed her lead in keeping live plants on the street round the clock. Before long, Rainbow’s panda mural was beloved—to the point of being taken for granted.
Still, Minnesota’s climate took a toll. “We don’t like things to look faded. It doesn’t look fresh and nice [anymore],” sighed Wong. “Again, we don’t want people to think we live in a bad neighborhood.”
Sayer, for her part, wrote that excising the pandas was inevitable due to having to re-prime the wall. She “wasn’t keen on wanting to repaint my own painting that was done on a dime by a much younger me!”
This left only one option for the pair: a complete refresh.
Wong was guarded about the specifics of the new mural. The same ideas of appreciating the neighborhood through the lens of beauty and intentionality remain her pillars, along with the idea of providing a new reason for folks to visit Eat Street. In a pair of years that have proven tough for small businesses on Nicollet—ravaged by road construction that first closed 26th Street, then 28th—Wong suggests no one really needs another reason to support their local businesses, but this will do nicely.
“I could give you a little secret now,” Wong teased. “I think Sayer may leave one panda."
It’s kind of like Rainbow is giving the city a present, then torturing us all by forcing us to unwrap it very, very slowly. All we can be sure of is there’s one very cute panda waiting for us at the end of it all.
2739 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis