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Letters of Thai Cafe
Katie Ka Vang, Yuwadee Poophakumpanart and Kathy Mouacheupao and their "Letters of Thai Cafe" project. Photograph by Charissa Uemura.

If you could write anything without feeling judged and be guaranteed that someone else would read it - what would you write?- Kathy Mouacheupao

by Kathy Mouacheupao

Remember when handwritten letters were the way to tell someone that you miss them, or that you love them, or that you're thinking about them or simply to say hello? Well, they still are! But hand writing a letter takes time and thought and all the things that made you smile when you saw a letter between all the other junk mail you usually receive.

At a recent dinner at the Thai Cafe on University Avenue in St. Paul, Katie Ka Vang - my colleague on a creative placemaking project - and I noticed the description on the back of the menu of chef Yuwadee Poophakumpanart's travels through Thailand to collect recipes that she uses in the kitchen. This sparked a conversation about the letters that our parents used to receive from the Thai refugee camps - a memory that we were sure most first-generation Hmong-Americans our age could relate to.

These letters were the only way our families were able to stay connected after being separated. Letters that shared our stories of separation. The new life in America. The hardships in the camps. The longing to be reunited. Letters that made our parents cry tears of sorrow, relief and hope for an unknown future that didn't include dirt floors, outhouses and bombs. Letters that opened our hearts and served as windows into the past, present and futures of our lives.

By the time we finished our meal, we had a plan for the "Letters of Thai Cafe" project. We created a letter exchange and invited people to write anonymous letters that would be exchanged by hanging them on a clothesline hung across the front windows. The prompt we gave was: "If you could write anything without feeling judged and be guaranteed that someone else would read it - what would you write?" My fortune cookie from that meal read: "Someone in your life needs a letter from you." THAT, my friend, sealed the envelope on the idea!

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We had a launch party in January with about 30 people who attended. We ate and wrote letters to start the letter exchange. The attendance and energy exceeded my expectations.

For the rest of the week, as a part of the project, my playwright colleague sat inside the Thai Cafe and wrote a series of scenes for a play based on her observations and conversations with Yuwadee, the chef, and Thomas, the waiter. We had an equally inspiring closing event that included a reading of her play.

It was a great experience! I met new people. and I believe people made new connections with one another and the Thai Cafe. One of the participants even said: "This was such a neat way to bring all these people together. I'll never think of Thai Cafe as just a restaurant anymore."

I think this is what creative placemaking is all about. It's about creating experiences and memories for people in a particular place that transforms their connection with that place. We did it!

Kathy Mouacheupao is the cultural corridor coordinator with the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corp. She lives in North St. Paul.

If you go: Thai Cafe, 371 University Ave. W., St. Paul

FFI: Letters of Thai Cafe is a part of Springboard for the Arts' Irrigate project, an artist-led placemaking project focused on the 6-mile stretch of St. Paul's Central Corridor light-rail-transit line.

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