Atop the Imperial Garden Restaurant’s granite facade, Portola residents now see a mural of red-crowned cranes looking down their beaks at the city sidewalk.
On Sunday, Feb. 28, Phillip Hua finished the piece, which stretches more than 50 feet, as part of an ongoing project to beautify San Francisco’s shuttered businesses. The mural is a multimedia piece, using digitized means to superimpose geometric patterns on images of cranes, which were wheat-pasted onto the side of the building. Additional designs of clouds and abstract details are hand-painted. According to Hua, the owner of the building picked him specifically from a number of willing artists to paint the mural.
The artwork is in two parts: On the left side of the restaurant’s grand doorway, passersby see a series of birds trapped within golden picture frames; on the right side of the doorway the birds take flight as part of one large panel, unbound by their frames. The birds are intended to symbolize San Francisco residents who are sheltered at home in the hopes of one day gathering with their friends safely and freely.
“Birds are a great metaphor for the human spirit by the way they can take flight and feel free, but also be held captive,” says Hua, who uses birds in much of his artwork. In a Facebook post, he wrote that the mural “is about the duty families, friends, and communities take in staying home and physically distancing in service of coming together in the near future.”
The mural was funded by the nonprofit Paint the Void, which aims to “help keep artists engaged and paid” during the pandemic, according to their website. The organization matches artists with businesses who have closed during the pandemic, paying them to convert boarded-up storefronts into works of art. Since mid-April of last year, the organization says they have facilitated the creation of over 100 murals by over 95 artists.
The restaurant, though not necessarily the most popular Chinese restaurant in town, was a staple in the local community. With its large banquet hall seating and lazy susans, the restaurant was one of a few large dim sum spots in the southeast corner of the city. However, despite the restaurant’s “garden” moniker, it had no outdoor seating — putting it on a fast track to closing amidst San Francisco’s shelter in place orders.
“When my mom would come visit me from San Jose we’d go there for dim sum, and it was always really crowded,” Hua says. “It was busy and bustling all the time.”
Though the restaurant will be missed by the local community, viewers may find hope in the mural’s message: We will all break free from our cages and be together soon.