Little Mekong is facing big challenges.
Named after the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, the historic and cultural district in St. Paul, Minnesota, is home to more than 100 businesses, most of them owned by Asian immigrants.
When COVID-19 struck and restaurants went to takeout only, owners such as Kunrath Lam (pictured above) were in a bind. Revenue was down 75% at Cheng Heng, the Cambodian restaurant she operates with her husband. But closing temporarily was not an option.
“Then we get nothing, and we still have bills to pay,” Lam said.
Enter LISC, a national nonprofit organization focused on revitalizing communities and bringing greater economic opportunity to residents. With $500,000 in funding from U.S. Bank, LISC in partnership with the Asian Economic Development Association was able to make grants to Cheng Heng and other businesses to help Little Mekong pull through.
“We were like, ‘Yes!’” said Choua Xiong (pictured below), owner of King Thai restaurant. “It’s been tough, with days when we were just like, ‘What do we do?’”
LISC Twin Cities Executive Director Peter McLaughlin said that the organization has been intentional in its place-based approach toward community investment, especially in response to the pandemic, saying, “We’ve seen that districts like Little Mekong are incredibly powerful as a way to organize economic activity and community buy-in.”
Of the grants, which are funded as part of a broad philanthropic commitment by U.S. Bank, McLaughlin added, “We want to make sure these businesses get through the ‘survival period’ and are ready once the pandemic is over.”
The survival of the district is important to maintaining what is a visible celebration of the Asian American community in the Twin Cities. Beginning in the 1970s, the region has welcomed influxes of refugees fleeing war, instability and discrimination in Southeast Asia.
Half a century later, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Asian Americans make up 18% of the population in St. Paul. And their cultural heritage has infused vibrancy into the region through food, art, journalism, celebrations and more.
Knowing that the challenges today are one chapter in this longer story, Lam and Xiong are determined to reestablish their momentum in the future. In the meantime, both are appreciative of support from the community.
“Minnesotans care about each other so much,” said Lam. “I really appreciate the grants supporting Little Mekong.”
Xiong added, “Anything during this time helps to take a little bit off of us.”