As an overlooked public space in Chinatown gets a facelift, an artist from China is getting to fulfill his dream.

Chenlin Cai, an artist trained at China’s elite Tsinghua University who’s painted murals in Beijing, had dreamed of painting a mural in Philadelphia’s Chinatown since he came to the city to study art five years ago. Cai, 35, started by painting murals inside Chinese and Japanese restaurants around the city but hoped he could one day paint a large-scale outdoor mural in the neighborhood he’s come to think of as a second home.

Now, he’s embarking on his first, on Chinatown’s 10th Street Plaza, which connects what some see as the northern and southern parts of Chinatown over the Vine Street Expressway and which is located in front of the neighborhood’s new flagship high-rise, the Crane building and community center.

“The experience of crossing Vine Street is terrible,” said Yue Wu, a community planner for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., which commissioned the mural with the nearby Asian Arts Initiative. It can feel dangerous, with cars speeding by on either side of the plaza.

The original painting of the mural by Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
The original painting of the mural by Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.

Wu hoped a mural would improve the pedestrian experience and draw more people to the unconventional public space, equipped with benches, a pergola strung with lights, and a smattering of playful lanterns shaped like pandas playing mah-jongg.

On Saturday morning, after being foiled by wind on Thursday and Friday, Cai began the sidewalk mural — colorful koi fish swimming among lily pads that Cai hoped children would play on — with a group of his art students. As they perched on footstools and painted the walkway, passersby, often with boba in tow, stopped to take photos and inspect the artwork.

Alex Cai, 15, student of Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, paints a mural, in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Alex Cai, 15, student of Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, paints a mural, in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.

“I have a question,” said 10-year-old Katherine Auyeung, sporting a painted unicorn horn on her forehead. “Why did you choose this?”

Cai lit up. He had hoped people would stop to ask about the mural.

Koi fish, he told Katherine, represent good fortune in Chinese culture.

Katherine’s mother, Maggie Liu, said she was pleased to see Chinese culture being represented through public art. Liu, 35, who came to the States two decades ago from China and runs a tofu shop a block from the plaza, said she’s been fighting to make sure her culture, and language, isn’t lost on her children, especially since her own parents can’t speak English. Earlier that day, Katherine had attended class at her Chinese-language school.

Katherine approved of the koi and the lily pads. “It’s like I’m standing in the water,” she said.

Alex Cai, 15, student of Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, paints a mural, in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Alex Cai, 15, student of Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, paints a mural, in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.

The 10th Street Plaza face-lift is part of the “Parks for Chinatown” project, funded by the William Penn Foundation. Through the project, PCDC, the Asian Arts Initiative, and Friends of the Rail Park have been hosting programs like game nights on the plaza and the rail park to “activate” the public spaces, Wu said.

Cai, who’s applying to create a mural on the side of the Crane building, said he was happy to finally get to accomplish his dream.

“But I still want to paint a bigger one,” he said.

Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, prepares the white paint for the mural in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Chenlin Cai, a muralist from China, prepares the white paint for the mural in Chinatown, Philadelphia, on Sat, Oct. 19, 2019.