Signs by Meng

The short walk from Civic Center to Mộng Thu Cafe lays bare the wild juxtapositions of present-day San Francisco. Towering granite federal buildings give way to sidewalks crowded by the house-less. Makeshift tarp and cardboard shacks share the sidewalk with Vietnamese seniors pulling carts packed with groceries. In the midst of this lies a spotless, brightly lit cafe selling steaming bowls of pho and crisp-crusted banh mi. Welcome to the Tenderloin.

When we first reached out to Michelle Nguyen (aka Meng) about filming her hand painted sign business, she mentioned Mộng Thu. The cafe is run by her mom, and was her first client. Someone has recently smashed the door that had once held her first public work, and she was planning to repaint it with a new logo. We were in.

Little Saigon

In the 1970’s a wave of refugees fleeing the war in Vietnam flooded into the Bay Area. Many found a home in the (then) more affordable housing of the Tenderloin. The area around Larkin Street eventually became known as Little Saigon. Today it is part of the rich history of immigrant neighborhoods that defines San Francisco, from Chinatown to North Beach, Japantown to the Mission.

Meng’s mom’s shop exemplifies the juxtapositions of present-day San Francisco on so many levels. It is packed with young foodies seeking instagramable delights to oldtimers reading the paper over their morning bowl of noodles. Traditional dishes like Bun Bo Hue and Pho Ga appear on a menu that Meng has imbued with her playful yet modern aesthetic.

A Day Behind the Brush

A City of


There are striking parallels between Meng’s work and the complicated and difficult realities of many neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. Her beautiful hand-drawn signs are a pushback against the impersonal nature of our increasingly digitized society. Her mom’s cafe is fighting against the tech-industry-driven gentrification that is both threatening small family-run businesses like hers, and pushing many residents onto the streets of the Tenderloin.

Meng’s sign business and her mom’s cafe are at the heart of what makes San Francisco such an amazing and complex city. Both take pride in the handmade sense of craftsmanship that gives the city’s many neighborhoods their unique character. Both celebrate the diversity that generations of immigrants have brought to the Bay. Both remind us that this city is defined by the hands that continue to build it.