Dining With Denise Neil

Wichita restaurant walls filled with two decades of photos, memories

In the beginning, she was just being practical.

Kye Chon loved to take pictures, especially pictures of her family. She’d often have film left at the end of the roll she wanted to develop, and she couldn’t stand to waste it. So she’d ask customers at the Korean restaurant she owned with husband, Yong Chon, – Manna Wok at 4865 E. Harry – to pose.

“I would say to customer, ‘I have leftover film. Would you like?’” Chon said “They say, ‘Yes, yes.’”

Using tape, she hung some of those early pictures on the west wall of her cozy restaurant, big enough to seat only about 40 people. She took more pictures and taped them to the wall. Then she took a few more. Then a few more.

Now, 20 years after she snapped her first customer photo, Chon has filled every possible surface of the interior with snapshots. The collection holds at least 5,000 photos, she estimates, each one trimmed by hand to fit perfectly in its designated spot.

On the west wall, where it all started, the photos are so plentiful, they look like wallpaper. On the east side, they cover not only the wall but also the entire window framing, all the way up to the ceiling. They blanket the back wall, too, and every inch of the counter that holds the cash register.

The photo collection, which depicts two decades of diners smiling over bowls of sizzling bi bim bap and half-eaten bulgogi, is one of Wichita’s most well-known restaurant oddities, a fading record of the affection Chon has for her customers.

She took the first picture in 1995 on an old Kodak film camera, and the early ones are easy to spot. The tablecloths are pink instead of red, the fashions are outdated, and the walls are covered in wood paneling. That paneling is still there, but now, it’s visible only in tiny spots where the tape has disintegrated and the pictures have begun to fall out of place.

Chon spent way too much money having the photos developed and printed, she said, but she’d always order duplicates. The extras are in photo albums that are sitting on tables and crammed into book shelves. The albums are labeled by year. She leaves them out so customers can take the copies if they find themselves in a photo.

Three years ago, Chon ran out of space to post her pictures, but a customer named Bruce offered a solution. He was moving to Kansas City and had a television monitor he didn’t need. He also offered Kye his old digital camera, which holds 300 pictures at once. The 2,000 customer photos taken since running out of wall space now appear in a constant loop on the monitor, stationed near the cash register.

Chon still takes pictures, but only later in the day when the restaurant slows down. She’ll grab the camera, held together with tape, and approach a table. “You want picture?” she’ll ask. “Say ‘kimchi!’”

Occasionally, customers will turn her down, citing a bad hair day. More often, they agree, excited to have finally been selected for the wall of fame.

Chon has hundreds of stories about the people in the photos. She can find the one of the woman who had her picture snapped with her mother, then came back a few months later to tell Chon it was her mom’s last picture before she died. Chon found the copy and gave it to the woman.

She also can find the one of the 4-year-old boy who would cry if the table nearest his picture was occupied when he’d come in to dine. That boy is now a grown man.

She can’t find the one of the man who begged her to take his picture down. He’d gotten married, he told Chon, and the woman in the picture was his old girlfriend. That picture is gone.

Chon said she’ll often gaze at the pictures while she’s cleaning the restaurant at night, and when she recognizes a family in one of them, she’ll say a prayer for that family. It’s strange, she says, but those customers usually come into the restaurant within the next several days.

People often ask her what she’ll do with the pictures when she and her husband retire and sell the restaurant.

Chon laughs and says any future buyer will have to agree to her terms.

“If I sell this restaurant,” she said, “they have to keep them.”