Interview: The Multi-Talented Michael Chow Shifts Sights to Fine Art

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Michael Chow at the star-studded LACMA Art+Film Gala in Los Angeles on November 1, 2014. (Shutterstock)

As a restauranteur, screenwriter, designer, actor, and collector, it would be an understatement to say that the illustrious Michael Chow is a man of many talents. Now, he’s focusing his efforts specifically on one title that was dormant for almost 50 years: artist.

Since his first iconic Mr. Chow restaurant opened in London in 1968 and later spread to Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, and Miami, it has been the go-to hotspot for generations of celebrities and top artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy ­Warhol, Francesco Clemente, Francis Bacon, and Jasper Johns. Today, one can spot Hollywood’s top stars such as Madonna, Jay-Z, or Beyonce dining on Mr. Chow’s famous Beijing Duck amid paintings by the artists who frequented the restaurant and decor created by Chow himself (as a former architecture student at Central Saint Martins, he has a knack for design—he also designed the Armani boutique on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles).

As a significant force in food, art, fashion, and film circles, Chow and his glamorous wife Eva, a former fashion designer, keep the company of Hollywood’s elite. As a cultural icon himself, he has appeared in numerous films such as Modesty Blaise and the Julian Schnabel–directed film Basquiat, and has been portrayed in portraits by many of the top artists with whom he associated. With deep connections to the film world, he has also written several of his own screenplays.

The fabulousness of Chow’s life now contrasts sharply with the trauma his family faced in China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when his father Zhou Xinfang, a grand master of the Qi style of Chinese opera, was persecuted and tortured due to his elite status. Chow’s wealthy parents had seen the risk coming after the Communist revolution, and sent him to boarding school in England in 1952 at age 12. Chow never saw his parents again—his father died in 1975 under house arrest.

The memory of his father has helped to propel Chow back into one of his first creative passions—painting. To honor Zhou on what would have been his 120th birthday in February, Chow opened an exhibition entitled “Voice for My Father” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing featuring his original paintings along with portraits of him by artists including Basquiat, Warhol, and Haring. Posthumously exonerated, his father is now an honored figure in China.

In order to learn more about Chow’s renewed focus on creating art as well as his thoughts on creativity, Chinese culture,  and his favorite Chinese dish, we caught up with him for an interview.

What inspired your return to painting after 50 years?

Most of my life I lived abroad. Since 8/8/08, when China hosted the Olympics, I felt that it was a good opportunity for Chinese artists on the world stage. I painted for about 10 years from 1958 to 1967. But back then, there was very little support system. Then three years ago, Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), saw one of my earlier works and encouraged me to pick up the paintbrush again and rekindled the fire within me.

Michael Chow

Michael Chow’s “Voice for My Father” exhibit at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. (Courtesy Photo)

Why did you decide to exhibit your works in mainland China? 

Under the leadership of Phillip Tinari, UCCA has become one of the best museums in China and therefore, one of the most important museums in the world. Besides, it’s my home.

Your exhibit at UCCA in Beijing is entitled “Voice for My Father”—how are your pieces influenced by your memory of him?

The spirit of my father and I are one of the same (School of Qi). The only difference is the medium in which we express it.

Your influence on the creative world transcends boundaries, stretching into art, food, film, interior design, and fashion. Do you see these as separate fields or is there something that connects them in your mind? 

Of course, they are all connected. They filter into one another continuously and never-ending.

Mr Chow in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. (Courtesy Photo)

Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. (Courtesy Photo)

Are you currently working on any film projects? What can you tell us about them?

I wrote many screenplays and was very passionate about it. I still am, but my ambition to direct them has ended since all my time is taken up by painting.

Over your decades as a restauranteur in the United States and UK, have you noticed any change in attitudes about Chinese cuisine?

From day one, I knew Chinese cuisine was the greatest on this planet. I have devoted my life to promote Chinese culture through the medium of food. In my modest way, I’m proud to say that I have accomplished that.

Keith Haring's portrait of Michael Chow at his UCCA show in Beijing. (Courtesy Photo)

Keith Haring’s portrait of Michael Chow at his UCCA show in Beijing. (Courtesy Photo)

What are some of your favorite restaurants when you visit China?

On my most recent trip to China, I didn’t have much opportunity to visit many restaurants because I was too preoccupied with the exhibition and for the celebration of my father, Zhou Xinfang’s, 120th post-humous birthday celebration in Shanghai. But when I’m in China, I’m home, so it’s all comfort food to me.

If you had to name one favorite Chinese dish, what would it be? 

Beijing Duck. Its sophistication, variety in taste, texture, and visual make it symbolic to China.

Do you have any plans to open a Mr. Chow location in mainland China?

Like film directing, I devote most—if not all—of my time to painting.

 

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