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January 29, 2015

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Restaurateur uses cuisine, art to change perceptions

SINCE restaurateur Michael Chow opened his first Mr Chow Chinese restaurant in 1968 in the posh Knightsbridge area of London, he has managed to change the global image of Chinese dining from one of cheap food and questionable kitchen hygiene to one of fine and sophisticated cuisine.

He has since opened more fine eateries in Los Angeles, New York City and other locales. Along the way, the Shanghai native became a Hollywood actor and an accomplished artist.

With that kind of success, it’s surprising to learn that Chow, 76, who was born in Shanghai, raised in the UK and is now based in the US, opened his restaurants not for his passion for food but to make a statement against racism.

Chow painted passionately for 10 years and studied art at Central Saint Martins in London but did not graduate “because there was no supporting system for a Chinese artist,” he says.

That led him to a career as a minor actor in a string of Hollywood movies in the 1960s and beyond. It was here he experienced racism, in part by being forced to play stereotypical Chinese roles. He then turned to the restaurant business.

“The only thing I was allowed to do in the West to present how great China was Chinese cuisine. I wanted my restaurant, all my life, to fight racism,” Chow explains, tears rolling down his face.

Much of his emotion stems from his stormy childhood when he became separated from his parents while still a boy. Chow is better known in China as the son of Zhou Xinfang, one of the most famous and respected Peking Opera actors, who made his name through his creating the Qi art style, featuring a hoarse voice and natural deep acting. His mother, Qiu Lilin, who was one-quarter Scottish, came from a wealthy family whose fortune had been made in tea and jewelry.

“When I was very little, they (Shanghai locals) always pointed out ‘this is the son of Qilingtong (Zhou’s stage name). I was also a privileged and spoiled child because I had asthma during that time, very delicate,” Chow recalls during an interview with Shanghai Daily in the Peninsula Hotel Shanghai this month.

Chow, wearing his trademark round glasses, was in town to attend the 120-year anniversary of his father’s death. He has held exhibitions of his paintings and will have his first show in Shanghai this spring.

But it’s food where he has really made his mark.

“Zhou’s family seemed very choosy about food. Their housekeeper had a good relationship with all the sellers in the food market so that she could always buy the best fresh produce, even during the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76), when various goods were scarce,” says Gao Chao, once the neighbor of Zhou, who often bought groceries with Zhou’s housekeeper when he was young.

Chow’s happy childhood was stopped abruptly at age 12. He was sent to a London boarding school, Wenlock Edge, because his parents were concerned about political changes sweeping China amid revolution after World War II. In the subsequent “cultural revolution,” indeed his parents lost all their fortune and status. His father and brother were put in prison. His mother was required to sweep the streets and finally became exhausted and died.

“In England, everything was lost. I didn’t speak English and racism filled the daily life,” Chow says.

More tragically, his mother country cut off all correspondence between China and the Western world. “I never communicated with my father, including at his death,” Chow says.

Mr Chow restaurant is where he built his social circle while running the business, and this was also his starting point to interact with the whole world on his own terms, says Philip Tinari, the curator of UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art), a friend of Chow who is helping organize Chow’s painting exhibition.

Chow didn’t spend much time with his father.

“He was not a conventional father,” Chow recalls. “He committed his life to his art. Therefore, the sacrifice of his family was understood.”

But during Chow’s last two weeks in Shanghai, he was his father’s shadow, accompanying him at performances and rehearsals and dining out, usually at Sunya Cantonese Restaurant on Nanjing Rd E.

That two weeks made a big influence on the boy, inspiring him when he got older to serve Beijing cuisine in Mr Chow and run his restaurant like a theater.

“I chose Beijing cuisine because Peking Opera is the most sophisticated opera on earth,” Chow explains. “So is food, as Beijing cuisine absorbs all the essence of food culture around China. Besides, for Western people, Beijing — the cultural and historical capital — represents class. I wrote the script on this restaurant, from the menu to the waiter’s uniforms. The biggest sin is to bore the audience.”

Dining show

In his restaurant, Chow practices the four elements embodied in his father’s opera and tries to apply them to his restaurant business. The four are entrance, exit, focus and rhythm, and Chow wants them to be done extremely well.

Entrance is the staff accepting dining reservations. “My instruction is the first line of their voice should be up,” Chow emphasizes.

Focus is highlighted by his asking waiters to make eye contact with customers to seduce them.

Chow says breaking the rhythm is the most important. Here he wants to spring surprises. For example, he greets a reporter with a fist bomb; he starts a keynote speech about Qi-style opera by pouring a bottle of water over his head.

“These break the rhythm to make you remember me; so it is with the restaurant,” Chow explains.

Mr Chow has hired Italian waiters to serve Chinese food. Westerners don’t expect this, nor do they expect to see Chinese dining start with a Champagne trolley and end with a dessert plate.

“If I may not be too modest at this moment, I was 50 years ahead,” he says.

Art and food

Chow designs his restaurants himself, featuring Lalique glassware, green floor tiles and walls decorated by series of his art collection, which is becoming as celebrated as his food. His restaurants are patronized regularly by celebrities and have enjoyed decades of financial success.

“Through the restaurant medium I bring my love of art from other artists, which I cannot practice myself,” he says.

That collection includes portraits of himself by world-leading artists such as David Hockeny, Peter Blake and even Andy Warhol. But this is no high-profile show-off. Instead it’s an expression against racism.

He asks his artist friends to paint with an anti-racist theme. The result might be an abstract artwork featuring diverse elements such as a Japanese sumo wrestler and Beijing opera, putting Chinese and Japanese elements into one person, which highlights the vague and disrespected identity of Chinese in Western society.

That inspires him to present portraits to make people remember Chinese faces.

He also invites artists to leave messages in his guestbook after their meals, either in the form of a colophon or a sketch. Allen Jones drew a leg with his trademark high-heeled shoes; Jim Dine drew a red heart to echo Chow’s first restaurant in London, which opened on Valentine’s Day; Patrick Caulfield drew his most famous desk lamp.

Back to painting

Regretfully, Chow has no plan to open a restaurant in his hometown of Shanghai.

“Art always comes first,” he says.

Yes, Chow has picked up his brush again, starting three years ago. He has gradually developed his own painting style, using egg, 24K gold and various household wastes such as fishing net, paper ash, eggshell and sponge to build a visual look.

“Chow turned back to painting at 75, the age when many great artists start to form their late style … such as Rembrandt and Picasso. Their late style expresses a kind of regained freedom, loosing restraints stylistically and technically,” says Yu Yu, curator of USC Pacific Asia Museum.

“The way I paint is horizontal, Chinese heritage. Most Western paintings except abstract work are three-dimensional,” Chow says.

He thinks that painting is the noblest art form.

“Painting can transcend, reflecting life and time precisely,” he says.

He will have his art exhibition in town at Power Station of Art in April. He believes that when expressing a statement, painting is much stronger than a restaurant, which he considers mundane compared to art.

“My whole life is to fill that void from the situation created for me when I was 12. That void is connected with China because my father was the essence of China,” he says.

He learned from his father that “a master avoids his weakness but a grandmaster uses his weakness.”

“My weakness is the broken education brought by that void. I use all that negativity into one purpose — datianxia (building his own empire literally),” he concludes.

75 years of milestones in Chow’s creative life


Born in Shanghai and spent most of his childhood at 788 Changle Road, an old building constructed in European style.


Sent by his parents to London boarding school Wenlock Edge. He continued his education at Saint Martin School of Design but didn’t get a degree.


Started acting in Hollywood movies, appearing with his sister Chow Tsai Chin (who later became the first Chinese Bond girl) in film “Violent Playground.”

1960 to 1968:

Appeared in films such as “The Savage Innocents” (1960), “Marco Polo” (1961).

Valentine’s Day, 1968: Opened his first Mr Chow restaurant in London and married Grace Coddington, creative director at Vogue. They divorced a year later.


Married Tina Chow, famous model, jewelry designer and an influential fashion icon during the 1970s and 1980s. They divorced in 1990.


Opened his second Mr Chow in Beverly Hills.


Opened his third restaurant in New York City, said by Givenchy to be a “precious jewel box.”


Married Eva Chun Chow, a fashion designer and a member of CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America).


Opened his fourth restaurant in New York City on 57th Street.


Opened his fifth restaurant in W Hotel, South Beach, Miami.


Latest restaurant opened in Malibu Country Mart, Los Angeles. At the same time, he started going back to his painting.


He will have a painting exhibition at Shanghai Power Station of Art.


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