Feb 13, 2015 05:52 PM

The Glamorous Mr. Chow: 'Tell Them, the Phoenix is Rising'


Michael Chow

In 1952, a 12-year-old boy from Shanghai named Zhou Yinghua set out on a 30-day sea voyage from Hong Kong to London, a momentous journey filled with anticipation. However, it was the two weeks before his departure, time spent with his famous father, grandmaster of Beijing Opera, Zhou Xinfang, a powerful figure onstage who the young boy found intimidating offstage, that would later most affect him.

In London, Zhou Yinghua adopted the name Michael Chow, which would become his signature on a chain of restaurants. Returning now to Beijing to exhibit Voice for My Father, a collection of his paintings from the past two and a half years, Chow, 76, reflects on how the time with his father shaped his work, reminding him of the greatness of Chinese culture in an often West-dominated world.

"During the two weeks, we had a breakthrough – it was the only time I was really close to him." Chow says. "Without them, I'm really screwed."

The exhibit, which is at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing until March before moving to Shanghai in April, is Chow's first in Mainland China. It presents Chow's paintings, which use diverse materials such as gold leaf and raw eggs; his portrait collection, with works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, Ed Ruscha, and Urs Fischer; and archival images and documents of Zhou Xinfang. The opening follows Chow's trip to Shanghai in January for official celebrations of what would be his father's 120th birthday. Before his paintings arrived, Chow sat with us in the empty gallery to discuss this new stage of his life.

The first MR CHOW restaurant opened in Knightsbridge in 1968. Today, branches in London, Beverly Hills, New York City, Miami, and Malibu boast impressive original art and Chinese food served by Italian waiters, where "expensive, difficult, and heavy is usually good." The cross-cultural chain is Chow's desire to bring Chinese culture into Western minds and stomachs.

Initially, Chow wanted to be a painter, not a restaurateur. But his greatest dream was to be the best at something. In 1960s London, where according to Chow, "Chinese men were Manchus and nerds, Chinese women were dragon ladies and prostitutes," opportunities for Chinese artists were few, so he decided to use racism to his advantage. (If necessary, Chow would be a Manchu because "the Manchu gets sex, the nerd doesn't.") For him, creating a restaurant, "a temple to show how great China is," was the most reliable guarantee for success.


Remembering 1781 At Sea by Michael Chow

The restaurant became a "traveling musical" going from city to city "putting on performances" every night. For a perfectionist like Chow, the audience had to be completely satisfied. In his restaurants, the tablecloths have foam underneath, so that guests can rest their hands on soft surfaces. The napkin is bigger than usual so that when it is put on, the diner is in a "mother's womb." "When you accumulate every detail of the universe, and you put them together, it becomes a powerful thing," Chow says.

As a result of such intense attention to detail and design, MR CHOW has attracted famous artists. When Chow asked Peter Blake to paint an antithesis of racism for the restaurant, he created a depiction of Chow as a wrestler-manager with half-Chinese, half-Italian bodyguards. It was the first of many to come in Chow's portrait collection, which would receive contributions from David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and the "very cute" Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The list of artist superstars reads like the cast list for an Oscar contender. "It's like an animal thing," Chow says of his artist friendships. "If you work without any compromise and speak the truth, they're attracted to you." Often, paintings were swapped for food. At the restaurants, the guest book's reconfiguration as an Artist Book where guests not only write, but also sketch, is a record of the solidarity.

Paparazzi frequently wait outside MR CHOW, waiting for celebrities like Lady Gaga or Beyonce and Jay-Z to walk out. "There's a desire and need to have fame, it has to do with my lifeline," Chow says of the recognition as his father's son in Shanghai before losing it in London. "I wanted to regain it." Press comes naturally for Chow – when he least expects it, a journalist will call him "out of nowhere." In Chow's world, nothing is too glamorous. Recently, Chow and his wife hosted President Obama for breakfast at their Los Angeles home.

Unsurprisingly, Chow's wives have shared his impeccable style: in 1968, Grace Coddington, the Welsh former model and creative director of American Vogue; from 1972 to 1990, half-Japanese Tina Chow, a jewelry designer and muse of Yves St. Laurent and Issey Miyake; and now, Korean-American Eva Chun Chow, a fashion designer and board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Chow has seamlessly connected his love, art, and business lives.

Nowadays, Chow rarely goes to his restaurant – when he does, he is another celebrity, a guest in his own establishment. Everything that Chow has done over the past half century has been a playground for his artistic talents, a harbinger to his choice to return to painting now.

In early 2012, when Jeffery Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, visited Chow at his house, he saw two abstract paintings created by Chow in 1959 and 1962 when his work had exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Redfern Gallery in London. Although he knew of Chow's involvement in the art world, Deitch was still surprised that painting had been Chow's focus.

At the time, The Painting Factory, an exhibit of new abstract painting by Andy Warhol, Rudolf Stingel, Urs Fischer, Christopher Wool, and younger artists was on display at MOCA. After visiting, Chow became convinced, "I can beat most of these guys. I want to have a go." In Beijing, Chow tells us that now he can beat "all of them."

And just like that, at age 74, after a 50-year sabbatical, Chow returned to painting. Inspired by Joan Miró, his first works were built with sheets of silver. One of them, Miracle Painting is symbolic: it refers to Chow's redefinition of the iconic "Mr. Chow" into "Mr. Chow the painter" as a miracle. "I came back with the Miracle Painting," Chow explains, "because I have the chance to be the greatest painter."

Chow picks up where he left off in the 1960s, but inevitably incorporates his experiences in theater and cuisine. Rare metal, household paint, plastic, bumper stickers, fishnets, rubber tires, money, and cracked eggs are all given equal consideration in his compositions. When Chow gets to work, he climbs a ladder and pours paint onto a canvas below before using a paint gun to staple the materials together. It is a mighty performance, resembling the training he used to give MR CHOW waiters or the dramatic movements of his father as a Beijing Opera superstar.

In 2014, Chow finished Tell Them, The Phoenix Is Rising. From "miracle" to "phoenix," Chow favors metaphorical language as he literally paints his life as a mythological narrative. "I have a lot of resistance in the art world to put me down. You are a celebrity, you are Chinese. So I love it," Chow says. "In a movie, the hero always goes down. But the greater the villain, the greater the hero's rise." Unabashedly, he makes a request to the journalists writing the story of his return: "Tell them, the phoenix is rising."

Throughout his globetrotting life, Chow has shifted from actor to architect, restaurateur to painter. His life is a collage as is his art, "half sculpture and half painting," made up of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Influenced by his life in London and the United States, his method and techniques are Western. However, harkening back to his roots, Chow believes his content is Chinese. In fact, he calls his paintings "Expressionist Landscapes," a reflection of the expressionist quality of his father's Qi Style of Beijing Opera.

Beijing Opera, which combines singing, speech, mime, dance, martial arts, and acrobatics, originated in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and was rejuvenated in Republican China (1912–1949). "The DNA of the Chinese culture is structured," explains Chow. "In Beijing Opera, you hold a stick like holding a golf club, which means you are riding a horse. If you are trained, you walk like this." Standing up, he demonstrates an elegant walk that reminds us of his father onstage. "I have this deep down foundation from the East, from my father," Chow says of Zhou Xinfang's creation of one of Beijing Opera's most celebrated forms.

In 1909, after years of success, Zhou's voice cracked, losing its original strength and vitality. Initially, it appeared that his gift was gone. But the handicap turned into an opportunity. For Zhou, Beijing Opera was not only about singing; at the core, it was about connecting with the audience. Since he valued truth and authenticity as ways to achieve this goal, Zhou genuinely embraced his cracked voice as a crucial part of his identity, leading him to reform Beijing Opera. As Chow says, "A master hides his weakness, while a grandmaster uses his weakness."

When Chow's family sent him to London, it was with good intention. But for the young boy, it was "like a motherfucker." At boarding school, Chow felt like a "pathetic" isolated misfit. He struggled with his studies, unable to pass the advanced levels for university admission, and failing almost all ordinary levels – the only two that he passed were Chinese and art.

Luckily, Chow was charming and "literally talked" his way into architecture school. With newfound freedom, he explored London, going out dancing in clubs every night. Although his work received high praise, including the two paintings that Deitch would see years later, such experiences were uncertain. "I remember going to galleries and begging them to look at my work. They wouldn't," Chow recalls. Soon, Chow began looking for other means to make a living.

He never held down a job for more than a month. At one point, he was living in the basement of the apartment where he was a janitor. "One night, there was a drunk tenant who came back late," Chow recalls. "I was so poor but he never tipped me. So now I tip everybody." Even a mega-successful restaurant empire later, Chow's recollection of his former poverty is vivid.

During this time, Chow took up acting, making 16 movies as an actor. Being in big movies with big stars was exciting. He was usually a clichéd Chinese character, but the glamour of fame and need to make a living outweighed his reservations about reinforcing racial stereotypes. "I've always been a show-off," Chow says. "At the same time, I'm very shy," he admits.

But Chow still struggled to make ends meet. At one point, he starved for four days. When he ate again, acute constipation landed him in the hospital. The intense pain "came in waves." To distract himself, Chow would smack his face so as to transfer the pain from his stomach to the pain in his cheek.

In 1959, Chow took a black-and-white self-portrait, which captures him hurling water at the camera. In the background, his body is visible, but his face, obscured by the water, remains blurry. At the time, Chow wanted to be "rebellious," and "break the rhythm to get attention." Although he was not conscious of a surrealist quest, Chow understands, "It comes from my mother and father. That's how I deal with the world I live in and that's how it got me out of this terrible situation."

They did not know it, but father and son were simultaneously rebelling. The same year, Zhou joined the Chinese Communist Party and was asked to create a show honoring the tenth anniversary of the PRC's founding. Zhou created Hai Rui Submits a Memorial, a show based on a righteous official in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Hai Rui, who dissented from the emperor. It had political implications given that Chairman Mao was the only "emperor" at the time. When the Cultural Revolution took place in 1966, Zhou was under continuous attack. Jailed in 1968, Zhou later died in 1975. "I never knew when he died and never had the chance to mourn his death. It's never ending," says Chow. It was only after China's 1978 Reform and Opening Up policy that Chow was able to learn of his father's death through strangers.

A theme of injustice has been part of Chow's family since the beginning. His quarter-Scottish mother, Qiu Lilin, was disowned by her wealthy tea plantation family when she eloped with Zhou Xinfang, a "lowlife" actor. "It's called an injustice," Chow reflects. "And then they sent me to England and there's racism against me. I become injustice. So I become radical and revolutionary. This is internal and inherited." Consequently, Chow has never stopped trying to combat lifelong frustration faced by his parents and himself – disownment, jailing, and racism.

Now, in Chow's eyes, the 21st century holds great hope for bridging Chinese and Western cultures. "At this time art is very free," Chow says. "It's a good time, especially for Chinese artists in Mainland China, because they have a lot of catch up to do."

For Chow, his return to painting might be just a desire to rewrite the ending of his life's movie script. But for China's contemporary art scene, Chow sets an example of re-invention. "China is one of the greatest cultures in the world, but it did decline for many centuries. Usually if you are there long enough, you start to decline," says Chow. Now, Chow hopes that Chinese culture may thrive through new forms where West and East mingle, in imitation of what he has done. "Great culture reaps great art," he says. "China at this moment has no excuse not to produce great culture and art."

Before going to Shanghai for the celebrations of his father's life, Chow remarked on how his life resembles a fantasy: "In a movie, you come here to Beijing for a show, then you go to Shanghai and have six days that are about your father." As the decades have gone by, Chow has become more convinced that he is living his dream life as if within a script. As a hero's journey goes, he does not want the script to end with a peaceful life in Los Angeles. Instead, he has come back to China with a reputation he has worked hard to regain, both as the son of Zhou Xinfang and a successful artist in his own right. This Odyssey-like homecoming to China may turn out to be the perfect ending to his glamorous movie life. That is, unless Chow wants to reinvent it again.

Janet Eom is a recent Harvard University graduate who researches China-Africa issues in Beijing. Philip J. Fang is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

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