Michael Chow AKA Mr. Chow AKA M (his artist nom de guerre, with which he will be referred to hereinafter), is quite frankly, a bit of an enigma. He’s built a restaurant empire and made a name for himself in the cultural lexicon, had a successful career as an actor, a bon vivant scene setter par excellence, and now principally, a visual artist. All of which are covered in splendid detail in the new HBO documentary aka Mr. Chow. But as both the film and our conversation quickly make clear, despite the journey of self-reflection that is making a bio-doc, M, at 84, has little interest in navel gazing.
So no need to harp on the past, but let's set the scene, knowing there’s far more to unpack in the Nick Hooker directed, Diane Quon, Graydon Carter, and Annabelle Dunne produced doc. "I love name dropping by the way," M jokes with me. Born into a well-healed family in pre-communist Shanghai, M grew up surrounded by the arts, his father a well known actor in the Beijing Opera. At a young age he was sent to boarding school in the UK, a profound departure from a pampered childhood. Suddenly, M was an outsider. A keen fan of cinema, he was able to score a series of small film roles through M’s sister (who had come to the UK to study acting), which grew into larger ones. Earning enough to subsidize his life in London where he was also attending arts school.
Skipping forward now, unsure of what to do, M found the opportunities afforded to a Chinese emigre quite limited, “laundry or restaurant,” he shares rather frankly. Restaurant it was. Leveraging the showmanship of the opera with which he was reared, Mr. Chow was born. His West London location became a lush mix of decadent Chinese fare, impeccable design, and blue chip art clad walls, Italian tuxedo clad waiters. A monument to his home country. Instant success! Seventies Beverly Hills, Old Hollywood meet New Hollywood, 80s New York, Warhol, Basquiat, wives, kids. And not unlike the documentary, which gracefully eludes certain eras all together, back to the present.
Today, as previously mentioned, M dedicates much of his time to a longstanding artistic practice. We should be clear though, this is not a hobby or a phase, but a passion that stems from his youth, painting every day for some 14 years before putting his practice on hold. Rich abstract works, steeped in layers of physicality. Paint splatters, hammer smashes, and torched layers. All of which are steeped in meaning and intention to create an evolving body of work. “In the West,” M explains, “you practice painting through drawing, to train the hand, the eye, the brain. In China, you do this through calligraphy.” As M explains, “in my painting, I manage to bridge the two philosophies.”
The duality that M’s work possesses is a manifestation of his lived experience. “Painting is a recipe,” he shares. “If you take all the great artists of the 20th century, especially in the expressionist world, every single one of them has a recipe.” Our conversation turns to the nature of hospitality and the question, is food art? M pauses for a brief moment, “No.” While they run parallel in many respects, the significance of art as M sees it is profound. “It's the internal we're looking for. Because the internal is a quantum leap…That's why fine art is very important,” M shares. “Art is everything. It's the human spirit.”
aka Mr. Chow is now available on MAX.