Michael Chow | An Interplanetary Bridgebuilding

Via the 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

Jonathan Hedrick

Styled by

No items found.
No items found.
HERMÈS suit and shirt.

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, understanding there’s far more to unpack in the Nick Hooker–directed, Diane Quon, Graydon Carter, and Annabelle Dunne–produced project. “I love name-dropping by the way,” M jokes with me. Born into a well-heeled family in pre-communist Shanghai, M grew up surrounded by the arts. His father, a well-known actor in the Beijing Opera, and his mother, involved in the theater. At a young age he was sent to boarding school in the UK, a profound departure from a self-admittedly pampered childhood. Suddenly, M was an outsider, cut off from his family, language, and culture.

Following school, M, who had developed a keen interest in cinema back in Shanghai, was able to book a series of small film roles. With the support of his sister (who had come to the UK to study acting), M’s film career picked up, at one point sharing the screen with Charlton Heston. Acting subsidized M’s modest life in London where he was also attending art school. It was here that M’s painting practice began to take shape, pursuing one of the four disciplines “music, poetry, sculpture, and painting” that M cites as making up the fine art umbrella. A rigid definition he explains to me as coming from a Chinese dictum, and later affirmed in a PBS talk show interview with artist Richard Serra.

Skipping forward now, unsure of what to do after several artistic and entrepreneurial stints, 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, blue chip art clad walls, and Italian tuxedo-clad waiters. A monument to his home country and making good on his father’s final request of M before leaving for the UK, to never forget he was Chinese.

The restaurant was an instant success! The Beatles, Fellini, West London and the swinging 60s. Plans for expansion, building the empire, Los Angeles. 70s Beverly Hills, Old Hollywood meet New Hollywood, 80s New York, Art World, Music Industry, Wives, Kids. “Jean-Michel (Basquiat),” who M lovingly refers to in present tense, “is an extraordinary, intelligent human... He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever met.” And not unlike the documentary, which gracefully eludes certain eras altogether, 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 imbued with 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.” He continues, “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,” he considers. “Because the internal is a quantum leap... That’s why fine art is very important. Art is everything. It’s the human spirit.” 

HERMÈS suit and shirt.

Photographed by Jonathan Hedrick

Written by Bennett DiDonna

Flaunt Film: Alexander Moura

No items found.
No items found.
Michael Chow, Mr. Chow, Flaunt Magazine, Issue 190, The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon, People, Bennett DiDonna, Jonathan Hedrick