Michael Chow: A Life fit for a Hol­ly­wood script

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI JING Li­jing2009@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Michael Chow is bet­ter known in the West than in his na­tive China.

As the owner of Mr. Chow, one of Amer­ica’s most glam­orous and most ex­pen­sive Chi­nese restau­rants, Chow con­quers the palates of Hol­ly­wood A- lis­ters while he jug­gles roles as restau­ra­teur, art col­lec­tor, ar­chi­tect and designer.

Chow, how­ever, has a very dif­fer­ent iden­tity in his na­tive China, where he is known as Zhou Yinghua, the son of revered Bei­jing Opera grand­mas­ter Zhou Xin­fang.

Born in Shang­hai in 1939, Chow is the youngest son of Zhou Xin­fang (1895-1975), one of China’s great­est 20th Cen­tury Pek­ing Opera per­form­ers, on par with Mei Lan­fang at the time. His mother Qiu Lilin came from a wealthy fam­ily whose for­tune had been made in tea.

“My Chi­nese name was made by my fa­ther and he ex­pected me to be yinghua, trans­lat­ing a Chi­nese hero in English,” Chow said. In­flu­enced by his fa­ther’s ded­i­ca­tion to Pek­ing Opera, Chow was im­mersed in the high­est forms of Chi­nese cul­ture from an early age.

Want­ing to fol­low his fa­mous fa­ther’s foot­steps into theater, he was in­stead packed off by boat to Great Bri­tain at the age of 13 and started his Hol­ly­wood script­like life to be a “Chi­nese hero” by bring­ing the East to the West.

Af­ter a 60-year ab­sence from China, he re­turned with his re-es­tab­lished per­sona as an artist, bring­ing the West to the East. He had landed his first ex­hi­bi­tion in his home­land, “Michael Chow: Voice for My Fa­ther”.

“It is im­por­tant in the sense that the time is in­com­pa­ra­ble,” said 76- year- old Chow at the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing cer­e­mony, in a short-sleeved t-shirt mixed with jeans spot­ted with paint. The show is be­ing held as part of ma­jor of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tions com­mem­o­rat­ing the 120th an­niver­sary of Zhou Xin­fang’s birth this year. It will move to the Power Sta­tion of Art in Shang­hai in April.

On im­pos­ing large-scale can­vases, paint, milk and melted metal are mashed with egg yolks, stuck on sponges and other ma­te­ri­als, some­thing rem­i­nis­cent of clas­sic Jack­son Pol­lock. Chi­nese es­thet­ics is rooted in ex­pan­sive stretches of white punc­tu­ated with at times dense col­lec­tions of ma­te­rial, cre­at­ing a vi­sion of Chi­nese ink-and-brush paint­ing.

Th­ese works are a col­lage, a tech­nique of mod­ern art that Ge­orges Braque and Pablo Pi­casso cre­ated in the be­gin­ning of the 20th Cen­tury, which Chow stud­ied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, a ben­e­fi­ciary of the great post­war boom in Bri­tish art ed­u­ca­tion, when the schools opened art-mak­ing to the work­ing class.

In 2012, Chow re­turned to his artis­tic roots af­ter a 50- year hia­tus, a “rad­i­cal sab­bat­i­cal” as he dubs it.

Jef­frey Deitch, the for­mer direc­tor of the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Los An­ge­les (MOCA), en­cour­aged the re­luc­tant painter to pick up his brushes again, af­ter vis­it­ing Chow at his home and hap­pened to no­tice a small paint­ing of his from 1962 lean­ing against the wall in the kitchen.

“Chow’s work fuses Asian, Amer­i­can, and Euro­pean aes­thetic ap­proaches, drawing on his ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ter­na­tional back­ground. His paint­ings em­body his ex­pe­ri­ence in theater, paint­ing, and even cui­sine,” said Deitch. “His 60 years of cre­ativ­ity have now been dis­tilled into the most con­cen­trated re­called with a sense of sad­ness. “I never saw my fa­ther again.” He saw his mother only once more when she vis­ited him ear­lier at school.

“Chi­nese was seen as the low­est of the low. I had a bad health and I felt I was on the edge of death ev­ery day,” Chow re­called. “But if I could sur­vive, I could re­ju­ve­nate to do ev­ery­thing. I needed to fight the battle.”

An in­ter­est in photography led to a year at Saint Martin’s School of Art, and from 1956 to 1958 he stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture at the Ham­mer­smith School of Art and Build­ing.

He painted for 10 years and showed in a range of ex­hi­bi­tions in the Lon­don art scene of the 1960s, with ti­tles like “Three Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese Artists” and “Artists of Fame and Prom­ise”.

“But the con­di­tions weren’t quite right, there was no sup­port sys­tem for me to be an artist, cer­tainly not in Lon­don and Amer­ica and his­tory proves that. I think the only suc­cess­ful artist was Zao Wou-Ki and he lived in Paris,” Chow said in an in­ter­view with ART­INFO Hong Kong.

“Pre­vi­ously, it was very cyn­i­cal. There were only two jobs for Chi­nese, laun­dry or restau­rant.”

Hav­ing flair of net­work­ing and a knack for be­ing in the right place at the right time, he went on to open the iconic Mr. Chow restau­rants, first in Lon­don, then New York and Los An­ge­les, where he lives to­day.

The restau­rants are as fa­mous for the peo­ple who dine in them as they are for their Bei­jing duck -- The Bea­tles and The Rolling Stones have all hung out at Mr. Chow’s and John Len­non ate his last meal out at Mr. Chow New York.

From an early age he be­came an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor of fur­ni­ture and con­tem­po­rary art, no­tably his, fa­mous col­lec­tion of por­traits (of him­self ) by worl­drenowned artists.

In the long gallery of the ex­hi­bi­tion space, Chow’s paint­ings are joined by his iconic por­trait col­lec­tion, which in­cludes works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Many of th­ese por­traits were ac­quired di­rectly from th­ese artists or given as gifts in recog­ni­tion of friend­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chow over the years.

“My works are col­lages and ba­si­cally my life is a col­lage, too,” Chow said. “Col­lage al­lows putting dif­fer­ent things to­gether, so I want to en­com­pass as wide as I can. In or­der to sur­vive in the West alone, I have to have life skills by us­ing tech­niques of col­lage.”

In Chow’s works, gold leaf and sil­ver, house­hold trash, acrylic paint, blow-torched metal and bro­ken eggs are mixed on the can­vases.

“In some ways, my fa­ther has been very lucky,” says his el­dest daugh­ter, China Chow, as quoted by W Mag­a­zine. “He is in­cred­i­bly hard­work­ing, has a great eye, and has mas­tered the art of run­ning a restau­rant down to the tini­est de­tail. But he also has a knack for pop­ping up in the right places at the right time -- Lon­don in the 1960s and 1970s, when that city was the cul­tural cen­ter of the world; New York and L.A. dur­ing the art and show­biz booms there. It’s un­canny.”

Fi­nally though, the tim­ing was right to re­turn to China.

“Fifty years ago, for a Chi­nese painter in the West, there was no sup­port sys­tem and I had no en­cour­age­ment. But now, I feel that the con­di­tions are cor­rect, es­pe­cially with China be­ing so pros­per­ous and cre­at­ing many great re­cent artists,” Chow said.

“China went through al­most 500 years of decline, and in par­tic­u­lar in the 20th Cen­tury, suf­fer­ing from two World Wars, civil war and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. The good thing is that the re­ver­sal, from my point of view, started in 1949, boosted by 2008 Bei­jing Olympics. China re­verses it­self and 21st cen­tury be­longs to China.

“Like liangx­i­ang ( strik­ing a pose when stag­ing on the stage) in Pek­ing opera or the open­ing scenes from movies, I hope my paint­ings to grasp the au­di­ence at the first sight,” said Chow. “Sim­plis­tic and pow­er­ful, like a hook.”

Am­i­ca­ble and jovial, he im­i­tates a Pek­ing Opera per­former’s ac­tion on stage to ex­plain the point. Be­hind his trade­mark, black-rimmed be­spoke glasses, the en­er­getic sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian doesn’t re­sem­ble a per­son of his age and the glasses give him an al­most star­tled look.

“I had bad for­tune and good for­tune mixed all in one. I left for Lon­don at 13 and lost ev­ery­thing I was familiar with, but got my ob­jec­tive mind­set to view the world,” Chow said.

MICHAEL CHOW

Age: 75 Ed­u­ca­tion: · Stud­ied art and ar­chi­tec­ture at the Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Ham­mer­smith School of Art and Build­ing (now Chelsea School of Art) (1956-58) Ca­reer: · De­signed Smith and Hawes hair­dress­ing sa­lon on Lon­don’s Sloane Ave. (1965) · Opened the first Mr. Chow restau­rant in Knights­bridge, Lon­don. (1968) · Ex­panded to the US and opened the Mr. Chow in Bev­erly Hills. It now has venues in Los An­ge­les, New York, Miami and Malibu. (1974) · De­signed Armani’s Rodeo Drive Bou­tique. (1986) · De­signed Gior­gio Armani bou­tique in Las Ve­gas. (1999) · Opened his first ex­hi­bi­tion on the Chi­nese main­land. (2015)

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Above: Michael Chow, the owner of fa­mous chained Mr Chow restau­rants, reestab­lishes his old and new iden­tity as an artist in China. Right: MichaelChow (the youngest) and his sib­lings with fa­ther Zhou Xin­fang.

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