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The name Mr. Chow may ring a bell, es­pe­cially if you have dined at one of the epony­mous celebrity Chi­nese restau­ra­teur’s eater­ies in Bev­erly Hills, Malibu or New York City.

But even those who have eaten at the popular Chi­nese restau­rant chain may not know the story about its owner, Michael Chow, who is also re­spected as an artist and the son of one of China’s leg­endary per­form­ing artists.

Mr. Chow opened its first out­let in Lon­don’s Knights­bridge in 1968. It launched in the United States six years later with a branch in Bev­erly Hills, be­com­ing one of the first up­scale Chi­nese restau­rants in the coun­try. It later ex­panded to Tribeca in down­town New York and Miami’s South Beach. In 2009 it added an­other lo­ca­tion in Malibu, Cal­i­for­nia.

Its founder is now pre­sent­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Power Sta­tion of Art (PSA), Shang­hai’s first public mu­seum of con­tem­po­rary art.

Voice for My Fa­ther fea­tures paint­ings and col­lages by Chow and his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments about his fa­ther, Zhou Xin­fang, one of the great masters of Pek­ing Opera. The show in­cludes a se­ries of por­traits of Chow by fa­mous artists.

“Chow” and “Zhou” are dif­fer­ent spellings of the same Chi­nese char­ac­ter and fam­ily name. Chow is the tra­di­tional spell­ing while Zhou con­forms to the of­fi­cial pinyin spell­ing rec­og­nized on the Chi­nese main­land.

The rea­son why their names are spelt dif­fer­ently is be­cause Michael left for Bri­tain at the age of 12 while his fa­ther con­tin­ued to live in China un­til his death in 1975.

“The Zhou fam­ily have gone through a long jour­ney of art,” said Li Xu, vice direc­tor of the PSA. He said Chow in­her­ited the essence of his fa­ther’s art and adopted the same spirit in his paint­ing. He also praised Chow’s cre­ations as strik­ing in terms of both their vis­ual ex­pres­sion and use of ma­te­ri­als.

As an en­tre­pre­neur and designer, Chow has be­friended peo­ple from all walks of life, in­clud­ing many in the art, fash­ion and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries.

Many peo­ple have in­flu­enced his cre­ations; some were in­spired by him; one cre­ated a por­trait of him sport­ing a mus­tache and round glasses, framed in­side a bath­tub of Mr. Chow’s sig­na­ture green prawns.

Chow’s own paint­ings are largely ab­stract pieces and col­lages fea­tur­ing thick lay­ers of paint and un­usual ma­te­ri­als like gold.

He said he wanted to place “the im­pos­si­ble” and “the ir­rel­e­vant” to­gether har­mo­niously and cre­ate with a “con­trolled spon­tane­ity”, which he be­lieves is the essence of his fa­ther’s Qi school of Pek­ing Opera.

Ear­lier this year, Chow’s solo ex­hi­bi­tion opened at the Ul­lens Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art (UCCA) in Bei­jing to mark the 120th an­niver­sary of the birth of his fa­ther.

For the Shang­hai show, Chow cre­ated a new se­ries of col­lages by burning pa­per and trap­ping the ashes be­tween the can­vas and a protective screen.

Chow com­pared his own life to a col­lage, where dif­fer­ent el­e­ments come to­gether to form one big pic­ture.

He has been a painter, designer, restau­ra­teur and ac­tor. He has ap­peared in 16 movies in­clud­ing the James Bond clas­sic You Only Live Twice (1967), Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon 4 (both 1998). His sis­ter Tsai Chin ap­peared as a Bond girl in the same Sean Con­nery movie, while Chow played bad guy Spec­tre 4.

Speak­ing at the ex­hi­bi­tion hall in Shang­hai, Chow spoke at length about his art and life in a mix­ture of Shang­hai di­alect, English and man­darin. As he spoke, he fre­quently struck dra­matic poses. At one point, he re­moved one of his shoes to il­lus­trate his be­liefs about the cre­ation of art.

Chow was born in Shang­hai in 1939. Among his frag­mented child­hood mem­o­ries, he re­calls some tur­bu­lent times: flooded streets and armed bur­glars break­ing into his par­ents’ house.

His first en­counter with Pek­ing Opera as a young boy was not ex­actly pleas­ant, ei­ther. As he walked back­stage, he be­came ter­ri­fied by the makeup on the faces of the ac­tors.

But as he grew up, the sound of Pek­ing Opera would get into his blood. He was given the same nick­name as his fa­ther — “Xiao Qi Ling Tong” (The Seven-Year-Old Kid) — a pres­ti­gious moniker that Zhou Xin­fang earned be­cause his first suc­cess­ful public per­for­mance took place when he was only seven.

Chow is Zhou’s fifth child and sec­ond son. His mother Qiu Lilin was a lib­er­ated woman with one Scot­tish grand­par­ent. She was welle­d­u­cated and came from a wealthy fam­ily, but eloped with Zhou at a time when ac­tors be­longed to the low­est so­cial class in China, next to beg­gars and pros­ti­tutes.

Qiu man­aged the busi­ness side of Zhou’s ca­reer as ef­fi­ciently and suc­cess­fully as she ran the house. The fam­ily lived in a big house in the for­mer French Con­ces­sion, with ev­ery­thing taken care of by ser­vants.

It was she who de­cided to send two of the chil­dren, 12-year-old Michael and 17-year Tsai Chin, to study in Bri­tain in the 1950s.

Tsai Chin was ad­mit­ted by the Royal Academy of Theatre in Lon­don. She later be­came fa­mous for her theater per­for­mance of The World of Susie Wong, based on Richard Ma­son’s clas­sic 1957 novel.

Chow was trau­ma­tized by his first few years at an English board­ing school. He suf­fered from asthma as a child and was spoiled by his par­ents.

In Eng­land, all the com­forts of home were taken from him and the shock was so acute that for a long time “I couldn’t get any­thing right,” he said. He later spent time at a vicarage for trou­bled boys.

Chow said this mixed his­tory ul­ti­mately pro­vided him with all the in­gre­di­ents he needed to be an artist.

He stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture at Saint Martin’s School of Art in Lon­don. One of his first de­sign projects was the Hawes hair­dress­ing sa­lon in Sloane Ave, Kens­ing­ton, and he went on to cre­ate a num­ber of bou­tiques and restau­rants.

In the 1980s, he was asked by Gior­gio Armani to de­sign the fash­ion brand’s bou­tiques in New York and, later, Las Ve­gas.

Although Chi­nese food has al­ways been popular, most of what was avail­able in Eng­land at that time was fairly sim­ple and cheap. Chow wanted to show his adopted coun­try the finest food from China.

He chose to serve Bei­jing cui­sine, which was orig­i­nally cre­ated to please Chi­nese roy­alty and aris­to­crats in the For­bid­den City.

He de­signed the restau­rant in a classy way, hired good-look­ing wait­ers and put a strong em­pha­sis on good ser­vice.

“I wanted our cus­tomers to re­spect my peo­ple, my coun­try and my cul­ture,” he said.

While he be­lieves be­ing an artist is the no­blest of pro­fes­sions, he also wants to be re­mem­bered for his Mr. Chow restau­rants, he said.



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