Best known as a celebrity restaurateur whose 1960s mission to change Western attitudes to Chinese food has lasted nearly 50 years, Michael Chow is also a trained painter who, until recently, had not picked up his brushes for decades.
Mr Chow restaurants became glamorous centers for Swinging London, New York’s disco days and today’s Hollywood and art world elite. The man behind them has unveiled his first solo exhibition in Asia, a show he says reflects his complicated relationship with China and the father he last saw when he was 13. Zhou Xinfang (周信芳) was one of China’s best loved stars of Beijing Opera — a discipline combining dance, music, mime, singing and acrobatics — who died in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
“Something I had forgotten about, something wiped out of my memory, has been reunited. I didn’t know I could paint that well,” the 74 year-old told AFP in an interview flanked by his imposing mixed-media canvases at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. “It’s like me coming home to reclaim my Chinese heritage, and reclaim the name Zhou — my father’s name,” said Chow, who paints under the name Zhou Yinghua.
Born into a wealthy family in pre-communist Shanghai, Chow enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
Wanting to follow his famous father’s footsteps into theater, he was instead packed off by boat to Britain in 1952 at the age of 13, leaving a life of pampered opulence for boarding school in a bleak, war-ravaged and food-rationed country.
In doing so he avoided the ravages of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, unleashed by then-leader Mao Zedong to reassert power after the famines caused by his disastrous Great Leap Forward. The period inflicted myriad personal tragedies and threw society into chaos. Red Guard youths abused their elders — officials, intellectuals, neighbors, relatives, with many targets jailed or killed. While no official figure has been issued, one Western historian estimated half a million people died in 1967 alone.
Chow says he never saw his father again. He saw his mother Qiu Lilin — whom his show is dedicated to — only once more when she visited him earlier at school. According to the Web site of the Shanghai’s Jingan district government, “Zhou Xinfang was branded as an active counter-revolutionary and so was persecuted together with his wife Qiu Lilin. He died...unavenged.”
MR CHOW IS BORN
Chow stayed in Britain and studied architecture at Central Saint Martins in London before struggling as an artist. He eventually sacrificed his artistic ambitions, beginning what he calls a “50-year radical sabbatical” during which he focused on food and design and later, collecting art.
His first Mr Chow restaurant opened in London in 1968. Its formula of high design, authentic Beijing cuisine, Italian waiters and steep prices was a game-changer at a time when, in Chow’s words, Chinese food was regarded as “the lowest of the low” in the West.
“You couldn’t get lower. It was a terrible, tough period for stereotypes and so there was this need for me to tell the Western world how great China is. The only practical way to do that was through food — thank God Chinese food is great.”
Mr Chow’s success spawned openings across the Atlantic in New York, Miami, Beverley Hills and Malibu. A Las Vegas restaurant is due to open soon. They have always attracted the rich, famous and influential, from the likes of The Beatles to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the earlier days to Hollywood royalty, musicians and models.