Purple Magazine
— The Los Angeles Issue #30 F/W 2018

michael chow

los angeles
michael chow

interview by DONATIEN GRAU
photography by DANIEL TRESE


Michael Chow opened his first restaurant in London on Valentine’s Day, 1968, during the Pop revolution, and his first one in Beverly Hills in 1974. After growing up in the world of Chinese opera, he was exiled to England, where he studied architecture and tried to be an artist. Instead, he created a restaurant empire that combined high-end Chinese-American cuisine and a glamorous dining experience in a room full of art — a place for artists to gather. Cy Twombly designed the logo on the plates. Ed Ruscha designed the first matchbooks. David Hockney and Andy Warhol painted his portrait. Now, coming full circle, he’s making art again.

DONATIEN GRAU — You moved to London when you were very young and basically grew up there, and you opened Mr. Chow in 1968.
MICHAEL CHOW — I was born into the music of Beijing opera, through my parents. As a child, I was very sick with asthma. Asthmatics share a commonality of suffering that makes one isolated and sensitive. I didn’t have much contact with others. I grew up spoiled in China and didn’t go to school much because I was weak. Then, when I was 13, on the darkest day of the Great Smog of 1952, which in one night killed thousands, I went alone to England. In a split second, the whole world shattered around me. Darkness and frightening panic attacks, which I call the trauma that shuts down everything, followed. Either I’d die or live. I chose to live, and here I am. I believe such trauma is a test for people. You either survive and transcend it, or you become a very negative person, or you die. In a way, we have to see it as an opportunity. From there, I went to Saint Martin’s School of Art, and then two years of architecture at the Hammersmith School of Building and Arts and Crafts. After that, I painted religiously for 10 years, with two other Chinese artists, Lin Show-yu and Henry Li. The three of us were architects. We lived in a house and were very creative. It was the artistic era of Peter Blake, David Hockney, Patrick Heron, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Victor Pasmore. Peter Blake lived across the street.

DONATIEN GRAU — Did you want to be an artist?
MICHAEL CHOW — Yes, but I found it impossible. I guess because I’d grown up with theater and wanted applause or recognition of some sort. I couldn’t get that, so I just gave up. At the same time, it was the environment of being Chinese in the 20th century: you become the lowest of the low. This was China’s most turbulent century ever: foreign humiliation, two world wars, Communism, the Cultural Revolution. The turning point for China, one could say, was the “8888” Beijing Olympics, which opened on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:08 PM — eight is a lucky number in China.

DONATIEN GRAU — What was your turning point?
MICHAEL CHOW — My journey is deeply rooted in China. I was privileged because of my father’s fame and iconic status as one of the leading performers in the Beijing opera. My father was like a god to me. He was like an icon that cannot be touched. And I couldn’t understand how in England nobody knew who he was. I was going crazy. I also discovered China by living in the West. China had been declining for 800 years, particularly in the 20th century. Before that, it was the greatest and most sophisticated culture, possibly on earth. The Chinese don’t know that because they’d been living the slow decline that led to the 20th century. They don’t know where they are. They’re not objective. I discovered here in the West that I was born in a nation and a culture that has magic. I wanted to go to a mountaintop and tell the world that China was great.

DONATIEN GRAU — What did you do?
MICHAEL CHOW — I had a cynical saying that if you were Japanese, you could only be a gardener or work at a restaurant, and if you’re Chinese, you could only work at a laundry or a restaurant. So, I chose a restaurant and turned it into a theater. The restaurants are my theater. God made us poor, so I used every aspect of the restaurant as an integration with culture. When the restaurant first opened, it had Chinese cuisine but Italian waiters because the anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong everywhere. That was very sad for me. I had to create a front that was friendlier for the Londoners of that time. I was motivated by theatrical ideas, so I called everything rehearsals. There’s a leading man, a backstage, and a front stage. These theatrical terms made us different from other high-end restaurants.

DONATIEN GRAU — How did you create an interesting dining experience?
MICHAEL CHOW — The golden rule for theater is: don’t bore the audience. What could I do to not bore the audience? There’s rhythm and entertainment. Every night, we looked for a magical moment. In order to support that magic moment, I turned every detail into a universe, as perfect and true as possible. It was the equivalent to functionality in architecture. I studied how to say, “Hello, Mr. Chow” when you pick up the phone. I said to myself, “The voice has to go up.” Whoever calls the restaurant has to be made a notch more optimistic than he or she was two seconds before.

DONATIEN GRAU — In 1974, you opened Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. You now live here. What led you to Los Angeles?
MICHAEL CHOW — I never worked for anybody, except for one man for three months. That was Robert Fraser. He was one of the kingpins in Swinging London. He single-handedly showed Pop art in London. He was arrested with Mick [Jagger], and Richard Hamilton turned a famous photograph of the two in handcuffs into an artwork. He had an incredible eye for art. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, he showed all the LA artists — Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha… Tragically, he later died of AIDS. I learned so much from him.

DONATIEN GRAU — What kind of art were you doing at the time?
MICHAEL CHOW — I was making minimal sculptures that already looked like Donald Judd’s. Unfortunately, they were destroyed. No one remembers them, except the actress Fiona Lewis, who lives here. By fate, Jerry Moss [cofounder of A&M Records] had invited me here. We came, and it all came together. At the time, LA was a romantic ideal. My association with LA was Hollywood — ’40s film noir, directors like Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, who became a very good friend. But Hollywood wasn’t that. The place was very provincial, with a lot of cowboys. I thought it was horrible, so I created my version because I was so passionate about film. The space we are sitting in now has been here for nearly 45 years. The black checkerboard was inspired by the checkerboard dance floor in Rudolph Valentino’s home. The connection between LA and London was also very strong. LA was like London’s country home, so to speak. I avoided New York because there were too many people and a lot of racism. LA was perfect, mainly because of the movie world. Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra — the list goes on — they all came to Mr. Chow.

DONATIEN GRAU — What was your involvement with artists?
MICHAEL CHOW — That also began with Robert Fraser. I was sitting with him and Jim Dine in the dining space before Mr. Chow opened in London. I’d admired a restaurant in Zurich called Kronenhalle, where all the artists went. I wanted to do a restaurant with art. Robert said, “Why don’t you get artists to do it?” I said, “Who?” He said, “For instance, Jim Dine, sitting in front of me.” Jim took a pen out and instantly drew a plate and said, “I’ll do it for you.” I said, “And I’ll give you food.” He said, “Okay,” so I got Jim Dine, David Hockney, Richard Smith…

DONATIEN GRAU — What was your relationship to art?
MICHAEL CHOW — When I was four or five, I looked in the mirror and said, “Do I look like my little daddy?” — China’s greatest 20th-century actor. I was a celebrity at a very young age because of my father. But they cut me off from my father, my mother, my home, my culture — my everything. I had to recreate it all. The gene of connecting to creative people is in me. Art first, as I say. Artists can do no wrong, so they’re also attracted to me. It’s like that hotel in the South of France, La Colombe d’Or. Customers complain about the noise, but the restaurant people answer, “They’re artists — they can do whatever they want.” That’s the concept: artists can do what they want. At Mr. Chow’s London opening, all the creative people were there — the Stones, the Beatles. They have a special privilege. “You’re creative? Come on in.”

DONATIEN GRAU — How did it feel arriving in Hollywood?
MICHAEL CHOW — As a kid in China, every time I’d go out, people would point me out because of my father. I missed that. And Hollywood is the best place for that. So, I came and did all this. But my 24/7 obsession was always to eliminate racism. I wear these glasses because they’re round, and the impression they make takes away about 30% of my Chinese-ness. This is a very, very sad statement, but a true one. People see the glasses and don’t look at my being Chinese, so that I can get in the door. You understand?

DONATIEN GRAU — I understand… You said that as a kid you had asthma and were very isolated, yet you ended up being an extremely lively person. Do you consider yourself an autodidact?
MICHAEL CHOW — I never consciously made myself into anything. I just go on and reinvent myself. I think it relates to my character. I’m an avid collector. But I also collect thoughts and philosophies, which might come from jokes as well as from Plato. It can take any form. I don’t make hierarchies. And yet, what I miss the most is my spoiled, weak, childhood elitism. I’ve always wanted to recreate the moment I lost everything. So, I had to create my world. I started to work at 13. I never had a proper education. But I’ve seen all the movies. I can tell you the first shot of any classic movie made in the last 70 years. But I’m not literate. I can’t really speak English correctly. I don’t know grammar or how to spell correctly. Because of the iPhone, I’ve improved my spelling, and now I’m writing my poetry on it. I also collect lots of sayings, like: “Whatever’s true, opposite truer,” and “If you are a master, you hide your weakness. If you are a grand master, you use your weakness.” So, what’s my weakness? I’m illiterate. So, instead of hiding it, I use it.


DONATIEN GRAU — As Mr. Chow, did you become a performer?
MICHAEL CHOW — Performing comes naturally because of my father. I want to hear the applause. My father had two great sayings: one of them was “Take the new from the old.” The other one was a beta-blocker, which is the key to being an actor: “Don’t listen to the hands clapping, but listen to the heart clapping.” Beijing opera is the greatest theater ever made because it encompasses everything. There’s not one stage movement that isn’t accompanied by music. I come from that background, and I use everything from it. Francis Bacon would say — and I’m a big admirer of his words — “I wish I could throw some paint, and you would have a portrait.”

DONATIEN GRAU — You have been confronting racism all your life, even in glamour circles and in the art world?
MICHAEL CHOW — Because of racism, I always feel uncomfortable and always under pressure. I’m with people who don’t know anything about my Chinese background, and they talk so ignorantly about it, even in the artistic world. What’s important for me is to make everything more international and, therefore, less racist. I can’t blame them because China’s been cut off. But now we have globalization, and China is strong again. In 50 years, if I were alive, there wouldn’t be much for me to do. But today, there’s still a lot of disconnect, and I have this urge to connect. That’s why I became a collagist. Collage makes things correspond, like bringing together an Italian waiter and Chinese cuisine. That looks normal. I’m very good at collage. That’s what I do.


DONATIEN GRAU — One of your mottoes is to bring everything and everyone together. Is Mr. Chow a place where people get together who might not get together otherwise?
MICHAEL CHOW — First, I’ve always wanted to put creative people together because they share another level of perception, another dimension. They have that commonality, whether it’s film, architecture, art… People who talk to me think they’re addressing a successful businessman, but the thing is, I’ve been an artist all my life. The way I paint and make collages is the same as the way I conceive a recipe or a menu: it’s art. There is a difference, though: in Western terms, there’s art, and there’s craft. But there’s art in craft and craft in art. Craft seeks perfection, and art seeks expression. But which is more transcendent or more noble? Obviously, it’s art. Craft seeks the same thing every time. Art is never the same. Every leaf is different. Every fingerprint is different. Art is more personal, more universal. If there’s too much craft, the art does not look good. Art can be personal and have billions of nuances. In Chinese culture, cooking, calligraphy, martial arts, and Beijing opera are all the same. By using collage, I’m following a Western tradition. But internally, I’m following my father’s Beijing opera, which is the same as cooking or calligraphy. Recently I’ve been doing works on paper, which
I call “one breath.” This work is done in one-tenth of a second: the parts come out in one breath. That’s not craft — that’s expression.

DONATIEN GRAU — How did you come back to painting, which was only four or five years ago, I guess?
MICHAEL CHOW — When I was young, I painted like everybody. One week I was Van Gogh, and one minute I’m Gauguin. Then I caught up with the European expressionists like Antoni Tàpies, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri… They were a generation older than me. One of my styles was like a ball, or a collage, but a dark one. In my younger days, in the ’50s and ’60s, a painting had a suggestion of a collage, of an object. Another was a pouring technique, which was horizontal. You pour paint, let it dry, pour again. I have one painting left that looks like that. Unfortunately, the rest are lost. Then Andy [Warhol] said to me, “Why don’t you put money on the painting, and then just hang it on the wall?” I thought, “Well, maybe I can make everything out of gold.” A painting worth a million dollars, put on the wall. That’s a concept. I went to a jeweler. He said, “You can’t make it all out of gold — it’s too expensive.” I said, “What’s less expensive?” And he said, “Silver.” He made silver sheets for me, and the consistency was very good. I sculpted silver, and it all became part of a collage. The medium of collage has governed everything I’ve done. It also reminded me of Jackson Pollock, who would put everything on his paintings — the buttons, the cigarette butts. I thought that was a great idea. But I stopped and took a radical sabbatical of almost 50 years. Then I picked it up again at the right time. The first painting I made worked for me. So, I told myself, “Let’s get on with it.” I don’t do paintings in a series, but one leads to others. The type of paintings I do is connected to the Abstract Expressionists, but they have a sculptural or materialistic element. I use fresh materials and household paints, but I pour it. I developed a technique of painting into sheets, using buffalo skins, and I sculpt with it all. This eclectic process connected to my experience at the restaurant, and creating a menu.


DONATIEN GRAU — Do you feel your paintings connect with the arts in LA right now?
MICHAEL CHOW — If I’d have had a career in painting, I’d have been dead a long time ago because for years, painting was dying. It was killed in the ’80s and ’90s. I won’t name who killed it, but painting was dead. How can painting be dead? People have been painting since the days in the caves. People come to me and say: “Meat is soon finished. Everybody’s going to be vegetarian.” Look at your teeth. We’ve been eating meat for tens of thousands of years! So, painting was not dead, just temporarily not popular. It came back in the 21st century. Now, painting is very much alive, quite the opposite to what people were saying at the time. Art is about continuation and contribution. Continuation means you take the whole history like a relay to the present, but that you are true to your time. If you are not true to your time, it’s not art, right? What’s the point of me making a newspaper article if the information is a week old? The greatest artist is always in his time, not ahead of it. People think it’s ahead of time. No, the artist is in the time — we are behind it.


DONATIEN GRAU — Can you describe your work?
MICHAEL CHOW — My work is basically romantic. It’s supposed to be beautiful. But with a very tough internal violence, and very rough. This is me. Violent internally, filled with drama, but externally I’m this hip guy that LA celebrities like.

DONATIEN GRAU — You’re currently organizing a gigantic space in Vernon that is part studio, part kitchen, and part something else. Is this kind of the next step?
MICHAEL CHOW — Well, I miss café society. So, I want Vernon to be a gathering point for people. If you read about Picasso and his time, people met in cafés. In London, in the ’50s and ’60s, creative people either met in homes or coffee shops and talked about art. Our world has become increasingly international, and people from different countries share the same beliefs and values, but they don’t communicate — even in the art world. The last thing people talk about is art. It’s almost forbidden. Everything is dominated by the institution, the collector, or the gallery. There’s a tremendous amount of disconnect. In every creative period, from the Renaissance onward, things were always connected. Today, you can call the greatest filmmaker and ask him about art, and the person won’t know anything about it. You said something that made me jealous: during the opening of your show at the Getty, you got together with Paul McCarthy, Joseph Kosuth, and Whitney McVeigh, and you talked about art. I want to create a space where people can talk freely, and not just talk about art, but live art. I would say 80% of everything — even the piece of chicken you’re eating — is related to art. It’s all art. Maybe artists worry their prices will fall. When you meet a collector, you never talk about art. They talk about the value of things, but not the cultural or artistic value.


DONATIEN GRAU — You organized a huge party in the new space to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mr. Chow.
MICHAEL CHOW — Yes. The 50th anniversary of Mr. Chow — 800 people turned up and danced until two o’clock in the morning — which never happens in LA. And everybody was connected and thought it was exceptional. For me, it was normal. It should be like that all the time. The whole world is too corporate. The party was a success, exactly because it wasn’t that. I’m just an individual with a vision. I don’t have to go to committees and get permission from anyone. Today, movies are made by committee, not by individuals. That’s why the movie standard drops. Individuality is always most important.




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The Los Angeles Issue #30 F/W 2018

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