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Chow business.


Mr Chow--restaurateur, actor, philanthropist--is the stuff of legend. His restaurants in London and New York were a mecca for some of the leading artists of his generation, and his remarkable life only adds to the mystique of the man who served John Lennon his last meal. The self-confessed 'collecting addict' talks to Apollo

Mr Chow is an iconic brand. The tortoiseshell glasses, the Hermes suits, the polished English manners, the eponymous Knightsbridge restaurant that opened in 1968, the subsequent branches in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, the interior design contracts, the philanthropy, the collections of art and antiques, the late-life emergence as a painter; all contribute to the public image of the man who is indivisible from his work.

But behind closed doors, Mr Chow is Michael, the boy from Shanghai who was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 13 by his famous parents. He never saw them again. His father was Zhou Xinfang--a megastar of Beijing opera--who perished along with Chow's mother, the heiress Lillian Ju, in the Cultural Revolution.

Sitting in the gold-panelled drawing room of his Holmby Hills mansion in Los Angeles, Chow is open about the tremendous influence these events continue to have on his life, even into his seventies. 'My main vision, and my lifetime's work, has been to try and make the West respect and understand Chinese culture,' he says. 'Being a Chinese person outside China has made me incredibly patriotic. I'm frozen in time. I'm more Chinese than the Chinese.' He adds, with an ironic twinkle in his eye: 'Everything Chinese is good!'

Zhou Xinfang clearly casts a long shadow over his son. 'Because of my father, who is an icon in China of Beijing opera, a grandmaster, a national treasure, I always want to be the greatest. I want to conquer every area,' says Chow. That's why, he explains, he gave up painting after studying at art college in London: 'I realised I couldn't be the greatest painter.' It is only in the last year or so that he has picked up his brushes again, throwing himself into a very sincere and committed art practice, the magnificently imposing products of which now hang throughout his house. (He will have an exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong in January 2014.)

Even as a kid collecting Russian stamps, he says: 'I wanted to be the greatest Russian-stamp collector.' The ambitious young Michael was bitten by the collecting bug early in life, and still adheres to the principles that he established as a novice: 'I am very focused and deep in every collection. That is important. You create a boundary, a discipline, a structure, a model, and you go deep into it.'

Before he was wealthy, Chow collected Mickey Mouse watches, doorknobs and Coca-Cola bottles (including one modified as a hash pipe). Later he graduated to antique Cartier watches, Sung dynasty ceramics and art deco furniture. 'I'm addicted to collecting,' he says. 'I also collect opening scenes of films!' To demonstrate, he challenges me to name three movies from the last 70 years. This is, apparently, his party trick. There ensues a painfully drawn-out episode in which I fail to recall a single movie title, then come up only with films that Chow rejects as too obscure. Eventually, at his suggestion, I offer him Vertigo and he happily describes, with the precision of a cinematographer, the opening shots of the film.


Collecting memories of visual experiences might seem idiosyncratic, but Chow sees it this way: 'Someone once said collecting is courage, knowledge, money and eye. In my opinion, the most important is the eye. Money is the least important. Sometimes money can stop you--if you have lots of money you can collect whatever you want, so you have a tendency not to learn.'


He will concede, however, that there is nothing like financial commitment for sharpening one's wits. He recalls researching intensely the highly prized jun-yao ceramics when he first resolved to collect Chinese Sung dynasty antiquities. 'You learn much quicker because you're putting your money in.' For Chow, dedication is everything. 'Once you identify a certain area and you're deep into it, you will it and certain pieces will come to you. If you really want it enough, the collecting god will reward you. And when you see the object, the excitement is almost like falling in love.'

Mr Chow likens this high to the experience of winning at poker. It is the same feeling, he says, that he encounters in painting--at least when it is going well. 'The rest, of course, is suffering,' he laughs. 'Suffering is a part of painting too. This kind of destructive disgust with oneself.' The lightning flash came, for Chow, in the form of sheets of solid silver, which he crumples and staples on to large canvases then splashes with thick daubs of household paint and collaged trash from the studio. They evoke the restless textures of Julian Schnabel's plate paintings and the finely attenuated colouration of Cy Twombly's work. (Schnabel, a friend of the Chows, has painted both Mr and Mrs Chow; his 1998 painting Eva Holding a Miniature Amulet of Michael hangs in the house's central atrium.) Chow himself likens them to Chinese landscape paintings and calligraphy, and signs them under his Chinese name, Yinghua.

'I've never stopped being an artist,' says Chow. 'I was always doing environments and creating theatre in my restaurants. I've always thought like an artist. My father was an expressionist, in the theatre. My biggest influence is from him.' This might surprise those familiar with the restrained interiors of Chow's restaurants; his latest project, an outpost in Malibu, is decorated in shades of cool white. While he admits that 'To me, function is still god,' Chow is also a sensualist. 'I like to do architecture not just for the eyes, but for the ears and the nose; the sounds and smells of a space are very important.'




While Chow might approach every aspect of his life as an art project, living in a city in which everyone from actors to dog groomers gets called an 'artist', he is definitive about what is and is not art. 'In China, fine art is very clearly defined. Much more so than in the West. Fine art is painting, sculpture, poetry, calligraphy and music. Then you have architecture.' The distinction, he explains, is to do with the precision of the media. What about cuisine, I ask him? 'Cooking is a form of art, but it is not precise enough. It dissipates.'

'Craft and art have different functions,' he continues, warming to his theme. 'Craft has to be the same each time; art is the opposite. Some art of course has aspects of craft in it, but with great art, the technique--the craft--can get in the way. You want to forget it. Flair and design are the enemies of art. Some artists have lots of technique and the content suffers. It's too easy to rely on.'

He tells me a story about a Zen monk who was given a really excellent pipe. The first day he smoked it, he liked it; the second day, he loved it; the third day, he threw it away. 'When you're good at something, you get rid of it,' says Chow. 'I have another saying: Anything heavy, expensive or difficult is usually good. If I come across something that is difficult, I know I'm on the right track!'

The Chows' current house, which was completed in 2005, took seven years to design and build. Michael and his wife Eva were painstakingly involved at every level. 'I'm a 24/7 kind of guy. Obsessive, you know, tunnel vision,' he tells me. 'All problems in architecture can be solved,' Chow would say to his longsuffering contractors. He was influenced, he says, by the art deco designer Pierre Chareau, on whose pale wooden chairs we are sitting (Figs. 4 & 5). Chareau designed many of the complex mechanical fixtures of his most famous achievement, the Maison de Verre in Paris, while the house was under construction. 'Every detail is a universe,' according to Chow's favourite aphorism. 'If you just listen to what the detail tells you to do, you will never get it wrong, because you're treating it with respect. And then cumulatively speaking, the entire work will be very powerful.'

Eva is Chow's closest artistic collaborator. (He has been married three times before, briefly to Grace Coddington, creative director of Vogue, and later to fashion icon Tina Chow [born Bettina Lutz], who died tragically of MDS in 1992.) Eva shares a similar background, in many respects, to Michael: she left Korea when she was 17, a former child protegee painter who gave up art in order to concentrate on her successful fashion design business. When I ask Chow if he works with an advisor for his collection, he replies: 'My wife!'

The house that they built together combines traditional, Tuscan Renaissance features such as beamed ceilings, grand fireplaces, stone columns and arches with the clean lines and open spaces of late modernist architecture.

In the Gold Room, antique Chinese furniture shares space with a Chareau sofa, a Damien Hirst spot painting and a towering sculpture made by John Chamberlain from crumpled car bodywork. 'Even though it is eclectic, I make it look natural. I can make everything work!' boasts Chow, with evident justification. Integrating Asian and Western artefacts is a first principle for him. One of his prize possessions is a traditional watercolour of fish painted in 1954 by the Chinese painter Qi Baishi, in celebration of Chow's father's career. Nearby hang four 'bird shit' paintings from 2008 by 'bad boy' New York artist Dan Colen--all-over abstractions painted to resemble accumulated pigeon excreta. Chow says that the paintings' titles alone were enough to grab his attention: 'He had me at hello!'


The Murano glass Wrecking Ball (2010) by Aaron Young, which hangs in the Chows' lobby beneath another Hirst spot painting and a huge abstract canvas by Keith Haring, continues the contemporary tone. Despite Chow's attention to fashion and enthusiasm for his birthplace's culture, however, he says he does not collect Chinese contemporary art, pointing to the relative newness of the country's art scene owing to its turbulent recent history. 'When there is blood in the street, you don't have art,' he says. 'The minute you have money, you have art.'

Back in the gold sitting room, an opulent gold-leafed folding screen bearing a sunburst design illustrates Chow's point (Fig. 5). It is in fact a copy of a valuable art deco original by Jean Dunand, which Chow once owned but donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The collection of which he remains proudest was his collection of art deco furniture by Dunand and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. 'At one point I was the king of Ruhlmann and Dunand,' he says wistfully. In that instance, unusually for him, he bought all his major pieces on a single expensive shopping spree in Paris. 'It was like that part in The Godfather, when they hit them all in one go! Boom, boom, boom!' he says, referring to the day when he cleaned out three adjacent Parisian stores of their finest examples of art deco. 'I ended up with the most fantastic Ruhlmann collection, including all the top pieces, at a time when very few people were collecting furniture.' At one point he was in talks with the Met to stage an exhibition of his collection at the museum, 'with flags outside and everything!' He was forced to sell it all in the late 1980s, around the time that he was divorced from Tina. The macassar ebony pieces by Ruhlmann that now sit in his study have all been acquired since.

Today, Chow is perhaps best known for his collection of portraits of himself. It began back in 1966 when he asked Pop artist Peter Blake to make a painting that epitomised the philosophy of his fledgling restaurant business. 'The idea was to do authentic Beijing food, with no racist chinoiserie nonsense anywhere. Very international, very contemporary.' He used Italian waiters because, he claims, 'they were the best waiters on earth at that time'. (Chinese waiters, he adds, reluctantly, were then the worst: rude, non-communicative and apparently miserable.)

Blake decided to tease, his friend the ambitious young restaurateur. In his collaged portrait he pictures Chow as a yellow-skinned wrestling promoter flanked by two Chinese-Italian wrestlers (Fig. 7). Frisco and Lorenzo Wong and Wildman Michael Chow (1966) hung in the Knightsbridge restaurant when it opened, and remains a jewel in Chow's collection. (It ships to London in October for the exhibition 'When Britain Went Pop!' at Christie's new Mayfair gallery.) In 1967, David Hockney also did a portrait, in crayon on paper, of a suited Michael. Mr Chow became the hang-out for London's Pop artists throughout the late 1960s and '70s; Jim Dine's painting 5 Battersea Hearts (1967) is displayed in the restaurant to this day.


When Michael opened a New York branch of Mr Chow in 1979, he repeated the formula. If the art scene was waning in London towards the late '70s, in New York it was booming, and all the brightest lights of the day flocked to Mr Chow. It was around this time that he became friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose 1985 portrait of Chow (Fig. 3) hangs in the atrium across from Schnabel's painting of Eva. There is an astonishing photograph, taken by Michael Halsband in 1986, of a huge gang of New York artists posing at Chow's restaurant (Fig. 6). Among the group are Warhol and Basquiat, David Hockney, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, John Chamberlain, Arman, Alex Katz, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Tony Shafrazi, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sandro Chia. Chow, it seems, was a collector of artists just as he was a collector of doorknobs and movie scenes.

He was smart, however, to take advantage of this plethora of talent. Not satisfied with commissioning artworks, he also placed a thick guestbook with large, blank pages in the restaurant for his artist patrons to sign. Of course, artists being artists, most preferred to draw pictures rather than simply write their names, and Mr Chow's 'artist book' became perhaps one of the most valuable sketchbooks in history. Georg Baselitz, Isamu Noguehi, Louise Nevelson, Kenny Scharf, David Salle, Robert Rauschenberg, Dieter Roth and George Condo all have entries, along with Chow's regulars such as Warhol and Basquiat.

Mr Chow has, over the years, demonstrated a Zelig-like capacity for placing himself in the midst of whatever global cultural zeitgeist is prevailing at any given moment. Today he is a fixture in Hollywood's social circles, and has appeared in movies and written screenplays. He is a key player in L.A.'s philanthropic community, involved with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through Eva, who is a trustee) and The Broad, a new museum due to open in 2014, of which he is a board member. If Hollywood's domination declines in the future, who knows, perhaps he might even find himself back in China.

It is not enough just to show up, however. Says Mr Chow: 'You must not just be there but you must control everything, direct every single aspect, minute to minute. With that kind of commitment and passion and oneness, if you will, you have a slim chance of creating a masterpiece.' He was referring, I think, to the construction of his house, or maybe the design of his restaurants, but he might easily have been talking about his entire life.

Jonathan Griffin is a freelance writer in L.A.

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Title Annotation:FEATURE: MR CHOW; restaurateur Michael Chow
Author:Griffin, Jonathan
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
Previous Article:Taste matters.
Next Article:A movement of colour.

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