Michael Chow: A Life fit for a Hollywood script

Updated: 2015-03-06 11:41

By Li Jing(China Daily USA)

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Michael Chow: A Life fit for a Hollywood script

Michael Chow, the owner of famous chained Mr Chow restaurants, reestablishes his old and new identity as an artist in China. Provided to China Daily

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 script-like 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 and perhaps the most challenging art form: abstract painting."

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