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[PROFILE] Michael Chow - Restaurateur, Actor, Designer, etc.

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  • madchinaman
    MICHAEL CHOW BIOGRAPHY http://www.mrchow.com/renaissance.html Designer, painter, actor, restaurateur and collector - Michael Chow directs his kaleidoscope
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 21, 2004

      Designer, painter, actor, restaurateur and collector - Michael Chow
      directs his kaleidoscope vision to the creation of beauty and style
      in any way he sees fit. In every aspect of his life, he has made
      stylisitic choices that have established him as an artistic
      visionary. But aside from his myriad endeavors, his most compelling
      project is himself. Mr. Chow was born to a professional theatrical
      family in the Middle Kingdom in the City of Shanghai. His father,
      Zhou Xing Fang, was a legendary grand master of the Peking Opera.
      Michael Chow left his homeland at the tender age of twelve, and
      ventured to London where he studied architecture and later worked as
      a painter/sculptor.

      He also performed in various plays and a dozen movie roles,
      gracefully depicting Hollywood's persona of stereotypical Chinese
      villains and nerds alike.For 40 years, from 1957 to present, he has
      acted in movies such as You Only Live Twice, Lethal Weapon 4, Rush
      Hour I and II.

      As a self-designated "cultural ambassador," Michael launched MR CHOW
      London in 1968. It was one of the first designer restaurants and, to
      this day, it stands as a world renowned blueprint for restaurateurs.
      MR CHOW London, Beverly Hills and New York have become institutions
      consistently hosting the elite aristocracy of film, music, fashion
      and art.

      Starting in 1965, he has designed boutiques in London as well as a
      dozen restaurants. His architectural design acumen earned the
      admiration of Giorgio Armani, and in 1988 Michael designed the
      Armani boutique on Rodeo Drive. In 1998, he designed a second
      boutique for Armani at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.

      After deciding to move to Los Angeles in 1985, two years later,
      Michael met Eva Chun, a fashion designer. She was a prodigy of two
      great masters of traditional Chinese ink painting. Michael and Eva
      were married in 1992 and two years later had a daughter named Asia.

      Mr. Chow's enigmatic visage, the singular nature of his life path,
      his repertoire of talents, and his ability to spark trends with
      uncommon clarity has captured the imagination of many. In fact, he
      has been immortalized on canvas over the past 30 years by some of
      this century's greatest artists, including Andy Warhol, David
      Hockney, and Jean Michael Basquiat, to name a few. His famous
      portrait collection has been exhibited in London, Beverly Hills, New
      York and Paris.


      Michael Chow: What He Really Wants to Do Is Direct
      But for Now, Restaurateur Michael Chow Will Have to Be Content With
      Opening Yet Another Stylish Palace of Food, Eurochow in Westwood.

      Michael Chow is explaining where in his new Westwood restaurant he
      will seat the famous, the unknown, the beautiful, the ugly, the
      tall, the short, the fat, the thin.

      He sits in a booth with a sculpted leather back, both hands
      caressing the polished acrylic table that he painstakingly selected
      to furnish this ambitious new gastronomic production. Chow has
      micromanaged every detail of Eurochow, from the cut of the veal to
      the hardware that secures the tasseled ropes of the curtains. Now he
      turns his attention to the patrons.

      "Like the opening shot of a movie, where there's only one right
      place to put the camera," he says, "there's only one right seat for
      each person." Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that
      Chow, who for 25 years has presided over the celebrity-favored Mr
      Chow in Beverly Hills, is himself a frustrated director. So in his
      latest venture, did you really think he would give up the job of

      He scans the mezzanine, a wraparound second-story loft overlooking
      tables cloaked in white cloths. Three tables flank the front
      railing, the most visible seats in the restaurant.

      'I think you put a lot of women there because when you come in, you
      see them first," Chow says with a chuckle.

      What about a couple?

      "Not so simple. First you have to decide whether they belong to
      upstairs or downstairs."

      Chow, who has long admitted to seating people according to a star
      system at his Beverly Hills restaurant, insists that some of his
      judgments are practical. He can't put a very tall man in a booth. He
      can't have a celebrity like Madonna on display in the single table
      that sits in a theaterlike balcony box. (She'd probably get the tall
      guy's booth.)

      "If I put someone very shy on the balcony, they will be
      uncomfortable," he says.

      But how do you know someone is shy?


      What if you want to put me downstairs and I want to sit upstairs?

      "How can you know more than I do when I designed the restaurant?"

      Chow suggests that however he seats me, it's for my own good. But I
      know too much already; I know if I arrive with a group of
      girlfriends and we're not seated at a table upstairs by the railing,
      it's because we weren't deemed attractive enough.

      He listens soberly. "OK," Chow says, "I'll make a note--when you
      come in, no way will you be seated there. Hahahahahaha!"

      Can you imagine what he'd be like as a film director? Autocratic,
      audacious and, just when you think you have him pegged, unexpectedly
      wry. All the traits that have distinguished him in the arena of
      tables and silverware and uplighting (a favorite ploy) would serve
      him sell in Hollywood, the world he has yet to conquer. For now, he
      must content himself with his most unusual restaurant, the $4-
      million Eurochow (he prefers to capitalize every letter, but we
      don't), starring a resuscitated L.A. landmark and--as always--
      Michael Chow.

      "If I may be so bold, a lot of people were influenced by me in this
      city and in other parts of the world," says the 60-year-old

      Whether you are a fan or a critic of Michael Chow and his food, he
      has earned a spot on the L.A. cultural landscape with his semi-
      legendary Beverly Hills restaurant, Mr Chow. No period,
      no "restaurant" and, God forbid, no apostrophe S. ("Minimalism at
      its best," he says.) The gathering spot on North Camden Drive has
      survived a quarter century--that's about three lifetimes in
      restaurant years--in mercurial Los Angeles, serving up Chinese food
      with a dollop of casual glamour. At the 1974 opening, Clint Eastwood
      and Eartha Kitt rubbed shoulders with Robert Wise and Olivia de
      Havilland. Not only was Chow's new restaurant the "antithesis of
      Chinoiserie," as he puts it--no red lanterns, no dragons--Mr Chow
      offered a sexy, glittery experience in a town where "elegant dining"
      meant eating in a stodgy hotel (or Chasen's) and "casual" meant Du-

      Over the years, Mr Chow has been avant garde and passe, in and out,
      hot and not so hot. Never a favorite with critics--initial reviewers
      seemed reserved and suspicious of all the gloss--the restaurant has
      been generally ignored by foodies. But in the 1970s, when even well-
      heeled restaurant-goers thought of Chinese food as the cheap takeout
      fare on the corner, the expensive Mr Chow was a revelation with its
      beautifully presented green prawns and Peking duck and hand-pulled
      noodles. The regulars--entertainment industry folk, Westside
      professionals, the artists that Chow has befriended and has fed
      gratis in exchange for their art--never stopped going there. Or if
      they did, they eventually came back.

      On a recent Sunday night, Kirk Douglas held court at the best table
      in the house; rising star Tobey Maguire and Quincy Jones' daughter
      Rashida supped later in the evening at a nearby table. At the
      opposite corner from the Douglas table, record industry giants Ahmet
      Ertegun and Phil Spector sat with a large group.

      The room still has a black-and-white checkerboard floor with huge
      black-and-white orb-like mobiles suspended from the ceiling. There's
      little about it that shouts "Los Angeles"--the art on the walls is
      serious, the light is buttery, the seating is compact.

      Eurochow, which opened June 17, is a departure from all that. The
      food is mostly Italian, with Chinese appearing as "a guest star,"
      says Chow. The prices are more modest. The room seats 150. (Mr Chow
      seats barely 100.) And the patio accommodates 50.

      But the most dramatic difference is the architecture.

      The restaurant is in a 1929 historic building, once the site of
      Westwood's domed Bank of America branch, later a succession of
      dreary clothing stores. Now it is a palace, with glossy white
      lacquered walls, standing at the quirky intersection of three
      streets--Westwood Boulevard, Kinross Avenue and Broxton Avenue--like
      a rebuilt fortress beckoning people to return and resurrect the
      abandoned village of Westwood.

      Chow was drawn to the space, knowing how rare it is to find an
      architectural gem available for restaurant use. He designed every
      element, taking advantage of the spectacular curves of the space,
      and dubbing the venture Eurochow for the international chic of the
      prefix, even stating on the menu that euros are accepted. (It's a
      gimmick. Chow isn't sure what the staff would do with the new
      European currency.) "I'm that kind of restaurateur. I look after
      every screw. A little bit of tunnel vision. Control freak," he says
      as if parroting phrases from his press clippings. "Guilty of all
      those things."

      And more. Chow is funny, playful, stylish, obsessive. An artist and
      an architect with only a modicum of education, he designed his
      restaurants, a London hair salon and two Armani boutiques--one on
      Rodeo Drive, the other in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. One thing
      he is not is obsequious, even though he's running restaurants. The
      Mr Chow troika--Beverly Hills, New York, London--is flourishing. The
      service is professional, the attention to detail is meticulous
      (forks must be set tines-down on the tables), his sense of how to
      handle celebrities and regulars is pitch-perfect. But Chow is not a
      glad-hander; he does not court his guests by bobbing from table to
      table. If he's even in his Beverly Hills restaurant (he lives in
      Holmby Hills), he's probably sitting at a table with his wife, Eva
      Chun, the former fashion designer, eating dinner.

      Better to let the 1984 Andy Warhol portrait of him--an inky black-
      and-white study of a coolly posed Chow--preside over the dining

      When he became a restaurateur in London 31 years ago, Michael Chow
      wanted to show Westerners two things: that Chinese cuisine was one
      of the remaining great cultural contributions of his native land and
      that it could be the centerpiece of an elegant restaurant.

      In the process, the restaurant business provided him with the
      dignity denied him as a young Chinese immigrant in 1950s and '60s
      London and the renown, not to mention wealth, that eluded him as a
      struggling young artist.

      "I want to be creative and I want to have fame," he says. "That
      eliminates racism. If I am famous, people look at fame first before
      the race." Not for nothing are his restaurants called Mister Chow.
      His sister, the film and stage actress Tsai Chin (from whom Chow is
      now estranged), wrote in her 1988 autobiography, "Daughter of
      Shanghai," that her brother's decision to use the title was
      a "brilliant stroke, for people would now address him unconsciously
      with respect." It worked. Even in Los Angeles, where everyone seems
      to be referenced by first name only, Michael Chow is often referred
      to as "Mr. Chow."

      It remains to be seen whether Eurochow can duplicate the success of
      Mr Chow. He is philosophical about its chances: "Whether it's food
      or movies or designer interiors, the key is always the same," says
      Chow, "which is, without sounding too corny, faith. Believe in God
      and believe in the truth. If you do everything correctly with faith,
      what I call a 'controlled accident' happens. Masterpieces are
      controlled accidents. If masterpieces were not controlled accidents,
      then people would be producing masterpieces all day long. It's a
      reward from God. You've been faithful."

      No, he's not religious. "Not in the sense that you mean," he says.
      We are sipping Eurochow's cappuccino which, two days before the
      opening, is perfect, another example of Chow's quality control. What
      he most worships is his creative vision that has held him in
      relatively good stead as an entrepreneur. He has had failures (he
      has opened, by his count, 11 restaurants across the world) and
      aborted projects. A plan three years ago to open four Chow
      restaurants on the site of the old Chasen's was scrapped.

      And then there's his pursuit of Hollywood's holy grail. His efforts
      to break into film directing have not been successful. Despite his
      sensitivity to Chinese stereotypes, he has portrayed--and continues
      to portray--a slew of them in films such as "You Only Live
      Twice," "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" and "Lethal
      Weapon 4." He played himself in "Basquiat." "I was terrible," he
      says, grimacing at the memory. "It's very difficult to play
      yourself." His Korean-born wife, who moved here at 17, refused sugar
      cane and ramen noodle commercials when she was modeling. But she
      says Chow takes such typecast parts because they're campy. "If he
      had to make his living from it, he wouldn't do it," says Eva Chun.

      But for the most part, Michael Chow has had success that reflects
      his highly developed sense of style in food, design and art. He has
      become known for his personal style as well--the signature black-
      framed glasses, the black suits with mandarin collars, the
      customized convertible Bentley he drives around town. All three of
      his wives came from the fashion world. Yet he's annoyed when people
      focus on his stylishness--or the stylishness of his restaurants. "Mr
      Chow survived all this time because of the food," he says. "People
      always take that away from me. They say, 'Well, he's hip and has
      style.' "

      But he is hip. And he does have style. Chow is famous for collecting
      portraits of himself by rising and established artists. At one
      point, he owned an extraordinary collection of Art Deco furniture by
      Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann but sold it when he was divorcing Tina Chow.

      And speaking of style, what about Tina, his second wife? (Some
      Reports count her as the third or fourth wife, but Chow denies any
      more than three marriages.) Tina, a former model and jewelry
      designer who was revered as an icon of international style, died
      from AIDS complications in 1992 at the age of 41.

      She is his least favorite subject.

      In the late '70s and early '80s, Michael and Tina Chow epitomized
      the jet-set lifestyle, commuting between continents to their
      restaurants, being photographed by Helmut Newton in an edgy 1984
      tableau that featured Tina tied to the bar of Mr Chow in Beverly
      Hills while Michael eyed her.

      The stunning daughter of a Japanese war-bride mother and American
      father, Tina had two children with Michael--China, 25, an actress,
      and Maximillian, 22, a student at Santa Monica College. The Chows
      were married in 1972, separated in the late '80s and divorced in
      1990. Her illness was widely chronicled and reported to have been
      the result of an affair with a Frenchman who died of AIDS two years
      before Tina did.

      Ask Chow how Tina influenced him and he grows uncharacteristically
      reserved. "It's been so long. My memory's not so good," says the man
      who collects movie esoterica in his head.

      He admits that she may have had something to do with creating the
      restaurants' mystique but says, pointedly, "Mr Chow is at the height
      of its success in Los Angeles and New York." And, obviously, he
      wants you to know, she had nothing to do with that.

      Chow prefers to talk about the Chow family as it is configured
      today: wife Eva, 43, daughter Asia, 4, and the two older children.
      It's as if he shed whoever he was with Tina. "At present, I'm in
      such bliss with Eva," he says of the woman he married in Las Vegas
      in 1992. "It's like talking about someone else, not me."

      Michael Chow has reinvented himself several times. His father was
      the legendary Beijing Opera star Zhou Xing Fang, who whetted his
      son's appetite for applause and a theatrical life in one form or
      another. His mother gave her six children Western names. In 1952, at
      13, Michael and older sister Tsai Chin (who adopted for the stage a
      Chinese name her father gave her) were sent to England to be away
      from the political troubles that would engulf their parents.

      Chow endured the bullying of other adolescents at two dismal
      boarding schools before finding his way to London. He spent a year
      at St. Martin's, the art school, and two more years in architecture
      school before assuming the role of starving Bohemian artist. He
      tried acting, taking small stock roles in movies. (He even played a
      Chinese laundry boy in a 1958 British movie, "Violent Playground.")

      He rarely held a traditional job; he was a dishwasher and a waiter
      in restaurants for a matter of months. His first big break was his
      much-acclaimed design of a London hair salon in 1965. After that, he
      only did entrepreneurial projects, indulging his creative talent,
      his sense of glamour and his prescience of the next hot thing. He
      opened the London Mr Chow in 1968, when the British capital was the
      center of chic in music, art and fashion. His yearlong marriage to
      Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, then a fashion editor at
      British Vogue, fell apart.

      Being an interracial couple in the late '60s "didn't help," says
      Chow. "But that's not major. I think maybe she got fed up with the
      restaurant business."

      It was A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss who brought Chow, and Mr
      Chow, to Los Angeles, investing $500,000. "At the time," says
      Moss, "that was a pretty fair sum of money."

      When they opened the restaurant in 1974, Moss recalls, "people were
      calling me at home for reservations. That went on for six weeks.
      Then for two years, we had no one coming. You could roll a bowling
      ball in there for entertainment." But gradually it picked up. Moss
      invited record company people and entertained colleagues and
      friends. Other patrons brought other friends. "For a while, it was
      Mr Chow and Mortons," says boutique owner Tracey Ross, who started
      going to Chow's restaurant with her parents. "Then more competition
      came. People wanted to eat outside."

      Moss, whose investment was repaid in the early '80s, recalls when
      Chow was not much of a presence in the restaurant or behind the
      scenes, "when he didn't go into the restaurant for five years."
      Chow, it turns out, was trying to direct a movie based on his own
      script, a project that met with little success.

      But the restaurant survived. Now, say Ross and numerous devoted Chow
      diners, the restaurant is hotter than ever. It's as if that late-
      '70s, early-'80s glamour has been rediscovered by a new
      generation. "Look at the clothes, the fashions. Warhols are cool to
      own again," muses Ross.

      The offspring of loyal diners have rediscovered Mr Chow as adults.

      Casey Wasserman shows up with his friends or grandfather, Lew
      Wasserman, former MCA chief. Donald Sutherland, an early patron, is
      now followed by his son, Kiefer. "But I had to wait for the son to
      grow up," chuckles Chow.

      * * *

      Eva Chun likes to say, "Mr. Chow is couture and Eurochow is ready-to-

      That's true in terms of the prices. But actually it's Eurochow that
      stands on the showroom floor of Westwood Boulevard like a couture
      gown with opulent handwork.

      There is something surreal about all that glistening white, from the
      marble floors inlaid with lights (both Chow and his wife can wax on
      about the marvels of fiber optics) to the walls ascending to 55-foot
      arched ceilings.

      Most restaurants in the mid-day, robbed of their seductive night
      lighting, are mundane affairs. But Eurochow in the morning is a
      cathedral of sunlight. With workers padding around and Chow's staff
      hunkered down at tables whispering into their cell phones, you feel
      as if you're on a set, watching the filming of a movie about a
      restaurant opening.

      The night of the Eurochow debut, guests include artists such as Ed
      Ruscha, regular clients of Mr Chow, longtime compatriots such as
      Vidal Sassoon, Chow's children and legions of publicists from the
      glittering jewelry, fashion and auction worlds. There's a smattering
      of celebrities--Eric Clapton, Lauren Holly, Michael York.

      Michael and Eva work the room. He wears a black wool suit and a pair
      of velvet shoes (acquired at auction) that once belonged to the Duke
      of Windsor. She wears the white Vivienne Westwood dress, replete
      with crinolines, that she wore when Julian Schnabel painted her.

      I tell Chow that I talked to Jerry Moss that day. "Did he say I owed
      him money?" he chortles. I assure him that he didn't and then ask
      Chow if he has any investors this time around. No, he answers, as he
      looks around the room now buzzing with champagne-drinking patrons.

      "I usually risk all," Chow says calmly. "Either you believe in it or
      you don't."

      * * *

      Carla Hall Is a Times Staff Writer. Her Last Piece for the Magazine
      Was About the Popularity of Straight Hair

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