Dominic Ng Speaks With Restaurateur & Artist Michael Chow

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Dominic Ng Speaks With Restaurateur & Artist Michael Chow

April 25, 2024 By
Dominic Ng with Michael Chow
Dominic Ng

Legendary restaurateur, artist and designer Michael Chow was a special guest at a luncheon East West recently hosted at Art Basel Hong Kong. Michael or “M” has spent a lifetime pursuing excellence and promoting Chinese culture, from his rock star restaurants that drew Hollywood elites, to his personal journey as an expressionist artist. A-list celebrities like Mick Jagger, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Calvin Klein, and Jay-Z were among the regulars at his iconic Mr. Chow restaurants. Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Ed Rusha exchanged works of art for free eating rights. M’s life experiences and passion for art are candidly and beautifully highlighted in a recently released HBO documentary film, “AKA Mr. Chow.”

Zac Posen, Chrissy Teigen, and John Legend at Mr. Chow’s Beverly Hills

Zac Posen, Chrissy Teigen, and John Legend at Mr. Chow’s Beverly Hills (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

The Web painting

I bought your first painting many years ago. After everything you have accomplished in your career, what has brought you back to painting?

M: My desire to express myself as an abstract painter has always tugged at my creative soul. All painting, especially the type of painting I do, is a recipe.

When I’m painting, I’m making millions of decisions at great speed. The faster I paint, the more internal it becomes; the more internal, the more universal. It’s cathartic and physically demanding, sometimes involving banging paint with a mallet and using a blowtorch.

DN: You grew up in Shanghai but were sent to boarding school in London when you were 13, and you never saw your parents again. How has childhood trauma shaped your career?

M: I have all kinds of unspeakable tragedies that I’ve kept buried inside me. I also had perfect parents in the sense that my father was completely an artist—he was a grandmaster who revolutionized the Beijing opera—and my mother was completely the smartest woman on this planet. One taught me one side and the other taught me the other. So, I'm a mix of the two. At age 13, I lost everything. I lost my parents, my culture, my country, smell, everything in a split-second. I was in a deep depth of fear—beyond an acute panic attack. I had to crawl out of that to survive. When you lose everything, you become a blank page, and on a blank page you can draw whatever you wish. That’s what I did. And my life has always been guided by the last words my father spoke to me, “Wherever you go, remember: you are Chinese.”


DN: You opened a restaurant that has become one of the most famous brands in the world. How did you make that transition?

M: I used my father’s words: rebel. When I was in London, I encountered such a disturbing amount of stereotyping. The problem with racism like that is that it hurts. Chinese people who wanted to go into business at the time had two choices: open a laundromat or a Chinese restaurant. That prejudice I encountered is what drove me to create Mr. Chow. Chinese cuisine and dining were considered the lowest of low in the West, so I wanted to show them the chicest of chic by creating a restaurant experience. Mr. Chow is not just a restaurant; it’s an immersive, aesthetic experience. Multiple art forms are combined to create a comprehensive artistic synthesis—a total work of art—with the precision of an operatic performance. Every night I’m looking to transcend, to manufacture magic moments, to create poetry. I believe I changed the DNA of high-end restaurants.


DN: Your paintings portray turmoil and tension, but they are also very joyous and free. How intentional is that contradiction?

M: The most important job of an artist is to be true to their time, true to their dream, and most importantly true to themselves. Painting is about purifying the soul. To be a great painter, you have to go through the suffering process. If you are an expressionist artist, violence and suffering is part of it. It’s part of the natural order of things.

M at work on The Web, which is on display at East West Bank's Beverly Hills branch

Tell me about your new documentary. Why did you decide now was the time to chronicle your lifelong creative journey?

M: What convinced me to do this documentary is that it's not for me; it's for the next generation. I’ve devoted my life to harmonizing East and West. My destiny has always been about bridging everything—to make things harmonious. This documentary deals with two centuries, with a father and a son and their destiny to bridge China and the United States. I lived a collaged life, and it's my duty, my responsibility, to share this history.

My painting is that way, too. I'm born to create harmony between the two cultures. I'm motivated by that. That's what gives me so much energy. I believe that through art and food we can communicate and harmonize to counter the violence that goes on in the world.

DN: What has been the throughline of your creative arc? What drives all of your creativity?

M: It’s simple. In everything I do I strive to be true, to be kind, and to be real. This is a difficult combination of things to achieve, and to do it you have to learn how to master certain tools. First, you have to learn how to eat bitterness—a Chinese maxim called “chi ku,” which means to persevere through hardship. Then you have to believe, and you have to have faith. The truth will always prevail.

My father told me, “Don’t listen to the hand clapping; listen to the heart applauding.” I’m a collector and a collagist, and I’m always looking for transcendence to a higher place in life, in business, and in my art. My paintings are collages, and collages are things that don’t go together, initially. My job is to harmonize. With so much tragedy and violence and sadness occurring around the world today, I feel the artist's job is to be global, to show we are all one people, one race, one human spirit.


DN: In addition to your painting, I understand you are taking things in a new direction on the restaurant side. Can you share what you’re working on?

M: Since 1968, I have been creating and curating Chinese American food that has been tested by the elites. Now I want to make my food available at a more affordable price, but maintain a high level of quality. The Mr. Chow brand has 60 years of equity; I want to bottle that. America is the greatest country for fast casual restaurants, and I think there is a lot of economic opportunity in that.