Actor and Restaurant Owner Michael Chow on Being Chinese in Hollywood

Portrait of Michael Chow (by Andy Warhol). Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Chow

Michael Chow is a man who wears many hats. As the owner of Mr. Chow, the upscale restaurant chain, he has transformed food into art for the past 30 years, serving clientele that includes celebrity regulars. Chow has also starred in 16 films, held numerous art exhibitions, and designed houses. Although he comes from a wealthy family, not all of Chow’s journey has been smooth-sailing. Yet overcoming adversity has helped make him who he is today.

Michael Chow, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Basquiat’s mother and friends, 1984_ by Andy Warhol_Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Born in Shanghai, and known as Zhou Yinghua in Chinese, Chow comes from a family of artists. His father, Zhou Xinfang, is a legendary Beijing opera master. Chow left China at 12 and spent his adolescent years in the U.K. before eventually settling down in Los Angeles. Despite leaving China at a young age, Chow strongly identifies as Chinese, and has done everything he can to honor his heritage.

As Mr. Chow celebrates its 50th anniversary, Michael Chow spoke to CFI about Hollywood, art, life, and being Chinese.

CFI: You’ve lived in several different countries. Why did you choose to settle down in L.A.?

Michael Chow (MC): It was a progression. Years ago, being a Chinese artist in the West was extraordinarily difficult. so I turned to restaurants, to create a space that resembles a theater. I remembered the magic moments in theaters when my father connected with his audiences, and my restaurant also tried to connect to clients through its art, through, the harmonious elements of its ambience. It’s not only a restaurant. It’s a performance. I opened Mr. Chow with hopes to communicate with the West and showcase the strong and rich Chinese culture. It was also my attempt to fight against the acute racism towards the Chinese at the time. I intended to make Mr. Chow one of the world’s top restaurants, and that’s why I traveled to Los Angeles 44 years ago to open the restaurant.

Mick Jagger (lead singer of the Rolling Stones) at Mr. Chow. Photo: Mr. Chow Facebook Page

CFI: What role has Chinese film played in educating the West about Chinese culture?

MC: Well I’ve had many lives and many professions. I’ve done many international movies since I became an actor and did my first film in 1956. I became obsessed with film and I wanted to be a director. But they didn’t want me, maybe because I am Chinese, or maybe because I started too early. Anyway, I wrote a screenplay called “The Voice of My Father,” which is a bio-epic of my father’s life, which is parallel with 20th century China, from his birth in 1905 to the end of the Cultural Revolution. And as you may know, my father suffered through that. So, I am really into movies, you know. And now China has again become a big film market in the world. Culture can’t thrive without economic development. When you have war, revolution, and famine, you don’t think about culture. As China has gotten rich, it revives culturally. It declined for hundreds of years and finally it’s back again. China is growing in every way, including cinema. China will probably surpass Hollywood soon.

a still from “Violent Playground” (1958, Dir. Basil Dearden)

CFI: You mentioned the script you wrote. Do you have plans to bring them to the big screen?

MC: I’ve struggled very hard with it. I talked to the China Film Group and did all kinds of things. It was difficult because there was a section (in the script) about the Cultural Revolution. They wanted to take it out, but I found it difficult to do so because this part is very important. So later, when the climate is right, maybe I will direct it or someone else will direct it. I took a long time to write this script, which is an epic compressed into 120 pages. My father’s life touched upon every important event in 20th century China. The film is in the tradition of bio-epics like Lawrence of Arabia, but the story is modernized and more current. And absolutely it’s for audiences in both the East and the West. For me, there is no boundary between China and the West. That’s what I do. I blur the line. We are all human beings. We all have emotions. We all suffer. So it’s a universal tragedy. Also, I write very visually because I am a visual person, not a literary person. So writing a screenplay was difficult for me and it took me two years. I had to compress over 90 years of stories into 120 pages, so I had to chop here and there.

CFI: What’s your favorite Chinese film?

MC: I am not very appreciative of Chinese films unfortunately. I saw lots of Zhang Yimou’s movies, but I am not that current with them. I just did a film with Gus Van Sant. I had a small role in his latest film “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” which is coming out in May. Joaquin Phoenix is the lead in the film.

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CFI: There are still fewer opportunities for Asian talent in Hollywood. What do you think can be done to build a stronger Chinese presence in Hollywood?

MC: Racism was deeply rooted in Europe and America, and that’s why I opened Mr. Chow, which is deliberately designed with universal elements, to build a fortune and then get respect and have more control to do what I want — the art. From my perspective, the most effective way to get respect in this capitalist country is for Chinese companies to invest in Hollywood and take over the business, like what the Japanese did with Sony in the ’80s. I believe that money talks. It’s a long battle, but films are a powerful medium through which it can happen.

a screenshot from “Rush Hour 2”

CFI: As a restaurant owner, what are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed, especially when it comes to the confluence of the two markets?

MC: Chinese immigrants tend to stay in the comfort zone, for instance, not going outside Chinese communities and breaking cultural barriers. But I believe this will change in the next decade or two with China becoming wealthier and the Chinese more educated.

CFI: What do you think of the fact that many movies need a Chinese character or Chinese elements to attract Chinese audiences?

MC: I think that would help but some of the stories are dated, and the Chinese characters are American stereotypes, while in reality there are many angles to explore, and much more creativity can be incorporated into such movies. For example, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall wasn’t well-received in the West. It’s probably too Chinese for a Western audience. Just adding Matt Damon was not enough to make a great movie.

filming of “Basquiat” (1996) at Mr. Chow. Photo: Mr. Chow Facebook Page

CFI: If a filmmaker is interested in making a movie set in your restaurant, what do you think the story would be: a romance, a comedy, or a political story?

MC: Political films aren’t my thing. My passion has always been thrillers, all the film noir movies. In restaurants, many stories can take place, especially in a chain restaurant with a long history.