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Michael Chow is meant to be in Riyadh. But as drones spell out his name in the sky above Saudi Arabia’s capital, heralding the Oct. 5 opening of the latest outpost of his eponymous restaurant, the charismatic restaurateur, artist and bon vivant is in his Los Angeles home, grounded with a positive COVID-19 test. He is in good spirits nonetheless. “My name is Gatsby,” Chow says with a laugh, invoking the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic hero, known for hosting extravagant parties but not necessarily attending them. “When he gives a party, they always turn up.”
Of course, Chow, 84, has long been known for his hosting prowess, with more than five decades of feeding the A-list legions of Hollywood, fashion, art, politics and beyond at his Mr. Chow restaurants. Now numbering seven locations, his empire launched with a London spot that opened in 1968, followed by Beverly Hills in 1974 and New York in 1979.
A new documentary, aka Mr. Chow, aims to separate the person from the larger-than-life persona.
“I was very gun-shy,” says Chow of agreeing to the documentary, which spans the entirety of his life, following him across multiple continents, decades, careers and four marriages (to fashion editor Grace Coddington, model and jewelry designer Tina Chow, fashion designer Eva Chow and current wife Vanessa Rano).
The doc also dives into the more traumatic moments of Chow’s impressive life. Some of these he has talked about openly — like the isolation of moving to England from his native China as a teenager and the racism he experienced — while others he has shied away from, including the persecution and killing of family members, including his mother and father, during China’s Cultural Revolution, and the suicide of a niece. “All kinds of unspeakable tragedies, I’ve kept buried inside me,” says Chow.
aka Mr. Chow, out Oct. 22 via HBO, is directed by Nick Hooker, who has tackled docs about Nora Ephron and Gianni Agnelli, and the film counts Airmail’s Graydon Carter as an executive producer. The film includes appearances from Coddington, Brian Grazer, L.L. Cool J and Julian Schnabel, while archival imagery pictures Chow with Andy Warhol, Mae West, Jack Nicholson and Calvin Klein.
In this interview, a single question posed to Chow will be met in an unhurried response that can start with a mention of Marlene Dietrich and will jump to Lady Gaga before taking a left turn to the paintings of British artist J.M.W. Turner, complete with a footnote about the effects of turpentine on oil paint. “I’m rambling,” Chow says, stopping himself at one point, mid-answer, about a question already forgotten. “But at the end of the interview, you can go back and listen to it and maybe I make sense. Now you say, ‘Where is he leading me?’ But then you listen to the recording, and you say, ‘Aha!’ ” In a similar fashion, aka Mr. Chow seeks to draw a throughline through a winding life.
“My destiny is about bridging everything; to make harmony of things. I’ve been devoted to harmonizing East and West,” says Chow, who started his restaurant franchise with the ambition of elevating the status of Chinese cuisine in American dining. It is an ethos that he says extends to his art; he works under the name M from his studio in Vernon, California, not far from downtown L.A. “My paintings are collages, and collages are things that don’t go together, initially. My job there is to harmonize.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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