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The Magic of Mr. Chow    

The Magic of Mr. Chow

Art by FISK

By Jessica Schiffer

When M, aka Michael, Chow turned 14 he said to himself, “I’m going to be great, but great at what? There are so many things I want to do.” It was a prophecy that would come true over the next few decades, as he received more than one answer to his question. First and foremost an artist, M went on to become a celebrated painter, photographer, filmmaker, actor, curator and, of course, the creator of the beloved Mr. Chow restaurant franchise. 

These titles, though, are only a portion of the expansive story which inspired our latest collection, Madhappy for Mr. Chow.

Born in 1939 in Shanghai, China, Chow’s father, Zhou Xing Fang, was a national treasure, serving as the Grand Master of the Beijing Opera. “[He] is an iconic figure for China, someone like Puccini, Shakespeare,” M told us via Zoom from his Los Angeles home. But the luxurious world he grew up in was torn away from him in 1952 when, at age 12, he was sent to London alone amidst political strife. Landing in the city during the famous London Fog, an especially dreary landscape, the experience would change Chow’s life forever. “[It] was horrifying, a panic attack beyond,” he said. “I became the Oscar-winning, champion refugee.”

He would never see or speak to his father again, but his parting words would leave a lasting impression, setting the tone for all of his work. “[He said to me] ‘always remember that you are Chinese’ and I had this need to communicate my father’s great culture to the West,” explained Chow.

M would go on to do that beautifully with his theater-inspired restaurants, which intentionally turned dated and racist conceptions of Chinese culture in the West on their heads by serving authentic Chinese food in chic, contemporary settings where every single detail was artfully considered. Chow treated these spaces not like a restaurateur but as the artist he is, seeing them as “long-running musicals” in which “you direct everything – every word, every body language, every dance, every costume, every stage, every entertainment, everything.” 

This life-as-art approach made Mr. Chow’s a creative hub for other artists like Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and David Hockney, who not only served as his patrons, but also as his collaborators in their shared creations. His early support of these artists, and the inspiration he provided them as a frequent subject of their work, has had a profound impact on the world of contemporary art. As a celebrated painter himself for more than a decade, the story has come full circle. “From my work, I hope I will be recognized as a good artist, that’s it – as simple as that,” Chow said of his legacy.

It is that legacy that we celebrate with Madhappy for Mr. Chow, a collection that features rare artwork from Ed Ruscha and the Cy Twombly Foundation to help paint the full picture of M’s life. “He is an icon of our time, a pioneer that impacted our lifestyle and culture,” said Madhappy co-founder Josh Sitt of his desire to partner with Chow. “I wanted to tell the authentic story of who Michael Chow is and how he came to be.”

Throughout his life, Chow has been acutely aware of the racist mistreatment of Asians in the West and used his art to both highlight this reality and tell a different story. Speaking of the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, he noted that “in 60 years, nothing has changed.” To continue this necessary work, a portion of proceeds from this collection will be donated to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition addressing anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic.

Taken together, these pieces are a testament to the full narrative of Michael Chow. Not as a restaurateur, but as an artist, a director, and a visionary whose legacy will lie in his impact on the world of art. The Madhappy for Mr. Chow collection will be available at Madhappy.com on Tuesday, August 17th at 12PM ET in limited quantities.

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