The food never shows up in AKA Mr Chow, the director Nick Hooker’s feature-length documentary about the restaurateur Michael Chow, but that’s sort of the point. Ever since the Shanghai-born impresario opened his first Mr Chow outpost in 1976, he has been building a mini empire of dining destinations better known for their star-studded clientele than starred reviews.
Hooker first set foot in the original Mr Chow, in London, as a young boy in the 1970s, when his father took him there for lunch. “My parents were separated, and I think there was a bit of ‘I’m gonna make sure he has a great time,’” he recalled of the excursion that became a father-son tradition. “We’d go to Mr Chow and have lunch and then we would go watch a James Bond double bill. Whenever I walked in there, something happened. The chemistry in my body kind of changed.”
Some four decades later, Hooker was shooting a fashion television show with Grace Coddington, the model and Vogue editor, at a Mr Chow dining room (Coddington and Chow were married for a year in the 1960s) when the man with the owlish glasses and flair for theatricality showed up. He blew Hooker away with his charisma and aura of mystery. “There were no biographies of Michael Chow,” the director said. “I thought he would be a great subject of a film.”
Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair and a clubby restaurateur in his own right, as the owner of the Waverly Inn, signed on as a producer. Most of the other creatives who were asked to come on board were of Asian descent, which Hooker said helped his subject feel comfortable and open up about his life. Jean Tsien, who eventually signed on as executive producer and editor, was not an easy sell. She hadn’t ever heard of Mr Chow, and the concept hit a nerve. “As an immigrant, and daughter of a chef at a Chinese restaurant, the last thing I want to work on is anything about Chinese restaurants,” she said. But she started conducting research on the subject, whose father was a grandmaster opera star and whose prosperous family was decimated during the Cultural Revolution.
For all their razzle dazzle, showmen can be squirrelly, and Chow is not keen to dig into his personal traumas in the film, which made conducting the interviews tricky. “It was sort of like bullfighting,” Hooker recalled. “He’s staring at me, I’m staring at him, and it’s a bit of a duel at times.”
Born as Zhou Yinghua, Chow’s childhood was shattered by the Cultural Revolution. His father, an opera star, was taken by Red Guards and imprisoned until his death. His mother, who oversaw her husband’s business affairs, put her children on a boat to London, and was beaten to death by members of the new political regime. Diane Quon, who came on as a producer, said: “It’s a story of the generation after the Chinese civil war, and how millions and millions of families were broken up.”
Skirting across decades and continents, with the help of evocative street footage and animations by Rohan Patrick McDonald, the movie is concerned with far more than Chow’s talent for befriending celebrities and flair for decadence. It touches on pain points of the disarmingly energetic (and disarmingly dark-haired) 84-year-old’s life, including his depression, gambling addiction and the tragic story of his wife Tina, who died from complications of Aids in 1992, at age 41.
Small, asthmatic and foreign, Chow had a miserable time at an English boarding school. He found refuge in the cinema, and perfected his party trick of describing, shot for shot, the opening sequence of every classic film (a skill he deploys in the opening shots of the documentary).
After school, he became an actor himself, appearing in films alongside Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Monica Vitti. He found a foothold in swinging London. To be a somebody at that place and time, “one has to be eccentric, aristocrat or artistic,” he explains in the film. He went with “eccentric”, donning clothes with slinky silhouettes and aviator glasses, and marrying Coddington.
Chinese people who wanted to go into business at the time had two choices: open a laundromat or a Chinese restaurant. Opening Mr Chow was an act of subversion, as he turned the cliche on its head. His version would specialize in small servings and whopping prices. “It was an embassy,” said Quon. “And he was the self-appointed ambassador.”
With its soaring ceilings and shiny white walls, his restaurant operated like a theater, where diners – many of them not white – were the stars. “It was an anti-racist restaurant,” Hooker said. Outposts in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles drew names like Mick and Bianca Jagger, Gregory Peck, Jack Nicholson and Mae West. Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha exchanged works of art for free eating rights. David Hockney designed the matchbooks. Chow installed a periscope with a video camera in the ceiling in order to watch the show from his office, a show that is still going strong. Kim Kardashian came by not long ago. A Jay-Z lyric calls out Mr Chow. (“How many times can I go to Mr Chow’s, Tao’s, Nobu? Hold up, let me move my bowels.”)
“I’m living in the movies all the time,” Chow tells the camera. “Instead of three acts I have five.” These past few years, he has been focusing on his love of painting, making enormous abstract works. His process is cathartic and physically demanding, sometimes involving banging paint with a mallet and blow torches. “Painting was the magic carpet out of his depression,” Hooker said. “When he started painting again, he suddenly rediscovered his enthusiasm for being alive.”
The film-makers were nervous to show the movie to its subject. “I remember after the first screening with him, he was silent,” said Tsien. “And then he said thank you, everyone, for making me a human being and not a Chinaman.”
AKA Mr Chow is now available on Max in the US with a UK date to be announced
This article was amended on 1 November 2023 to correct the attribution of the last quotation.