“Whatever is true to one’s time and one’s self and one’s dream lasts. Always, there is one way, only way. Whatever is personal is universal. Whatever creative process I do, it’s not me. The universe tells me what to do, and I listen. If you have a very good ear, you are very confident.”
Mr. Chow was born in Shanghai in 1939. His mother was a quarter Scottish, from a wealthy family whose fortune had been made in tea—though opium may have also been involved. Either way, the family was aristocratic and proper but also modern—Chow’s mother had a Western education and further proved her modernity when she shocked her family by running off with Chow’s father, Zhou Xinfang. Zhou was China’s most famous actor, the leading figure at the Peking Opera in Shanghai; he was married at the time and had three daughters. “My mother was from very high family,” Chow says, “and they looked down on my father. But my father was very great man.” The relationship caused massive ripples in Chinese society—a sensational combination of money and fame—but to Chow, it just meant a splendid childhood. “It was cars and servants,” Chow says. “And everyone wanted to know about our family.”
In 1952, with Mao consolidating his power, Chow, 13 and fluent only in Mandarin, was sent away to Wenlock Edge, a British boarding school (one of his sisters, Tsai Chin, an actress who has appeared in The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha, was sent abroad as well). “It was like Harry Potter, but without the magic,” Chow says. “Lonesome is not even the word.”
Chow never saw his father again—his mother only once more when she came to visit him in England. With the arrival of the Cultural Revolution, Chow’s family lost their belongings and their status. What he didn’t know at the time was the extent of the violence. The family’s books, art, and music were all burned. His glamorous mother was made to sweep the streets. His father spent a year in prison, during which time Chow’s mother, exhausted and sick, died. Chow’s brother, who had become an actor, spent five years in prison, where he was tortured regularly.
Chow’s memories of these times are spotty, perhaps by choice. “There has never been a proper mourning period,” Chow says. “So there has never been closure. It’s all piecemeal, ongoing. In 1995, they reinstated my father’s burial site and he was honored in Shanghai, and of course this was very helpful for me, but my whole relationship to China is mixed. When you are uprooted as a child, there is a great shock, and one protects oneself.”
But he snaps back to attention and grins. “But remember! There are no bad times. Whatever is difficult . . . ”
Much of what Chow does now is done in homage to his father. “I think it was very formative for him to have to walk away from the status that his father enjoyed and reinvent himself,” says Philippe Garner, head of 20th Century Design and Photography at Christie’s and a friend of Chow’s since the seventies. “He has never, ever, wanted to deny his Chinese history, but he has needed to find a way to marry his background with his new life.”
When Chow arrived on the scene in sixties London, fresh out of Central Saint Martins art school, he found work at the Fraser Gallery, which was the center of that city’s exploding art world. “He was instantly plugged into a world he found very exciting,” says Garner. “And it was exciting. Michael got to know everyone: Jim Dine, Peter Blake, Richard Smith.”
“It was a very interesting time in London,” Chow says. “Class and race did not matter so much. If you are eccentric and artistic and princely, they accept you then. They judged on that level. This was the real cultural revolution. I was part of that.”
He married a few times—once just for a few days, and once to Grace Coddington, who is now creative director of Vogue but was then a gorgeous young model. At one point, he opened a trendy hair salon that he eventually sold to Twiggy; he tried nightclubs too, but mostly he became famous for being himself: He had shoulder-length hair, wore silk Nehru suits by Yves Saint Laurent, and drove a Bentley convertible. “For me, this was the most fun time,” he says, perhaps a bit guiltily, recognizing the simultaneity of China’s most savage years. “The Beatles, the Stones, Mary Quant fashion—they were my friends and everything was happening.”
But China was always very much on his mind, particularly the elegant, cultured China of his childhood, which was rapidly disappearing. In 1968, he opened Mr. Chow, a Chinese restaurant. Food had played a large part in his detachment: At boarding school, he was starved. “The food was very rough,” he says.