Arts: The many faces of Mr Chow

Beautiful people have always headed for Mr Chow's. And most of them brought their paintbrushes.
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The Independent Culture
THREE PEKING ducks hang in the window, tempting passers by. But this is no Chinese restaurant. Inside, the walls are covered with portraits by some of the greatest artists of recent years: Warhol, Haring, Bailey and Blake, all jostling for your attention. Nothing strange in that, except that all the works share the same subject: Michael Chow, restaurateur to the stars.

We first meet at Claridge's, in his private living-room, the air saturated with the knock-out scent of an enormous vase of white lilies. The setting is perfect for someone whose life reads like a Hollywood script. Mid-morning tea is genteelly wheeled in and his extremely stylish fashion designer wife, Eva, breezes in before popping out for a spot of pre-lunch shopping.

Faced with the real Mr Chow, it is hard to reconcile all those other Chows currently on show in London's Mayor Gallery: Michael as a frizzy- haired, yellow-skinned wrestler-manager, as a long-haired Seventies hipster, and, of course, as a violently green prawn.

The man himself is not as flamboyant as you might expect. Given that his restaurant in the Sixties was a hangout for the rich and famous, where every night was party night, he is very low-key. Soberly dressed in a dark suit and tie, with heavy, black-rimmed glasses that give him an almost startled look, Michael Chow comes across as polite, amicable and strangely modest.

"I don't see me in the pictures," Chow is keen to point out, when asked what it's like to see himself in various guises staring down from every wall. "Peter Blake suggested the first one. It wasn't my idea, so I am off the hook about vanity," he says with a chuckle. Luckily, there's enough humour in the exhibition for it not to lapse into an over-reverential homage to one man, as it might otherwise have done. And Chow, who started out as an artist, even includes one of his own photographic works, a strange self-portrait where he is seen distorted through water. All of him, that is, bar his left eye, which stares out at the viewer.

You can't help thinking that Chow was more than a little fortunate with his choice of friends made in the Sixties and Seventies, and the opening of his eponymous restaurants in Knightsbridge, New York and LA. Mr Chow, the most glamorous and the most expensive Chinese restaurant in town, attracted the in-crowd of the time like a magnet, its cafe society atmosphere triggering a mass of on-site creative activity where artists felt sufficiently at home to pick up their paintbrushes and get to work. Chow commissioned some works to hang on the restaurants' walls but also, rather cannily, did a brisk trade in noodles-for-art with hungry but, as yet, lesser known artists.

Artists and celebrities were also invited to contribute to the restaurant's Artist Book (on display as part of the exhibition), which includes doodles, messages and works of art from Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gary Oldman and Jasper Johns, among others. "Sometimes you had three or four artists [at work at a time]," recalls Chow. "Everybody was having a great time. It was like a jazz session with improvisation. There was lots of energy there." As the collection grew, so did the artists' competitiveness, says Chow, as each contributor strove to produce something new and different.

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have all hung out at Mr Chow's. John Lennon ate his last meal out in Mr Chow New York; Mae West got a standing ovation when she strolled into the LA branch; Marlene Dietrich got more than a touch huffy when her grand entrance was upstaged by the nightly "cabaret" by the noodle-maker who performed his art for the diners.

Now in his 60th year, Chow is undeniably and consistently attracted to fame and glamour. "I'm in the glamour business," he readily admits. "I make a living out of it." And to celebrate 30 years of Mr Chow, he was able to muster an impressive line-up of celebrities (Elizabeth Taylor, Mike Tyson, Demi Moore, Larry King, George Clooney) to put their congratulations on celluloid for a short, blatantly name-dropping film which has been humorously interspersed with clips from the young Michael Chow's flirtation with Hollywood - "all Chinese cliches and stereotypes".

Chow is now working on Euro Chow, a restaurant of ambitious scale, luxury and grandeur. An empire-builder? Without a doubt. And his frequent references to Sir Terence Conran expose his competitive streak. There was a time when Chow spent every evening in his own London restaurant, but not any more. "Sir Terence never spends any time in his, and I have graduated myself," he says, in way of explanation. What's good enough for Sir T is good enough for him.

Peter Blake's work, Frisco and Lorenzo Wong and Wildman Michael Chow, which started the whole portrait-collection ball rolling in 1966, is shrine- like in its celebration of chinoiserie, decorated with Chinese figurines, with Chow presented as a yellow wrestler-manager flanked by half-Chinese, half-Italian wrestlers/bodyguards. From here on in, the portraits reflect the changing face of Chow through the late Sixties and long-haired Seventies, and into the more respectable Nineties.

Chow started life in Peking but moved to England as a child, and the portraits reflect this dual identity. Andy Warhol's black-and-white silk- screen of Chow, 1984, with its shimmering, glittering surface, seems perfectly placed in the exhibition, given both the artist's and the model's fascination with celebrity and fame.

Facing Warhol's Chow is that of Keith Haring, 1986, in which Chow repeatedly appears as a huge green prawn in a bowl of noodles - Haring's favourite dish at Mr Chow. A vast oil portrait of Chow by Julian Schnabel, 1985, made up of broken, painted plates, comes into focus only when taken in from some distance. The Three Peking Ducks, by Clive Barker, 1969, are silver on bronze, and continue to glint in the front window.

The collection, usually scattered between the restaurants, clearly comes into its own when grouped, and Chow says he would be loath to see it broken up again: "I would like to keep it together. I can donate it to a museum and there could be a Louis XIV room and a Mr Chow room," he says, with a smile.

`The 30th Anniversary of Mr Chow' portrait collection, Mayor Gallery, 22a Cork Street, London W1, to 18 November

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