I’ve eaten at plenty of high end restaurants in my life, splurging on the hottest Michelin-starred tasting menus from Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, Acquerello in San Francisco, and Taiwanese- inspired Kato in Los Angeles. I have no reservations about spending money on elevated cuisine, from any part of the world, but with a $58 dollar price tag for sweet and sour pork, I could not fathom the existence of Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. It felt unreasonable, unrelatable, and out of reach.
The HBO documentary aka Mr. Chow premiered this weekend, and with it introduces the world to the extraordinary story of 84-year-old mastermind restaurateur, actor, and artist Michael Chow. Beyond the extravagant price tags and star-studded clientele at his restaurants, the film reveals the man who built an empire on more than just culinary innovation.
It delves into the depths of his personal history, from the challenges of immigrating to a foreign land to the isolation he felt as a teenager in London. “You learn very quickly: China in the west was nothing,” he says in the film. The story further unravels his experience with racism and heart-wrenching tragedy, including the persecution and loss of family members during China's Cultural Revolution.
“He's definitely not boring right? The actual challenge is how do you fit all this personality into one film,” says Emmy-winning editor Jean Tsien. “That's the joy of editing. He's throwing you all the possibilities. He basically provided the dramatic timeline. I think what I needed to do was find the nuances. It was hard, but it was fun. It was everything. In Chinese cooking, there are different tastes. 酸甜苦辣 (suān tián kǔ là). Sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. I think in the editing, I used all the ingredients.”
Michael Chow, born Zhōu Yīnghuá in Shanghai during the 1930s, is an artist at heart. His father, Zhou Xinfang, was a legendary Peking opera actor. A love of the arts was instilled in Chow and blossomed through early acting roles like 1958’s Violent Playground and 1961’s Marco Polo. Parallel to his acting career, Chow would launch his namesake restaurant in London in 1968. There were no chopsticks and he made a point to hire Italian waiters. At Mr. Chow’s, he became akin to an impresario, wanting to delight diners with epicurean theatrics.
“He was definitely the most high profile person I've worked with,” says Oscar-nominated producer Diane Quon. “[I’m usually covering] very personal stories about people that aren't necessarily known in the world. He definitely had an opinion about how he wanted to be presented, but I give him credit, he let us tell the story the way we wanted to tell it. He did get to see it, and he definitely had thoughts, but he was willing to listen as to why we did what we did.”
Not wanting to purely rely on archival stills of friends and family in Chow’s life, one key decision that sets the documentary apart is the use of animated sequences from illustrator Rohan McDonald. “Whenever he talks about a trip, or an experience or a vulnerable moment in the past as a young boy, you'll notice that's when we often would use animation,” Quon says.
The first Mr. Chow’s opened in London in 1968. There are locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When asked what was the enduring secret ingredient to the restaurant’s longevity, Quon and Tsien shed light on Chow’s innate warmth.
“It’s loyalty. You see grandchildren coming to eat at Mr. Chow’s. [One waiter has] been on the staff in Beverly Hills for 50 years. How do you keep someone loyal to you for 50 years? That’s something authentic, when he talks about kindness, he practiced what he preached,” Tsien says.
Quon adds, “He accepts everyone. My husband ate there for the first time last week, and you can see there's people there you can tell are probably very wealthy, but you don't have to be a certain way when you come. You just don't feel out of place there. You feel welcomed.”
Before he left Shanghai for London, Chow’s father gave him parting wisdom: “Wherever you go, always remember you are Chinese.” In pioneering upscale Chinese cuisine for the world, Chow not only embraced these words but lived them.
His resolve forged a steely strength and a relatable desire to be accepted. “The problem with racism? It hurts. You take away my glasses and you take away my Rolls Royce, I’m not good enough now,” Chow tells the camera.
Zhōu Yīnghuá, aka Mr. Chow, you’re more than enough. You swallowed the bitter, but now get to savor the sweet. And I bet your sweet and sour pork is worth every penny.
Published on October 24, 2023
Words by Daniel Anderson
Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.