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A look inside the world of the real life Mr. Chow

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Michael Chow always seems to have a vision. He likes to control the details in everything - what he wears, how he decorates, what he paints. And moments after he walked into our studios in Culver City, it was very clear he also wanted to control our conversation.

MICHAEL CHOW: I - coming here, already coming to this studio today, for instance, I already said it - I'm into a movie. What am I walking into and - when I studied a little bit about you very quickly.

CHANG: Oh, you did?

CHOW: Yeah, of course.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHOW: And then, so what we're going to talk about, so it's like I'm writing the script, right?

CHANG: Did I do anything to defy your script, upend your plans?

CHOW: No, no, no. I'm trying to control. I'm so...

CHANG: I can feel that. You're trying to control the interview I'm trying to control.

CHOW: I control...

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHOW: Yeah. I know, yeah.

CHANG: (Laughter) But I like that. You're making this quite interesting.

CHOW: Yeah, yeah. So we have a little, little...

CHANG: A little duel.

CHOW: A little, little, little duel. Yeah.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHOW: In a good way.

CHANG: You might know this artist and actor better as Mr. Chow, as in the Mr. Chow behind the whole restaurant empire. These days, he simply goes by M. He's the subject of a new documentary called "AKA Mr. Chow," which traces M's 84 years. His childhood was spent in Shanghai with a father who was a star of Beijing opera and a mother who doted on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AKA MR. CHOW")

CHOW: My mother attended me with tremendous amount of fuss and spoiled me and overprotecting me. I literally lived like a prince.

CHANG: When M turned 13, though, all of that abruptly ended. He was sent away to London to go to boarding school. And while he was abroad, his parents fell victim to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. M's father died in prison, and his mother was killed. It's one of the many traumas that M says shaped his life's work.

CHOW: At 13, I lost everything. Meaning, I lost my parents, my culture, my country, smell, everything in a split-second. I was in deep depth of fear - acute panic attack is beyond. So I have to crawl out of that and to survive.

CHANG: When you say you were in the depths of fear when you were in England, is it because you had known at that point what had happened...

CHOW: No, I knew nothing.

CHANG: ...To your parents?

CHOW: I was naive, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOW: I was put there by circumstances...

CHANG: Right.

CHOW: ...You see? The subsequence, yeah, I never saw my father again.

CHANG: M still replays one of the last things his father ever said to him before they parted - wherever you go, remember, you are Chinese. So when you were thinking about your father's words - wherever you go, you are Chinese - was that in part what inspired you to create this restaurant empire, Mr. Chow's restaurant empire? And if so, what were you trying to represent with that restaurant empire about what it means to be Chinese?

CHOW: Well, when you lose everything, which I did...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOW: ...I had opportunity. I become a blank page. On a blank page, you can draw whatever you wish.

CHANG: A clean slate.

CHOW: So that's what I did. And then, I inherited as an artist, as a painter, to deal with injustice, OK...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOW: ...And as part of the fuel as an artist.

CHANG: Well, that's what's interesting is at these Mr. Chow restaurants, you cultivated not only just a feeling of exclusivity but also of acceptance. You made a lot of guests - people of color - feel that they were part of the inner circle. Talk about that more. Why was it important to you to make room for otherwise marginalized people, while still wanting your restaurant to be this exclusive destination?

CHOW: Well, it's not a question of exclusivity. It's a question of excellence, right? I started from - everything is to be true. Let's start with the menu. In my opinion, there are three kinds of Chinese food. One is the food that eaten in China, which is 99% is not exportable. And then the second type developed in America...

CHANG: The food made for Americans.

CHOW: ...Which is - has negative connotations.

CHANG: Right.

CHOW: Classic dish would be chop suey, egg foo young and all that stuff. The third kind, which I curated over half a century ago, which basically true to its author's intent, each dish. So my philosophy, very basic philosophy, everything is it tells me what to do. I never tell it what to do. Everything is many things involved, and you identify what are the many things, and then you always go to the truth of that.

CHANG: Well, there's this Chinese phrase that you use that my parents use too - chi ku - to eat bitter...

CHOW: Right.

CHANG: ...Which means...

CHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: ...To suffer...

CHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: ...To persevere through pain.

CHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: And you say in this documentary that you have to eat bitter to do anything great in life. Do you really believe that, that success and pain are always intertwined?

CHOW: Well, if you are an expressionist artist, violence and suffering is part of it, you know? It's to purify the soul. In order to be a great painter, you have to go through the suffering process. It's part of the natural order of things.

CHANG: You have been a painter throughout your life. You've also been a film actor. You've been a restauranteur. What connects all of that creation? What is the throughline for all of that creativity for you?

CHOW: To be true.

CHANG: To be true?

CHOW: That's it. We're done. To be kind and to be real, not - both are very difficult to do...

CHANG: Yes.

CHOW: ...If you think about it.

CHANG: Absolutely.

CHOW: So how are you going to be kind? So in order to be kind you have to have certain tools like eat bitter. Eat bitter is a tool. How to believe, how to have faith - if you are kind and you develop your internal, you will be rewarded. And the truth always prevail, you see?

CHANG: You're reminding me of something your father - you said that your father said to you. He said, don't listen to the hand...

CHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Applauding. Listen to the heart...

CHOW: Well...

CHANG: ...Applauding.

CHOW: That's a no-brainer.

CHANG: Have you gotten there, though?

CHOW: No I'm not - I'm trying (laughter).

CHANG: You're trying. So what is the applause you seek right now?

CHOW: At the moment, this - you know, let's do a little commercial - "AKA Mr. Chow." This documentary has been - I don't know, it's like people going nuts, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHOW: I don't know why they're going nuts, but anyway, I say, OK, I take it. Thank you very much. So the more that stuff coming to more, the more I'm able to be humble. Before that, I'm always fighting. I say, I'm the greatest. You don't understand, you know? Let's make it very simple. Everybody be kind and be real. Can you imagine what the world going to be - look like? I mean, Mondrian once said something about the whole world become perfect proportion, there will be no war, you know? And I'm a collector, basically - a collector and collagist. Collector, meaning I collect all the sayings - things came from religion leaders, can be from movies, can be from jokes. I collect - I'm a great collector. I'm a fantastic collector. I'm collecting you right now.

CHANG: How so?

CHOW: I want to see what I can learn from you...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOW: ...Right now...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOW: ...OK? And I've had this exchange with you. And this is very rewarding. And our path in destiny, as it were...

CHANG: We crossed.

CHOW: ...We supposed to meet. We crossed to meet...

CHANG: Yes.

CHOW: ...You know? So we are - I'm very - this is important moment between you and I, as human to human as it were.

CHANG: I do feel a connection...

CHOW: Yes.

CHANG: ...With you, M.

CHOW: Yes.

CHANG: And I agree with you. I think the most important thing in this world, in this life, is to be kind.

CHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: So thank you for reminding us of that.

CHOW: Thank you.

CHANG: M is the subject of the new documentary "AKA Mr. Chow." Thank you so much for visiting with us, M. It was such a pleasure.

CHOW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.