You might know this artist and actor better as Mr. Chow.

You might know this artist and actor better as Mr. Chow. / Getty Images

Michael Chow has worn many hats in his 84 years. A new documentary about his life, a.k.a. Mr Chow, paints the portrait of a man who has endured hardship, and found creative outlets to cope.

Who is he? You might know this artist and actor better as Mr. Chow, as in the Mr. Chow behind the restaurant empire. These days, he simply goes by M.

  • He's also known for his meticulous taste in all things visual, including clothes, decor and of course, his paintings. Don't believe us? Take a look for yourself:

What's the big deal? M's life story isn't just one of reaching success in the world of art and food. It's a tale of resilience.

  • After growing up in Shanghai with an opera star father and a doting mother, M was sent off to boarding school in London at age 13.
  • While abroad, Mao Zedong's cultural revolution took hold in China. His mother was killed and his father died in prison.
  • "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 to survive," he told NPR.
Michael Chow inside a London restaurant in July 1968.

Michael Chow inside a London restaurant in July 1968. / Getty Images

What's he saying? M spoke with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang about finding the true nature of expression amongst struggle.

On whether success and pain are intertwined:

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.

Want more on culture? Listen to Consider This on how Rotten Tomatoes changed the role of a film critic.

On the uniqueness that drew crowds to his restaurants:

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 eaten in China, which is 99% not exportable.

And then the second type developed in America... which has negative connotations.

The third kind, which I curated over half a century ago, [is] basically true to the 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 these many things, and then you always go to the truth of that.

On seeking praise at this point in his career:

This documentary has been — I don't know, it's like people going nuts, right? 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 is coming to me, the more I'm able to be humble.

Let's make it very simple. Everybody be kind and be real. Can you imagine what the world would look like?

So, what now?

  • M's closing remarks to Chang: "I'm a collector, basically — a collector and collagist. Collector, meaning I collect all the sayings — from religion leaders, can be from movies, can be from jokes. I'm collecting you right now. I want to see what I can learn from you. And I've had this exchange with you. And this is very rewarding. And our path in destiny, as it were ... We were supposed to meet. This is an important moment between you and I, as human to human as it were."
  • a.k.a. Mr. Chow is out now.

Read more:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit