Drag queen bingo, an eclectic soundtrack, Cantonese delicacies—and a radical vision for openness and opportunity
From Issue 4: Journeys
Text by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan
Photos by Elden Cheung
Mom, he made me cry!” Chef May Chow was pointing in my direction. I understood that her playful complaint wasn’t meant for my ears, but it was perfectly pitched to my baby-level Cantonese. I protested, feebly, but my ability to articulate complex ideas in my maternal grandmother’s tongue doesn’t stretch far beyond, “No, I didn’t!” It was as if we were kids in the playground, and I’d been caught throwing sand in her eyes. I ask a lot of questions in the course of my work, and I am not in the habit of sending my subjects sobbing for their mothers. But my experience with May Chow was different. By the rules of hierarchical Chinese society, I am Chow’s senior by a wide enough margin that she could reasonably call me uncle rather than brother. But from the moment we first met, I saw in her a mei mei, a “little sister” in Cantonese. Goh goh, or “big brothers,” are by nature proud and protective, but sometimes they push their siblings too hard without realizing it. What starts out as harmless fun can end in tears.
The affinity I first felt with Chow was partially due to the similarities in our stories. We were both born to Asian parents in North America. We grew up embracing the fact that we were different. We both now live and work in Asia. And being gay is just one facet of who we are. But from there, the parallels end.
In barely three years since she first opened Litle Bao in Hong Kong, Chow has become one of Asia’s most recognizable chefs. Earlier in 2017, she was named the Best Female Chef in Asia by the organizers of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list, and at 32, she’s the youngest recipient of the award to date. Her notoriety is built on her crowd-pleasing take on Chinese fare and a sense of whimsy as a chef, but her vision is infused with a clear sense of big-picture purpose. She wants to expand opportunities in the restaurant world and foster employees in their growth— and just talking about her vision can, well, bring her to tears. She has much grander plans than opening restaurants and putting food on plates.
She handles the fraught “So what’s it like to be a female chef?” question with focus and maturity. “I’m not offended,” she says, “but I think you need to have a certain control over what that conversation needs to be. I think what happens is a lot of media come in with a direction they want to go in. When people talk to me about ‘How do you feel as a woman…?’” She shrugs and leaves the thought unfinished. “I’m bigger and better than that.” She never uses the word “sexism” but alludes to the casual bias she wishes people would be more aware of. “It’s the little things that you hear in the conversation everyday,” she says.
She prefers to talk about her ambition—for herself and for others—and credits her international upbringing as the source of her drive. Born in Canada, raised in Hong Kong, then sent to the United States as a teenager for boarding school and university, Chow says her education gave her “the freedom to think the way that I think, with a lot of liberties.”
“I want to do this in a setting that I want to be in… I want it to be a polysexual space.”
And while she treasures her Chinese heritage, she’s also proud of what her multicultural trajectory has given her. She is also conscious of what it has given her parents. Her gift to them is not material (“My parents will never need my money”) but something more intangible. Because of Chow’s public life as a gay woman and as an ambitious and successful chef, her parents have “changed how they perceive life.” They acknowledge that without her they would never see many of the things they experience now, from travel to dining at some of the world’s finest tables. These days, her mother often accompanies her, as was the case when Chow picked up the trophy as Asia’s Best Female Chef in Bangkok. That’s why she was on hand to comfort her daughter when May joked that I made her cry.
Despite coming from a conservative Chinese background, Chow’s parents also embrace Samantha Wong, her longtime professional and romantic partner.
Chow hesitates when asked how long they’ve been together. “Seven years? Six and a half. I always get confused. Basically she’s seen me through the whole journey.” And the professional aspect of their relationship sprung up almost as a solution to their incompatible schedules.
“‘I can’t date you. I’m so tired!’” Chow recalls Wong saying just two weeks after they started going out. “I’d meet her at midnight, I’d take her out to eat, and next thing you know it’s 4am and she’d have to work at 9. At that point, she realized that she had to quit her job.”
After a period of Chow pretty much being her full-time job, Wong started her own PR company. The office is busy with other clients, but Wong still dedicates a good share of her working day to Chow’s projects. “She’s been like my boss lady," Chow says. “She manages my schedule and time for people to see me, even my parents. ‘Sunday you’re going to see your mother. She wants to have lunch with you.’”
Those projects include Little Bao, the restaurant that put Chow on the map for its focused menu of burger-inspired bao and shared plates. Its tiny Soho location seats just twenty guests, takes no bookings, and is too small to have a waiting area of its own. So diners often wander off to nearby bars and wait to be called. (At 1,250 square feet, her second Little Bao restaurant in Bangkok is spacious in comparison; others are in the works.)
"I wanted one project that I could really feel I put my soul into, [where] I wasn’t scared that someone would judge me for it.”
Happy Paradise, Chow’s newest and most personal venture, which opened in Hong Kong in March 2017, offers more studied takes on old-school Cantonese, like braised pomelo peel with shrimp roe paste, a classic dish Chow served me when we met again in Hong Kong a few weeks later. But while the food is traditional, the venue itself is most definitely not. The restaurant’s name sounds like a dodgy Wan Chai massage parlor. The neon lights and Formica tables are reminiscent of a 1960s cha chaan teng (Hong Kong–style diner). It all serves to underline her desire to break from the conventional.
“I want to do this in a setting that I want to be in. I don’t want to just open a restaurant for food,” Chow explains. “I want it to be a polysexual space. My friends who are gay always ask me why there aren’t any nice gay restaurants in Hong Kong.”
I ask what makes it a “polysexual” restaurant. “I’ll put a gay pride flag outside!” she chuckles. “Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s not a polysexual restaurant per se. It’s more of a lifestyle. This restaurant is for everyone.” Polysexual, for her, is shorthand for openness and making everyone feel welcome. But is there a need for a space like this in Hong Kong? “I don’t know, because no one has done it before,” is her matter-of-fact response. “But I want to take the risk.”
She was also adamant about creating a space that reflects who she is. “I’m openly gay. I could do drag queen bingos, but my food will still be really serious, undeniably technical and driven. It’s going be in a bar setting, with really progressive music.” She calls Happy Paradise “something that’s so me. I wanted one project that I could really feel I put my soul into, [where] I wasn’t scared that someone would judge me for it.”
Chow shuns the idea that serious food needs a serious setting. “The reason why I didn’t want to do fine dining was that I never wanted to interact with that kind of atmosphere. I always wanted to hang out with people in a really fun way, in a really fun restaurant. It’s not a freak show, but it’s not going to be white tablecloths. It’s just beautiful and fun.”
But make no mistake, Chow isn’t just about fun and games. She feels strongly that she has a responsibility that goes far beyond that of most employers, and she sees opportunities for her staff that they might not have elsewhere. During an early conversation, she elaborated on one of the key ways she differs from many others in the food business: she puts herself in her employees’ shoes.
“Passion is not free. If you want [staff] to be passionate, pay them really well. Give them some free time. You shouldn’t expect that everyone wants to work 130 hours a week.” She continued: “I don’t understand when chefs require staff to have something like passion. Chefs have this privilege. They don’t understand that the girl who works for them is going home to support her whole family. She makes just enough money to live in a 200 square-foot studio, and she showers next to the toilet.”
She wants others to understand that if she can be a chef and open a restaurant (“and I’m not that great!”) then they can do it, too.
As she becomes more animated talking about the needs of the people she works with, it becomes clear that her deep-rooted belief in what she’s doing is what drives her. Tears start to well up. “I think that sometimes when you’re American or Canadian, you think that you have the freedom to choose whatever career path you want. Everyone gets to go to university.”
But in Hong Kong many people don’t feel they have the same options.
She wants others to understand that if she can be a chef and open a restaurant (“and I’m not that great!”) then they can do it, too. Cooking restaurant food is “just a certain packaging, it’s a certain way of speech, a certain way of presenting your food.
“I created Second Draft [a craft beer bar in which she is a partner] not for myself, but for my sous-chef Man [Chu Yeung].” She liked his food sensibility and realized he needed to spread his wings but didn’t know how. “I told him that I was going to build him a restaurant. I set the guidelines, I curate it.” She nudges him in the right direction with her feedback. “‘This might be a good idea.’ ‘This is too salty.’ ‘Have you thought of this?’ ‘Can we make it more Chinese?’”
A waiter in the restaurant we’re sitting in silently places a glass filled with delicately fanned out tissues on the table. “I have really strong empathy,” Chow says unapologetically as I hold the tissues out to her. “I think of the things that I care about. I cry a lot. So my tear ducts are always fucked.”
When I press her, she cites French-trained Taiwanese chef André Chiang as an inspiration and model. On the strength of the success of his restaurant André in Singapore, he used his platform to support other ventures he believed in. “He did that for Raw [in Taipei] and for Burnt Ends [in Singapore].” Both restaurants figure prominently on the 2017 list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, in addition to Chiang’s eponymous restaurant, which sits at number two. Chow prefers to downplay the rankings, though, and rather admires that Chiang is such a good mentor and employer.
As for her own legacy, she wants people to say, “I worked with May and she was so great,” rather than “Oh my God she is so talented, but she was an asshole,” she said. “I have no interest in being that kind of chef. That’s not me. I just want people to have an overall better life.”
We go on to talk about the future, Chow’s fantasies about following in the footsteps of Francis Mallman in Patagonia, having a castle in Portugal, reading Sam poetry by candlelight. But for the rest of the time we spent together that afternoon, Chow’s eyes are never really dry again. Maybe we’re both a little “fragile” from the festivities that followed the Asia’s Best awards ceremony the previous night. Maybe it’s the smoggy haze of Bangkok that has turned her eyes red. At times I’m certain that the glistening is actually just a playful glimmer.
Or maybe I’m just a kid again, playing too rough and making girls cry. Maybe my genuine curiosity about what makes May click unintentionally struck a chord. Maybe, just maybe, I made May cry by pushing her to talk about her dreams and aspirations for the people she cares for. So mei mei, if brother made you cry, he offers a humble “Duy mm zhu.” I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to do it. ///