Los Angeles' 'Culture Queen' Returns to Korea on a Mission

  • By Choi Bo-yun

    December 28, 2021 14:05

    Eva Chow

    Korean-American entrepreneur Eva Chow, dubbed the "culture queen of Los Angeles" by the New York Times, recently bought a home in her native Korea.

    "You become a patriot if you live abroad for a long time," Chow told the Chosun Ilbo. "I want to introduce Korea to influential people around the world and there are a lot of things that I want to do within my capacity."

    "I always missed Korea and I think I've been too busy adjusting to life in another country to have the time to think about my birthplace. After some time when I was able to reflect on myself, I started to wonder what I could do for Korea. If my life so far has been a race to survive in the U.S., I would like to dedicate the rest of my life to letting the outside world know more about the extremely talented artists and cultural assets of Korea."

    As co-host of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Art+Film Gala along with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, she has a wealth of influential contacts in showbiz and the art world that she wants to use to bridge the cultural spheres of the U.S. and Korea.

    She may still be relatively unknown to most Koreans, but Chow is a powerful figure in Hollywood and the U.S. fashion industry. DiCaprio has been co-hosting the LACMA gala with her for the last 10 years. Tickets to attend the event range from US$5,000 to $100,000 and there is a long waiting line for the 600 available seats each year. 

    Guests have included director Stephen Spielberg, who was honored at this year's event, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, director Guillermo del Toro, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Elle Fanning and Hailey Bieber. Korean actors Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo and director Hwang Dong-hyuk of the Netflix hit "Squid Game," Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung, as well as actors Lee Min-ho, Kang Dong-won and Lee Byung-hun have also been invited to the gala.

    There were many reasons for her return, but the main turning point was Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite." "I think people started really talking about Korea in recent years. I am probably the Korean who is closest to Hollywood and I wanted to promote Korea's image for decades, but 'Parasite' was the first time I encountered such a powerful work. I felt like a kid who just learned how to ride a bicycle. I felt like a cultural eruption took place after many years of boiling inside me."

    Chow moved to the U.S. with her family in 1974 when she was 16. She worked as a model in college and also took part in Hollywood movie productions where she became friends with directors and actors. She studied fashion at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and launched her own fashion brand called Eva Chun in 1988. Her clothes have been worn by Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman and other Hollywood stars. She married restaurateur and architect Michael Chow in 1992.

    "While I lived in the U.S. for decades, Korea was known only for the Korean War or Samsung," she says. "'Parasite' winning four Oscars was a huge event that reminded everyone of the cultural capacity of Korea. It was a work that embodied Korea for many people who had no idea about the country. And BTS' growing fan base, a growing interest in the Korean language and actors Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jung-jae of 'Squid Game' and many other stars opened the doors to Korea… change might seem slow, but suddenly happens very quickly, like a storm. The Korea we are seeing now is the result of accumulated and prepared accomplishments that finally get the credit they deserve."

    She is already busy setting up connections. "Stephen Spielberg, who participated in the latest LACMA gala as an award recipient, was able to meet Lee Jung-jae, whom he saw on 'Squid Game,' and I think this is one way that I can help. The main purpose of the LACMA Art+Film Gala is not just socializing but to educate and give back to the community through donations. We have collected around W60 billion so far and I think this has served as a springboard for cultural exchanges between different countries and regions" (US$1=W1,188).

    But what about the perceived rise of hate crimes against Asians? "Ignorance and stupidity spawn discrimination. People fear and reject things they don't know and that fear develops into hatred. A lot of changes have taken place in the U.S., and Asians, including Koreans, have made huge accomplishments, but there is still much that needs to be done. I became a board member of LACMA in 2007 and I am still the only Asian in the 50-member board." 

    Lately she has set her mind on promoting Korean cuisine using her experience from running the Mr. Chow restaurant chain with her husband. She launched KHEE soju in September last year after three years of development.

    "Foreigners know a lot about sake, but they don't know about Korean liquor, and that made me wonder why," she explained. "After tasting soju, I felt it had what it takes. I truly believe that what is most personal to you has universal appeal. That means what I want to drink, where I want to go, what flowers I like… thinking about what appeals to me and what others would prefer is the best way to find out what works." 

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