Raised on the tiny offshore island of Lamma, Chow spent his childhood in poverty. His life started to change as his application was accepted as an actor-trainee by the local television station, TVB. It didn't take long for Chow to become a household name in Hong Kong following his role in the hit series The Bund (上海灘) in 1980.
Although Chow continued his TV success, his ultimate goal was to become a big screen actor. However, his occasional ventures onto the big screens with low-budget movies were disastrous. Success finally came when he teamed up with an then-relatively-unknown director John Woo (吳宇森) in the 1986 low-budget action movie A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色), which swept the box offices throughout Asia and established both Chow and Woo as mega stars. Taking the opportunity, Chow quit TV entirely and dedicated himself to making more movies. His later films include The Killer (喋血雙雄, 1989), An Autumn's Tale (秋天的童話, 1988) and Hard Boiled (辣手神探, 1992). He is best known for playing honorable tough guys, whether cops or criminals.
Being the hottest screen commodity in Asia, Chow was called upon by Hollywood in an attempt to duplicate his success on an international scale. His first two films Replacement Killers (1998) and The Corruptor (1999) were box-office sleepers. His next film Anna and the King (1999) did better, but the success was mostly credited to actress Jodie Foster. Ironically, he receded to a supporting role in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and it became a winner at both the box office and the Oscars.
Chow is still waiting for the type of success he once enjoyed in Asia. He once admitted to a Hong Kong reporter that his ultimate goal is to win an Oscar as an actor. When asked what if it never comes true, he replied "I would just have to laugh about it..."