Chow was born in London to restaurateur Michael Chow and his wife, the late model/designer Tina Chow; China Chow is the granddaughter of the Beijing Opera's Zhou Xinfang. Her parents left London for New York when she was 5 years old.
Before becoming an actress, Chow was the first college graduate in her family, majoring in psychology at Scripps College. She spent several years following in her mother's footsteps working as a model for Shiseidocosmetics, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Her modeling led to her being named one of Harper's Bazaar's "It Girls" in 1996 and an appearance in the December 1996 edition of Vogue's "The Next Best-Dressed List".
Chow made her acting debut in 1998, starring opposite Mark Wahlberg in The Big Hit. In 2007, Chow appeared on USA Network's first season of Burn Notice. She is the host and a judge of Bravo's Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which premiered on 9 June 2010.
Chow provided the voice of Katie Zhan in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.