Every 1st of April, hundreds gather at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and lay down wreaths of flowers. Thousands more around the world publish “RIP” posts on the internet. They do all this to memorialize a movie star—who has a literal asteroid named after him—the one and only Leslie Cheung.
Cheung was much more than a mere movie star, of course. He was an actor, singer-songwriter, and queer icon. First a teenage heartthrob, he later became an artistic provocateur. That’s not all. He was also a screenwriter, aspiring director, and even one-time café owner. But most of all, he was the pinnacle of Hong Kong pop culture—right when Hong Kong pop culture contended for the pinnacle of the world.
As he famously leapt from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental to his death on April 1, 2003, he took the remaining soft power and cultural influence of British Hong Kong with him. Hong Kong pop culture, in all fields including movies, has never been the same after that tumultuous year. There is no event that better demarcates the fall of what was once a cultural powerhouse, now a shell of its former glory.
Who is Leslie?
Born in Hong Kong on April 12, 1956, Leslie Cheung was raised in both the city and its ruling country, Britain. His story is no overnight success. He received record contracts after placing first runner-up in a singing contest, but still struggled for a few years—until a hit single turned him into a pop idol. Film roles soon followed, and after just a decade, he became successful enough to host 33 nights of his farewell concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum, before prematurely “retiring” to Canada in 1989. He returned to Hong Kong in 1995 for even greater success, now more on the artistic than commercial side. His post-retirement performances in the Coliseum scandalized tabloids—how dare a man wear sparkly high heels and long hair on stage!
Cheung was so successful in both music and film that it’s difficult to say which side of his career defined him more. But even without the pop hits, he would be a legend in showbiz. Before his “retirement,” he had already starred in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (voted the 2nd greatest Chinese-language movie of all time) and auteurs Patrick Tam and Stanley Kwan’s signature works. During and after his “retirement,” he took his filmography to even greater heights. Collaborations with Wong Kar-wai define Cheung as much as Wong, and no one will ever forget his legendary role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine—still the only Chinese-language movie to ever win the Palme d’Or.
What Made Leslie Special
A crossover actor from music to film, Cheung never received classical training in acting. He was neither as versatile as co-star Tony Leung Chiu-wai nor as physical as Hong Kong’s many famous action stars. But precisely because of these ostensible shortcomings, he relied on his stage presence and natural charisma, and he was a power plant of the latter. If one watches his James Dean-esque Yuddie in Days of Being Wild, his gender-bending Dieyi in Farewell My Concubine, or just any Leslie Cheung performance, they won’t see finetuned micro-expressions, but rather sense the living embodiments of characters.
Then, there is his queerness. There is a saying among Hong Kong entertainment industry figues that “only Cheung could play Dieyi,” and what it really means is that there were no other openly queer actors in the Sinosphere. Long before he declared himself bisexual in a 2001 interview with TIME, Cheung had already dabbled with sexually ambiguous as well as explicitly queer roles in films like All’s Well, End’s Well and Happy Together. His only film screenwriting credit goes to He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, which features the iconic line “I love you, whether you’re a boy or girl.” These roles were written for Cheung, and even though there were a scarce few straight actors who took on gay roles, Cheung was the only screen actor in the Sinosphere who dared make them his forte. He continues to assert his place in world cinema precisely because of the (unfortunately still) unique advantage of his queerness.
Ashes of Time
However, Cheung’s legacy goes far beyond paving the way for slightly more queer visibility in Sinophone cinema. What truly cements his place in Hong Kong cultural canon is his untimely demise. 2003 was a year of calamities: the deaths of Cheung and fellow legend Anita Mui, the SARS epidemic, the ensuing financial collapse and the CEPA economic arrangement that alleviated it. Many have said that Hong Kong–China co-productions caused the death of the Hong Kong film industry, and it was CEPA that started this trend. Compared to a boring economic arrangement though, Cheung’s physical death more powerfully symbolizes the death of a cultural powerhouse.
And what a powerhouse it was. Just look at how unrestrainedly the city prided on itself in this ad, aptly titled “Simply the Best.” Cheung himself typified British Hong Kong. Pushing heteronormative boundaries and chasing down a list of auteur directors, he strove for excellence just as British Hong Kong did. He even did the whole ’80s emigrating then regretting it and returning thing! And like his city, he earned success and worldwide fame. A Better Tomorrow kickstarted the gun-fu craze that Hollywood is still copying today. Before any K-pop star could cross over to Hong Kong, it was Leslie Cheung who drove fans crazy in South Korea, where millions still love him today.
While the rest of the world moved on, Cheung just froze in time. Hong Kong barely makes movies anymore, and its pop music can no longer inspire fanbase fights as intense as Cheung’s. Andy Lau is still miraculously playing action heroes at the age of 60, but there are no new movie stars. Those who remain have either sworn allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party or gone on self-exile. Democracy, rule of law… all those defining features of the city have been brutally stripped away. But Cheung hasn’t. He never fully made the transition to a China-controlled Hong Kong. The cultural and sociopolitical peak of Hong Kong was ephemeral, but our memory of Cheung—the lovable, British-educated gent—is permanent.
Anywhere the Wind Blows
Cheung died of suicide, after a long fight with depression. This article in no way means to glorify taking one’s own life. As unfortunate as the circumstances of Cheung’s death are, he left a legacy to us. He was the epitome of British Hong Kong’s success, when Hong Kong, especially its cinema, was on the top of the world. He personified a drive for excellence, even when no one else would dare. He is a snapshot of a glorious phase, an image that will never fade away. Given today’s dire circumstances, Hong Kong culture is increasingly steeped in nostalgia, and there is no Hong Kong nostalgia without Leslie Cheung. Too beautiful for our current times, he will forever be remembered by millions.