The loss still hurts – ten years on, Leslie Cheung is remembered
A decade after Leslie Cheung's death, his friends and fans say thanks for the memories. Mathew Scott looks at his legacy on the anniversary
It will be 10 years today since Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing took his own life and left his legions of friends and fans with memories frozen in that exact moment.
The city that had raised and nourished him – and that he had once escaped from – didn’t really know how to react to the news as it came down the wires and flashed across television screens. After sitting down to a meal of spaghetti bolognaise at his favourite restaurant in Causeway Bay, Cheung made his way to the Mandarin Oriental in Central and asked for a seat on the balcony outside its health club. He asked for a drink, and for a pen and paper, and then at about 6.40pm, the 46-year-old’s body was found lying on the pavement, 24 floors below.
On the piece of paper, he had written his goodbyes to family and friends and mentioned his depression – a condition most of those close to Cheung knew he had been battling for years.
Cheung had never been far from the spotlight throughout a career that spanned more than two decades. The public had a long-held fascination with a man who had tried to keep his private life away from prying eyes, despite the attention that came with being one of the first Hong Kong celebrities to come out as gay.
In an instant, the city had been robbed of one of its brightest talents, a nuanced and lauded actor, a chart-topping singer and an artist who pushed the boundaries of performance on both stage and screen. It felt at the time like a blow to the very spirit of a city still caught up in the Sars outbreak.
With a decade now passed, the city will host a number of events dedicated to Cheung’s legacy – from the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s screening of his film Rouge tomorrow, to the 2013 Love Journey Leslie Cheung 10th Anniversary Commemorative Concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on Tuesday, to “The Art of Leslie Cheung’s Movie Images” exhibition being staged at the Hong Kong Central Library until April 8.
These events will provide fans a chance to reflect on their own relationship with the man universally known as Gor Gor (“Elder Brother”), to hear from those who held him closer, and to enjoy once again the work that he left behind.
Music producer Clarence Hui Yuen first met Cheung in the 1980s – “at the height of his career” – and would work with the artist in the studio and on the production team which put together series of concerts which would be sold out for weeks on end.
“His pop idol stage was very different to when he returned from retirement,” says Hui, referring to the period between 1990 and 1995, when Cheung walked away from music – and from Hong Kong.
“He really thought he would never sing again. But after living in Vancouver for a while he realised his passion for music had never died. He had felt tormented by the media and some fans of other artists. But when he came back he had lost that pop-idol aura and his spirit became more like a true musician. He had a magic in his lower register and in the way he delivered his lines like poetry. He could sing with true emotion. He was like a breath of fresh air,” Hui says.
Film director Peter Chan Ho-sun worked with Cheung on the 1994 production He’s a Woman, She’s a Man and remembers an actor at the height of his powers. The role of a music industry power broker in that film earned Cheung a nomination in the best-actor category at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
“When I first worked with Leslie, he was already a major movie star,” says Chan. “He was always very accurate in his moves and his techniques. In his delivery of a scene he would set the pace for the camera and for the other actors, which was a great help for a director. I told him he would make a great director.
“He was very generous to other actors with his time and guidance, a great inspiration who was very personable. His pacing would lead the scene which really was something special to witness.”
It was such talent that also drew fans towards Cheung the singer. Ginice Chow Ling-ling, part of the Red Mission HK and Leslie Cheung Artist Studies organisations which are hosting events to mark the anniversary of Cheung’s death, says she became aware of the entertainer in the 1980s. “I first bought his second album, chipping in the money with my friend,” she says. “My friend got the cover and I got the record. She liked his looks and I liked his voice and the way he presented himself on stage. He was young, he was energetic and was way different from the other, more conservative Chinese singers of his time. A lot of people were attracted to his aesthetic, to just the way that he moved,” Chow says.
“I still remember when I was eight and I went into my sister’s bedroom and saw his poster on the wall,” says Ho Sie-ya, a fan who regularly attends events organised by Red Mission HK. “I was captivated by his good looks and then I started to listen to his music. I would save up for his cassette tapes and his video tapes. It was expensive for me and I was living in Edinburgh so it was hard to find them. I would get them one or two months after their release, but it was always worth the wait.”
Fellow fan Louise Wong Oi-ping says she came across Cheung’s work when she was going through some troubles of her own. “I was going through a very bad time – the most difficult of my life,” she says. “Listening to his music – particularly the album Salute – was like magic to me. He seemed like a very gentle person and his voice stays with you all the time. It is like he is talking to you through his singing and through his music.”
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle would, under the direction of Wong Kar-wai, capture some of Cheung’s most memorable roles. He says it was obvious Cheung was a natural, from beginning to end.
“I don’t feel Leslie had a career: he was always a star in his way and want and intent,” says Doyle. “I don’t feel Leslie got old and that’s part of why 10 years later, he is there as he wished us to share him, as he is. There was always this innocence of an orphan who needed our love … and the cockiness of the flirt who gets what he wants, and then throws it in your face just to see what it’s really worth.”
Asked to reflect on the times they worked together, Doyle replies, cryptically: “Days of Being Wild – you dance, we dance. Happy Together – we love and question, and lose and try to assert. Temptress Moon – we are so physically close [with my hand holding the camera] that when Leslie asks me, ‘Chris, how was I?’ I am too involved in what we shared that my only reply is always, ‘We were great’.
“You were and are and will always be great, Leslie. And you will always be needing and wanting to be on top and asking such of yourself that we want to return at least as much [if not more] of the same. It’s been worth a lot and means a lot to a lot of us. Thanks Leslie. Eternally. Thanks.”
Leslie is remembered
Miss You Much Leslie Concert, today, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Coliseum, HK$280-HK$680 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009
Rouge, Hong Kong International Film Festival screening, plus interview with director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang, tomorrow, 3.30pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, HK$75 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009
Farewell My Concubine 20th anniversary charity screenings, tomorrow, 11.30am, 7.30pm, Sunbeam Theatre, 423 King's Road, North Point, HK$50, available at theatre.
2013 Love Journey Leslie Cheung 10th Anniversary Commemorative Concert, Tuesday, 8pm, Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, HK$250, HK$300 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009
"The Art of Leslie Cheung's Movie Images", April 2-8, Hong Kong Central Library, Exhibition Galleries 1-5, 66 Causeway Road, Causeway Bay, free.
"The Enchanting Musical Realm of Leslie Cheung Exhibition", until April 7, North Atrium, G/F Olympian City 2, MTR Olympic Station Exit D, free.
Three of Leslie's best films
Days of Being Wild (1990): the first collaboration between Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle gathered together the cream of Hong Kong's cinema talent, and placed Cheung at its very heart. He's luminous as the playboy who leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake and captures perfectly the Wong-Doyle aesthetic that leaves the soul of the film in the silences and pent-up emotions of a character unable to feel.
Farewell My Concubine (1993): Chen Kaige's Palme d'Or winner is a sumptuous masterpiece with the swirling political intrigue of 1930s to '40s China as its backdrop and a love triangle at its centre. Cheung and Zhang Fengyi play friends whose relationship is strained by Gong Li as a woman fit to turn any man's head, regardless of his orientation. Again, it is the sense of inner torment Cheung projects that mesmerises and makes his role unforgettable.
Ashes of Time (1994): when Wong Kar-wai hit the festival circuit with a re-cut version of this film in 2008, it not only introduced the production to a new generation of fans, it reminded many of its majesty. Cohesive narrative be damned, the Wong-Doyle double act again allows Cheung the space to do a lot with very little. As a heart-broken agent who hires contract killers, Cheung's character bristles with self-loathing, doubt and, ultimately, defiance.
… and albums
Monica (1984): for many fans, this is the recording that introduced the rest of the world to Cheung's talents and in 1999 fans voted its title track as the "song of the century". The difference, in those early days, was Cheung's determination to add action and life to a Canto-pop scene that had been bogged down by balladry.
Summer Romance (1987): a change in labels seemed to reinvigorate Cheung both in the recording studio and on stage. As the year's bestselling release, it elevated the singer to superstar status after a few years of struggle. Sleepless Night was the track that became a fan favourite and one of Cheung's signature live tunes. It's an album that marks the maturity of a man who had become more used to life under the spotlight.
Red (1996): after a five-year break from the studio, Cheung released a collection of songs from his movies and many thought he might have lost his mojo. Red turned those theories on their ear as the artist dabbled in everything from mellow jazz to trip hop. Fans were equal parts surprised and delighted as Cheung pushed his own - and Hong Kong's - musical boundaries.