Book review: Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, by Nigel Collett
Nigel Collett is an admirer of the late singer-actor Leslie Cheung, and has written a sympathetic and well-researched biography without being overwhelmed by the glamour of his subject. His book is especially interesting for its take on Hong Kong's once-covert gay scene, and on the sometimes creepy symbiosis between the recording and TV and film companies that control the entertainment business.
Sometimes, in the midst of Cheung's career, the story reads a bit like a list of films, concerts and TV appearances. Collett describes it modestly as a provisional biography, a first step in bringing Cheung to the notice of English-language readers. He has done these readers a service. I only wish the book had included photos of the star, to help explain what he meant to so many people.
Firelight of a Different Colour tells the story of a city that seemed sure of itself, as it started to enjoy the fruits of its years of hard work. It moved with a certain swagger on the international stage, and expressed itself in a strong popular culture at home, built on its own language and idiom and humour.
In this city there were more than 30 film production companies that turned out about 100 feature films a year, and people bought 66 million cinema tickets to see them. The stars of the era seemed to move effortlessly between live TV shows, movie sets, the recording studios, and the concert venues teeming with their fans.
With his talents as a singer and actor, and his great personal beauty, Cheung was the uncrowned prince of the city. In 1988, the year he starred with Anita Mui Yim-fong in Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's Rouge, Cheung staged 23 three-hour concerts at the Coliseum, before audiences of more than 12,000 adoring fans.
The following year, aged 33, he retired and emigrated to Canada.
Of course, that was not the end of the story. Bored in Vancouver, Cheung returned to Hong Kong and the entertainment business: more musical triumphs, and his best films, were still ahead of him.
But also ahead was a tragic trajectory: the decline of Hong Kong's entertainment industry, the political anxieties and social tensions of the city's reversion to China, the faltering of Cantonese popular culture, the economic downturn, the Sars epidemic - and for Cheung, the inevitable fate that awaits youth and beauty.
Even though he was surrounded by good friends and admirers, he became depressed. He stopped working. He suffered a mysterious illness and half-believed he was under a curse. On April 1, 2003, he took his own life, aged 46.
It was a grim period: flamboyant singer Roman Tam Pak-sin had died the previous October; singer-actress Mui, Cheung's close friend and performing partner, survived him by only a few months, succumbing to cancer in December 2003, aged 40. With these three deaths, something seemed to have come to an end.
Of course it's necessary, although difficult, not to idealise those days in retrospect. Not everything was pretty, and very little was innocent, in the Hong Kong of Roman and Anita and Leslie. It was a brash, philistine, show-off culture. Most of the films produced in those studios were terrible, many were sexist, some were sadistic, and the triads had a hand in more than a few.
Manners and values were often harsh. Homosexuality was illegal in Hong Kong until 1991, so Cheung had to live his real life in secret.
This book helps to bring that life into the open.