Fame's final curtain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2003, 12:00am

THE SUICIDE OF singer-actor Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing was one of Hong Kong's biggest shocks in a decade. The superstar left a single explanation for his final act in a suicide note: Depression.

He was not alone. Last year, 988 people took their own lives in Hong Kong and according to Suicide Prevention Services the rate has increased steadily since 1997.

But while Cheung's family has officially reiterated that depression was the cause of the superstar's death, public debate seems to have centred over whether the 46-year-old idol was ill or possessed by evil spirits, an indication of the unwillingness of many Hong Kong people to accept clinical depression as an illness.

'There's still a lot of stigma attached to mood disorders in Hong Kong,' says Eugenie Leung, a clinical psychologist with the Castle Peak Hospital. 'The minute people hear that, they immediately think, 'mentally ill', which makes a lot of people resist getting treatment - but it is getting better. More people are looking for treatment.

'But celebrities don't make very good patients because they are open to all kinds of therapies, even alternative medicine,' she adds. 'Every time you turn to this, you take a wrong turn. Patients need to have patience.'

Entertainment industry insiders say the increasing aggression of today's media intrudes on celebrities' privacy and makes it harder for stars to seek help for fear of being splashed across the city's front pages.

Cheung had sought help, but many of his close friends had been unaware of the idol's therapy, until he thanked psychiatrist Felice Lieh Mak in his suicide note.

'In the past, all an artist had to worry about was whether their performance was good, or whether they were able to perform, or were not doing well enough,' says Alex Chan Siu-po, managing director of Universal Music Hong Kong, which represented Cheung as well as singers such as Alan Tam Wing-lun and Hacken Lee.

Since the tabloid mentality took over Hong Kong media in the past few years, pressures on celebrities have increased tenfold, says Chan.

'With the tabloids these days, you have to worry about everything else: whether or not the press will write something bad because you have put on some weight or have a few more wrinkles. You never see anything positive in the tabloids - a lot of the older singers find it hard to deal with,' he says. 'You can see the stress just from the fact that many of these celebrities are refusing to do interviews. They'd rather not appear in the papers.'

It's not only their appearance or fear of being misquoted that artists have to worry about, says Stephanie Chan Ka-kei, an artist manager with Era Entertainment Software, which manages artists such as Gigi Leung Wing-kei, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Karen Mok Man-wai and Taiwan group F4.

'Artists these days have to be so much more careful, not only about what they say but also about their safety,' she says. 'Sometimes when we go to China, we would find that fans had got into our rooms and either taken something or left something for the artist. Some media will go to the point of rummaging through an artist's rubbish bin.'

One Chinese-language weekly only this week ran pictures of the contents from three packages of rubbish they had dug out of Cheung's litter bin immediately after his death.

Since silent-era star Yuan Lingru poisoned herself to death in 1935 after a scandal broke about her illicit relationship with a married man, celebrity suicides have created stirs in Hong Kong. Yuan - on whose tragic life Stanley Kwan Kam-pang made the award-winning film Centre Stage in 1992 - was only 25 at the time of her death.

Several Shaw Brothers Studio leading ladies committed suicide in the 1960s. Linda Lin Dai, star of many Shaw's classics such as Les Belles (1961) and Love Without End (1961), killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills and gas poisoning at the age of 30. The award-winning actress left a note citing 'family problems'.

The famous 'Classical Beauty' Betty Loh Ti killed herself on Christmas Day, 1968. Lily Mo Chou, a former Miss Hong Kong and Loh's former co-star in The Story Of Sue San (1962), had killed herself on Christmas Day, with an overdose of sleeping pills, three years earlier. Mo's co-star in How To Marry A Millionaire (1960), Margaret Tu Chuan, also took a lethal overdose with a fashion-designer girlfriend on November 30, 1968. Tu was only 29. Most of these Shaw stars are believed to have killed themselves over either career or love problems.

On May 14, 1985, a former Miss Hong Kong finalist and TVB actress Barbara Yung Mei-ling - the star of popular drama series The Legend Of The Condor Heroes (1982) and The New Adventures Of Chor Lau Heung (1985) - closed the windows and turned on the gas in her Broadcast Drive apartment, reportedly over a broken romance.

Four years later, plagued by a gambling addiction and facing more than $1 million in loanshark debts, TVB variety show host Paul Chung Po-lor plunged to his death from his Sha Tin apartment. The celebrity death that perhaps shocked Hong Kong as much as Cheung's was that of Danny Chan Pak-keung, his longtime friend and colleague. Chan was still at his peak when he was found unconscious in his MacDonnell Road home on May 18, 1992. Doctors diagnosed a drug overdose and Chan, believed to have had a problematic private life, remained in a coma until he died on October 25, 1993. It is still unclear whether it was misadventure or a deliberate suicide.

The warning signs showed before the suicide of former beauty queen and soft-porn star Pauline Chan Bo-lin, who jumped from her 24th-floor Shanghai apartment on July 31 last year. Her mother said Chan had been suffering from post-natal depression, following the birth of her son, but the celebrity had been behaving erratically for more than three years before the tragedy. During this time, the paparazzi never let up on Chan, capturing her in the most distressing and embarrassing situations.

Some people might argue that a celebrity should be prepared for the limelight - good or bad - because it comes with the business. Stephanie Chan Ka-kei does not agree.

'People think that because they think artists earn more money,' she says. 'If you buy a compact disc, you can ask for quality but you cannot keep taking away from their personal lives. When you sign up to be an artist, you don't sign up to sell all of yourself. This is not The Truman Show.'

The films of Linda Lin Dai form part of the Shaws On Screen programme which is also part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which runs until April 23. Inquiries: www.lcsd.gov.hk/fp, www.hkiff.org.hk or call 2734 9009