She has starred in dozens of films and been photographed thousands of times for hundreds of magazines, but it's still easy to miss Maggie Cheung Man-yuk in a crowd. The cafe in the Mandarin Oriental hotel is buzzing with the Friday evening mix of tai-tais, tycoons and investment bankers sipping Veuve Clicquot, and no one notices when the actress quietly slips into the room and cosies up in a booth at the back. Cheung is beaming. Having been away from the big screen for four years - her last role was the troubled single mother and recovering junkie she portrayed in Clean - she seems carefree, stripped down to her real self. She is wearing a simple Balenciaga sweater, skinny trousers, boots from her favourite store, Top Shop, and a distressed leather Luella bag ('It came with some strings but I cut them off,' she whispers, as if divulging a secret. 'I love it because it will age well.') Cheung is here to talk about, among other things, her latest role - not in a film but as one of the stars in Lane Crawford's Transitions fashion campaign, which debuts next month. In one of the two images featuring Cheung, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, the actress is pictured wearing an Alexander McQueen hourglass dress that cages her body, transforming it into a dramatic silhouette. The image is erotic - Newton-esque in its depiction of the female form - and completely incongruous with the good-girl persona she portrays for brands such as Ebel and Oil of Olay. 'Wow,' she exclaims, looking at the images with a naughty look in her eye. 'This is going to be great!' Acting is what Cheung is best known for but fashion has long been an interest. From designing for jewellery brand Qeelin to being photographed by Patrick Demarchelier and serving as a muse for designers such as Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, Cheung has become one of the industry's leading style icons. An attempt five years ago to come up with some ideas for local clothing chain Izzue wasn't such a success, however, and she's vowed she'll 'never do it again. It took too much time and work, and fashion design doesn't interest me. 'It's a big bonus that I am a fashion icon but I still think [fashion] is a superficial thing,' she says. 'Yes, it's a beautiful thing and I appreciate it very much ... so I let myself gravitate towards it ... but it's not something I like to do all the time. It doesn't ... affect what I really am.' At 43, Cheung has changed significantly from when she starred in her first feature film, almost 23 years ago. Born in Hong Kong, she moved to Kent, in England, when she was eight, and stayed there until the early 80s, when she returned to Asia to start modelling. After finishing as first runner-up at the Miss Hong Kong Pageant in 1983 (she was a semi-finalist at the Miss World pageant that year), she secured a contract with Shaw Brothers Studios and starred in popular comedy Police Story (1985) with Jackie Chan. In 1988, she landed a role in As Tears Go By, directed by Wong Kar-wai, a man who would be key to her career. Successes followed, and so did awards - as well as numerous Hong Kong honours, Cheung picked up best actress accolades from the Berlin and Cannes film festivals and five Golden Horse Awards over the next two decades. Such praise, however, was not enough to keep Cheung on the silver screen. After completing Clean, the actress drifted away from cinema, leaving critics to presume she has retired from the business altogether. 'No, I'm not retired; I am letting it be,' she explains in a soft English accent. 'I'm not looking to do another film but I am not saying yes to much else either. The only thing that could draw me back to getting up at 5.30am, being on the set at 6am, and doing hair and make-up for five hours, is something very special. It became the same cycle for every film; I don't need that cycle any more. 'I am at such a nice time in my life and I don't want to end that for something that I don't 100 per cent love. You have to defend a film that you have done no matter what - professionally and personally. I'd like to speak about my next project with passion, but I just feel that it's not going to happen. I have done 75 films and that makes me think that it's OK not to do 76. If I do choose another movie, I'd like to walk on set and say, 'Wow! I love being here', instead of thinking, 'Why am I giving up my life to be here on this bloody mountain in the middle of nowhere?' 'When you take on a part, it's actually quite a beautiful process,' says Cheung, who has earned a reputation for playing 'heavy' roles. 'Just to understand another woman ... to imagine what it can be. I don't live the parts but I analyse them until I really understand who they are and I try to imagine them physically. 'But now [that I've stopped] I am much lighter as a person. It's amazing to be able to live as you wish. You are able to plan your day yourself and do whatever you want. Right now I don't feel like being stuck or committed to anything full time. Even my relationship - it's still part-time, as I travel and work.' Cheung's wanderlust may have stemmed from her childhood desire to be an air stewardess, she jokes, and she still makes frequent trips to Paris, where she once shared a home with ex-husband and Clean director Olivier Assayas. More recently, though, she has been spending a significant amount of time at her home in Beijing, where she enjoys the anonymity. 'I feel so sad about what the Hong Kong press have become. Even though people [in Beijing] still recognise me, and do or don't like me, the way they behave is purer. Hong Kong people have become more critical because of the media,' which have been known to camp outside Cheung's Repulse Bay home. 'It's a bad education for the heart, the soul and what you want for others and what is important: the value of life. It's f**ked up. The media are f**king Hong Kong up and I am angry about that. 'In Beijing I feel that with anyone I am in touch with, whether they know who I am or not, they are genuine and not judging me on how I look. I don't always want to be alert and on my guard.' She may not feel charitable towards the Hong Kong media, but Cheung has begun working with Oil of Olay and Audi (she represents both brands in China) on projects aimed at educating mainland youths. 'China is growing so fast but if the education of the next generation is not up to it, it can backfire for the country,' she says. 'Now I can do something for society. I always wanted to but have been so busy up to now. I am not a great saint who is giving up all her time to charity; it's something I am serious about and that I really want to do. Apart from the charity work, I'm still out there looking for fulfilling projects. 'I like to do things properly. What I have in my hands now makes me busy and I just don't want to overload myself. I want to be happy and lighthearted.' On the creative front, Cheung is devoting time to music, her enthusiasm ignited by a brief stint on the microphone in Clean. 'It's not that I want to become a singer, but I am working with ... music. I walk into the studio and hang out, make up songs and write some lyrics. I do some tunes on the computer with my own programming. I'm in love with that side of it,' she says. 'If I keep on doing it, it might become something big. Music took me away from cinema. I feel my disposition is more inclined towards music now than to acting. Some actors are addicted to acting but I don't feel that way. But if I don't do anything musical for a while, I miss it and I want to be back in the studio.' And that 'part-time' relationship? Having split up with Qeelin founder Guillaume Brochard, she is reportedly dating German architect Ole Scheeren (she neither confirms nor denies this). 'I am willing to go where love is. I didn't know that before, that I was like that,' she says. 'But I realise that's always been the case. I am a true romantic at heart and I think that is the most important thing. Love is what drives me. 'But having a family is something I don't see. I don't think I will manage to have kids. I might adopt. I love children but I don't want to [give birth]. I decided [that] when I was watching the news during 9/11. When I saw those planes crash into the buildings I said to myself that I didn't want to bring anyone into this suffering. That moment clarified it for me. And along the way, watching my friends have kids, I have just realised it's not for me. It's a lot of work, a lot of heart. I believe two people should just be together and be happy to enjoy each other.' With no family and, possibly, no films ahead, what does the future hold for Miss Photogenic 1983? 'I think I will probably continue having three or four homes in places I like, and travel from home to home. I may even consider settling down in England, as that's the one place I feel most comfortable. That would be an ideal life for me, as long as I have the person I love with me - unless he takes me somewhere else that I love, that is.'