Failure does not frighten Jacky

HE may not have the angular, good looks of Andy Lau, the doe-eyed dreaminess of Leon Lai or the youthful exuberance of Aaron Kwok, but Jacky Cheung makes up for it with a friendly, boyish grin and a voice his counterparts would probably cheerfully kill for.

While the other three Canto-pop ''kings'' are often tagged as idol singers, Cheung is the one who has the rare distinction of being described as the ''the talented one'', the one who can ''really sing''.

If that isn't enough to convince anyone, record-breaking sales of his albums, laser discs, and numerous singing and song awards showered on him in the past two years should be testimony enough.

Yes, life is good at the top for the singing superstar who has just finished making his first movie after a year's break. ''The literal translation of the film's name is 'Very Detective' and I play a private investigator,'' said 33-year-old Cheung.

Having watched Cheung scoop one prize after another at the latest round of pop award presentation ceremonies, it is difficult to imagine his singing career ever scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel, but hit rock bottom he did, from 1988 to 1989.

Cheung reckons those years formed the lowest point of his life. A lot of people wrote him off as a flash in the pan, but he has picked himself up and fought back.

''I'm no longer afraid of failure. My career started on a high note, then plummeted to icy depths before rising again. I think I have an added advantage over others in handling strife,'' he said.

Looking back, Cheung is realistic enough to admit that much of his misfortune stemmed from his own attitude and, not least, his over-confidence.

His singing career took off like a rocket after he won the 18 Districts Singing Competition in 1984 with his first two albums selling like hot cakes, but his following albums were flops.

''The first two albums sold so well that I was lulled into thinking that I didn't need to do anything except sing. I thought all you had to do was sing and when the album came out, it would automatically sell and you would become everyone's idol,'' he said.

''I can only blame myself for not knowing enough about the business I was in. I knew how to sing but did not realise all the elements that went into a successful album.

''It's when you start slipping that you start to think and ask yourself why you were failing where you succeeded before. And you learn from experience.'' Cheung's initial reaction had been to call it quits.

''The first thing you ask yourself is what your alternative is. Frankly, I had been in show business for some years and was already a public figure. What else could you go back to? Could you overcome the psychological factors of returning to a normal life?'' he asked.

''My film career was going okay but I knew I would not last very long on the market the way I was going. That was just fast money. You could make 10 movies in a year but your career would also end faster.

''You need something to support your popularity. If you just draw on what you have all the time, your well will dry up.'' But, more than anything, it was Cheung's never-say-die attitude that finally plucked him from being a write-off to being the best-selling artist in Taiwan where his album Best Wishes has topped the million sales mark, putting it in the top 10 of PolyGram's worldwide bestsellers' list.

''I had faith and so I persevered. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but if you keep trying, then at least you have a fighting chance. And I believed in that one chance,'' he said.

Cheung is aware that the industry is looking to him to spearhead the call for more local compositions and fewer cover versions.

Cheung, whose hits have so far mainly been cover versions of either Japanese or Taiwanese hits, said: ''You cannot go in with your eyes closed.

''If you want local songs to be popular, you have to be sure that the public can accept them. My principle is that I will only choose local songs when I believe they will be popular. At this stage, I do believe there are some things I can do.'' Cheung's latest - and 28th - album, Legend Of The Hungry Wolf, which will be released throughout Southeast Asia next Friday, features six original local compositions, three originals from song-writers elsewhere and only one cover version - a far cry from the old days.

''There is one cover version but I cannot totally let go yet. I am a singer and when a good song comes to me, I do not want to give it up,'' he said.

''You have to find a balance between art and commercialism. If you only cater to your own tastes, the album may not sell, so you have to merge that with songs that others would like. That is the greatest skill involved in putting a successful album together.'' Cheung says he tries to give the best account to his audience that he can but rules out bowing to public pressure to follow in the footsteps of the other three ''kings'' and start composing his own songs.

''I am interested in writing songs but I don't want to do it under pressure just to show people I have this talent. I wrote and recorded one song [Old Letter, Old Dream ] a long time ago and I hope to do it again one day but in my own good time,'' he said.

''I came up with some songs for my new album but decided they weren't as good as the other originals. I don't need to prove anything. I will not insist on having my own compositions in my album; I think that's very stupid.'' So what next now that he has conquered not only Hong Kong's but Taiwan's music world? ''People say I have reached my peak but I don't think I have. You have to tell yourself not to believe that because if you do, then it's 'goodbye' because you no longer have anything to aim for.

''You may say I am playing it safe but I will not use numbers as my ultimate aim. That's dumb. So I sold a million albums in Taiwan; it's an all-time record but must I just aim to sell more next time? ''You have to look at things from the quality point of view. If you want to learn how to dance, learn to do it better, learn to sing better and so on.'' CHEUNG could be forgiven if, at this stage in his career, he were to turn more of his attention to acting, especially since he already has a best supporting actor award under his belt from Wong Kar-wai's As Tears Go By in 1989. But Cheung says there is no contest at all if he were asked to choose between singing and acting.

''I'd go for singing any time even though the income is not as steady as acting. I like it more; it's more comfortable.'' What he hopes to do is to tackle better roles, although he has set himself a limit of three films a year only.

''I try to choose good roles but it's difficult because there is no set formula. I can only do my best and hope the end product is good.'' But, like his singing career, Cheung is adamant about not subscribing to the numbers and awards game for his acting forays as well. ''My hopes do not lie in winning a best actor award as much as getting good reviews. I'd just like people to come up to me and say 'your acting is very good'.

''It's not enough for a few people to tell me that though,'' he added, with a sheepish laugh. ''I need many people to come and tell me that, and not have a chorus of disapproval from other quarters.'' Despite the adulation of millions of fans around the world today, Cheung admits he remains an insecure soul at heart.

''I think it's the business. It teaches you to be that way,'' he said. ''Showbiz people in Hong Kong are like that because things change so fast. Today you may be at the top of the charts but the next day you could be standing among the second-and third-stringers.'' But the one thing Cheung feels secure in is the firm and devoted support of his ''good friend'' actress May Law Mei-mei, who gave up her own promising career to help take care of Cheung's when his took off again.

Career-wise, Cheung still credits his own determination for his success but concedes that, emotionally, Law's devotion has given him peace of mind.

''It has been a great help knowing that she will always be there supporting me no matter what; that she will not leave me when I am down and out,'' he said.

Although Cheung will not be pinned to a date for when wedding bells will ring, he is certain he will stick to his plans to be married before he is 35.

''I think we'll both know when the time is right. We're not putting things off because of public pressure. I don't mind people knowing; in fact, people have accepted it for a long time. It's just that I am stubborn and want to keep to my own plans,'' he said.

But, underneath the happy plans and accolades, Cheung is often reminded that his success story has not come without sacrifices. He does not bemoan his lack of privacy and personal freedom because it ''comes with the job''.

His greatest regret is that his own success may have brought on the ruin of one of the people closest to him - elder brother Hok-chi, who created a stir last year when his million-dollar debts brought blackmail threats to the Cheung family.

''If I wasn't in this business, he would not have been so dependent on me. If I hadn't been as famous, he would not have been under as much pressure. This is the reason I give myself for his doing something that brought harm to the family. He has been my greatest loss,'' he said.

But Cheung's tenacity triumphed once more and he has since settled his brother's troubles and is ready to get on with his main aim in life at the moment: to make his singing career last as long as it can.

''I want my career to be even longer than Alan Tam's. I don't think he has taken his as far as it could go. To achieve that, I know I shall have to keep pushing myself forward.'