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Header image: Still from Once A Thief (1991)
Popularly known as “Gor Gor”—meaning “older brother” in Cantonese—Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing is a cultural icon in Hong Kong. His popularity endures even decades after his passing in 2003. Recognisable for his silky voice, he enjoyed 26 years of fame with unparalleled success. From Wind Blows On (1983) and Summer Romance (1987) to Red (1996), he constantly reinvented his music and captured some of the best Cantopop songs of all time.
As a versatile artist, Cheung also boasts one of the most seminal careers in Hong Kong film, particularly as the male lead in the award-winning Farewell My Concubine (1993) and his role as a gay man in Happy Together (1997), a breakthrough in LGBTQ+ cinema.
Sorting through his sea of masterpieces, we come up with a brief history that tells the life story of Leslie Cheung, narrating his journey from a struggling chanteur to a juggernaut in the local Cantopop and film scene, paying tribute to the golden days of Hong Kong.
Born on 12 September 1956, Leslie Cheung was the tenth and youngest child of a middle-class Hong Kong family. His father, Cheung Wut-hoi, was a well-known tailor and counted Hollywood stars amongst his customers, including Marlon Brando and Gary Grant.
Cheung’s parents had a rocky relationship and divorced when he was young. Aside from what he perceived as a lack of parental love in his childhood home, Cheung also often found himself disconnected from his other siblings, who were at least eight years older—these misfortunes presented him with a lonely, unfulfilled childhood.
Enrolled in Rosaryhill School in Wan Chai for his education, Cheung struggled to do well in school, especially in maths. Given his knack for the English language, he was sent to Norwich School in the UK, and later attended the University of Leeds on scholarship and studied textile management. While in school, Cheung was inspired by Western films and music and chose his English name to pay homage to actor Leslie Howard from Gone with the Wind. Its flexibility as a unisex name also appealed to him.
In 1976, Cheung dropped out of university after just one year when his father fell critically ill. He returned to Hong Kong and worked as a salesman. Little did he know that this was a small but significant step towards something bigger than he had ever imagined.
In 1977, Leslie Cheung signed up for Rediffusion Television’s Asian Singing Contest and was placed as the first runner-up for his performance of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Bubbly and cocky, he delivered the song with a youthful, upbeat stage presence, mesmerising the audience. For him, this competition marked the beginning of his career.
Later that year, Cheung released his debut album, I Like Dreamin’, and his second album Day Dreamin’, singing English songs. His early music drew a lukewarm response and reflected the music credo at the time, where Western music dominated the market.
It would take Cheung another six years to land on his first chart success, “The Wind Blows On,” in 1983. It was closely followed by his megahit, “Monica,” which became a mainstream radio favourite and reached number one on RTHK’s Chinese Pop Chart. It was the song that finally cemented his status as a pop singer and heralded the beginning of his success.
In the late 1980s, Cheung maintained record sales with chart-topping hits, such as “Unruly Wind” and “Sleepless Night.” His stellar reputation also extended to far-flung places, with his album, The Greatest Hits of Leslie Cheung (1989), selling over 30,000 copies in Korea.
Following his musical achievements, Cheung stepped into Hong Kong cinema and appeared in the award-winning film Rouge (1987), which features the anachronistic love affair between him and Anita Mui. His leading role in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) further elevated him as an actor. People began to realise how versatile and talented Cheung was.
With several other movies in the pipeline, Cheung decided to prioritise movies over music. His announcement to retire from the stage came on 17 September 1989, followed by his 33 farewell concerts in the Hong Kong Coliseum. Amid cries and screams from his fans, Cheung placed his microphone firmly onto the podium and bid farewell to his fans.
Hong Kong’s art cinema scene erupted in the 1990s with famous directors like Wong Kar-wai and Mabel Cheung, helping to launch the careers of cinema icons including Maggie Cheng, Tony Leung, and Leslie Cheung. It was the glistening prime of Cheung’s movie career. In 1991, he finally got the stardom he had been working towards—with the Best Actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in Days of Being Wild (1990).
However, it was in Farewell My Concubine (1993) that his peculiar genius found perfect expression. Playing a female Chinese opera singer, Cheung appeared voluptuous, defiant, and driven, and the aesthetic appeal of Chinese opera correlated with his acting. Farewell My Concubine was met with great critical acclaim and awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It also snagged two Oscar nominations. It was the first time in history that a Chinese film received such international reverence.
But the most shocking moment in his movie career is Happy Together (1997). Playing a hysterical, decadent, and conflicted gay man, Cheung portrayed male prostitution, homoerotic intercourse, and physical confrontations in the violent throes of love. Cheung instantly became a gay icon the moment Happy Together was released.
After his farewell concerts in 1989, several music companies contacted Cheung, hoping to entice him back to the stage, but he refused. Eventually, in 1995, Cheung struck an agreement with Rock Records, and he released his post-retirement album called Beloved. Right from the start, Cheung made it clear that he would go on a path of self-expression and experimentation for his album, instead of aiming for market profit.
It was a jaw-dropping metamorphosis. In the iconic Live in Concert ‘97, Cheung ditched his former persona and used his newly discovered freedom to redefine his identity, most notably in his norm-breaking “Red.” As he swished and strutted around in a pair of high heels, Cheung’s provocative poses and dances were a daring vision of androgynous beauty. Further going against convention, Cheung openly admitted his relationship with Daffy Tong Hok-tak in his performance of “The Moon Represents My Heart”—an extraordinary feat of courage at a time when same-sex relationships were still taboo.
His next and final reincarnation was the statement-making Passion Tour. It went far beyond the glamour and glitz and was as much about the music and symbolism. In collaboration with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, Cheung donned a gamut of extravagant, expressive haute couture outfits, from an all-white vest with feathery wings to a dark get-up with a long wig. His vision of fashion was forward-thinking and fresh, inspired by the glam rock style and drag culture of LGBTQ+ communities.
With the transformation of Cheung completed, the aftermath began to sink in.
His Passion Tour was faced with scathing criticism from Hong Kong media, which ridiculed the cross-dressing act as effeminate and dismissed the elaborate, haute couture clothing as old news. Since his diagnosis of depression, Cheung became significantly less active in public. His last performance in Hong Kong Coliseum took place in 2002 as the concert guest of Anita Mui. It was a legendary phenomenon, with the duo singing in perfect harmony. His last recorded song, “The Love of Glass,” talks about being heartbroken and letting go. Similarly, his last movie, Inner Senses (2002), captured Cheung being urged to jump from the top of a building—a chilling prophecy of what was to come.
On the evening of 1 April 2003, Cheung asked his manager to meet him at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central. At 6.43 pm, tragedy struck when Cheung leapt from the twenty-fourth floor of the building. He passed away from his injuries, leaving behind a suicide note.
His career established him as one of the most gifted artists of our time, representing a breakthrough in Hong Kong culture and the LGBTQ+ movement. His loss is inestimable.
Despite his sudden departure, Cheung’s loyal following has never waned. His films and albums are classics that people constantly revisit, even to this day. In remembering his legacies, there are bouquets laid at the Mandarin Oriental on 1 April every year. His stardom leaves behind a bittersweet legacy in local culture and history and his extensive catalogue of works preserves the glorious creativity of the 1980s and 1990s in Hong Kong.