Thu, Apr 10, 2003 - Page 16 News List

The Leslie Cheung legend lives on

For 20 years he was one of the Chinese-speaking world's most popular artists, and although he decided to end it all on April 1, he'll never be forgotten

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Leslie Cheung's dramatic death marked an end to his colorful life. It also served to cement the legend he built up in the course of his career -- for the high standards he set himself and the bravery he showed in being the first openly gay actor in contemporary Chinese cinema.

On screen and stage, Cheung charmed audiences with his androgynous good looks and his wild antics. His concerts were always dramatic -- and so was the manner of his death.

During the rush hour on April 1, Cheung plummeted 24 floors from the gym of the five-star Oriental Mandarin onto the busy streets of Hong Kong's Central district, bringing traffic to a halt.

The news of his bloody death shocked Asia, for the 46-year-old star, who had reached the peak of his fame back in the 1980s, still had a solid fan base. Anyone growing up in Hong Kong, Taiwan or China during the 1980s will remember the glamor of his concerts; he remains an idol to many Asian women at their late 20s and 30s, who remember him from the days of A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色, 1986) and A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂, 1987).

Chinese-language media gave prominent coverage to Cheung's death, three full pages in some instances. Tabloids are already speculating on the reasons behind the tragedy, probing the nuances of the mysterious suicide note and the ups and downs of a long-term gay relationship that turned sour. Such heavy coverage of a celebrity's death is on a par with the media frenzy that surrounded the deaths of singer Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) and action star Bruce Lee (李小龍).

Thousands of fans from around Asia ignored the danger of SARS, traveling to Hong Kong for a final farewell. Tong Hok-tak (唐鶴德), Cheung's long-time partner, performed the role of Cheung's bereaved spouse at the ceremony.

The youngest of ten children of a well-known tailor, Cheung once described his childhood as an unhappy one. He was deeply affected by his parents' divorce and experienced racial discrimination as a student in Leeds, England.

From his childhood, he devoted himself to singing and dreaming. After returning to Hong Kong from the UK, Cheung worked as a sales person in a jeans store and then as a member of staff at a law firm. His break came when he won second prize at a pop contest in 1977, (where he sang American Pie). He jumped into the world of showbiz with his first album, titled Like Dreamin'.

The Hong Kong pop music scene of the 1980s emphasized expressive sentiment and romantic tunes, and there was a massive demand for baby-faced stars who were packaged as idols by the music industry. It was in this context that Cheung became popular.

With the 1984 hit Monica, Cheung was launched as a star. In 10 years, he published 18 records, and in 1989, set a record with 33 consecutive concerts.

At this time, Cheung's acting career also took off. John Woo's (吳宇森) gangland action drama A Better Tomorrow brought fame to both Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) and Cheung. The success was followed by Tsui Hark's (徐克). The Chinese Ghost Story, in which Cheung successfully managed the transition from impulsive young policeman to romantic lover. In 1988, in Stanley Kwan's (關錦鵬) elegant ghost story, Rouge (胭脂扣), Cheung was clearly a rising star.

In the film, Cheung plays an opera-loving, opium-smoking dandy who falls for a beautiful courtesan. They decide to kill themselves when marriage plans are blocked by family pressure. Cheung's character gets cold feet and he survives. Thirty years later, the ghost of his lover comes in search of him.

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