Written by: Li Xin Rong (19-I4)
Designed by: Athena Lim (19-A4)
Leslie Cheung was first a singer, then an actor, entering and winning second prize in the 1976 ATV Asian Music Contest in Hong Kong. Around that time, he had already left Leeds University in the UK, where he studied textiles, to take care of his ailing father.
With utterly no background or experience in singing, he experienced his share of public crowd denunciation in his Cantonese-singing debut in 1977. It took years of training and working on his voice before his dream of becoming a singer could be realised. When he did, he “found the sweetest, silkiest voice of his generation” (Collett, 2017).
His breakthrough album, Wind Keeps Blowing, would come in 1980, while his acting career, which previously consisted only of playing dashing, rueful playboys, would take off due to his role in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986). In this Hong Kong box office-breaking film, he played a headstrong, naive policeman in juxtaposition to his gangster brother.
Mr Cheung was a sensitive actor who demanded a high amount of control and perfectionism of himself in his roles. Several of his films best exemplify his legacy and persona: talented, quirky, charming and melodramatic.
Two of his most internationally-known films, which enthralled both western and eastern audience alike, are Farewell my Concubine (1993) and Happy Together (1997). Both are gay-themed films, and cemented his position as an icon for Hong Kong and China’s LGBTQ community.
Given Hong Kong’s highly conservative society during Mr Cheung’s time, he was revolutionary in making Hong Kong more open and accepting towards the LGBTQ community.
Farewell my Concubine details a stunning epic spanning five decades in the lives of two men. The backdrop: World War II, the Japanese Invasion and the Cultural revolution in modern China. Inducted into the famed Peking Opera at a young age and enduring near extreme mental and physical hardship, both are drilled into their roles and learn to perform exquisitely on stage. Cheung’s delicate character, Douzi, plays the transvestite opera role of the concubine to the more masculine Shitou, her “king”.
Their relationship not only endures such times of upheaval; Douzi becomes emotionally entangled with his operatic persona, a lifelong role, and develops romantic love for his stage partner, Shitou, which the latter does not reciprocate. Shitou eventually marries a beautiful prostitute, Juxian, causing Douzi to feel great resentment and jealousy.
At certain junctures of their lives, they face condemnation due to their association with supposedly bourgeois livelihood as theatre actors, which the Cultural Revolution sought to eradicate. The tumult of their personal lives also come to play in a final emotionally-charged public denunciation, when Shitou denounces Douzi as a homosexual consumed by the stage, while Douzi, betrayed and enraged, declares that Shitou had married a prostitute all along.
Throughout the chaos of this scene, the taboo associated with his homosexuality is not lost, and acutely mirrors Hong Kong’s attitude back then. Torn down in the aftermath of the crowd’s rage, the trio resign to their house, where Juxian commits suicide after years of standing strong by the stage brothers. From here, the chaos of the film ebbs, for they reunite decades later, having appeared to have made amends.
They assume their roles naturally as the concubine and her king, Douzi committing the mistake of reciting “I am by nature a boy,” instead of “I am by nature a girl, not a boy,” the very same mistake committed that when he was still an actor-in-training, almost lost the troupe’s securement of an agent’s funding. Shitou laughs, and Douzi begins to wield the sword as the fictional heroine does, and following the fate of the concubine, he kills himself with it.
Many reviews have been written of this film, some outlining its grandiose, artistic expression, some more moved by the characters’ tragic downfalls, but the message of this consummate artist’s refusal to allow political tides to quash his artistic fervour, along with the delusional blurring of lines between stage and reality, is clear. Tackling many themes at once, Farewell my Concubine weaves everything into an intricate, dramatic and sensitive portrayal of personal and political upheaval. Have I convinced you to watch this film?
Highlighting one film of his would not do justice to his legacy and influence. He also created the theme songs for several movies he acted in, many of which easily clinched top awards. Do keep an eye out for the next Sick Beats article, which will feature a couple more of his songs!
- 倩女幽魂 (theme song for A Chinese Ghost Story) – 1987
The opening tune is played by a melodious flute, like the laughing gurgle of a bubbling stream, yet it alludes to unforeseen tragedy. Cheung’s deep vocals are smooth, and his transitions to higher registers are delightful. The song is evocative of an intrepid traveller weathering the elements and braving hardship, which his character does in the film.
- 追 Chase (theme song for He’s a Woman, She’s a Man) – 1995
A deep, riveting ballad that goes slightly faster than his other ballads, this song combines a fervent desire to discover his true nature of sexuality, as he does in the film, and a melancholic desperation for someone to embrace him wholeheartedly. His long drawn-out notes and beautifully layered vocals add wonder and maturity to this elegant song.
Leslie Cheung continues to have a devoted and staunch fan-base up to today. Every year, crowds of fans commemorate his passing by gathering at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. He had lept from the 24th floor.
Cheung was dashing and charming, and fit the image of a “perfect heterosexual male [partner]” (Ho, 2019). Yet, the truth was that he was in a long-term relationship with his childhood friend, Daffy Tong, who remembers him fondly up to today.
The two aforementioned gay-themed films in the 1990s were daring moves on his part. The LGBT movement in Hong Kong had just begun to take off, and Hong Kong’s LGBT community was finally visible to the public. Despite that, gay people were still viewed as abnormal or having illnesses, and were labelled “Aids man” and “pervert”.
Despite the oppressiveness, Cheung came out on the stage using several successive bold statements, such as queer dressing, and even danced suggestively with male performers. His coming out had a profound impact on the general public, both empowering and leading people to epiphanies about gay people, that they could be successful and charming.
However, there were many who mocked and criticised this side of him, including actors and even fans. Cheung brushed them off as “superficial and short-sighted” (Ho, 2019), but he once mentioned in interviews before his death that he became depressed due to these negative comments about gender-crossing.
There is much to remember about this man: his enormous talent and versatility aside, he was incredibly brave in the face of stigma, oppression and debilitating mental illness. Being in this career requires considerable resilience against the swinging pendulum of both the public’s affections and backlash; more than that, his great artistic sensitivity and musicality required a grounding force that was not always present. Being such a mega super-star as he was, the pressures of fame, reputation and controversy were truly great, and only made Cheung unhappier.
It is truly unfortunate that the world lost such a talented artist. While the trials of fame are excluded from nobody, Leslie Cheung achieved great heights in his career.
Collett, Nigel. Interview with Edwards-Stout Kergan. “Interview with Author of Gay Star Leslie Cheung’s Biography”. Huffpost, December 6, 2017.
Gwyneth Ho, “Leslie Cheung: Asia’s Gay Icon Lives on 15 Years After his Death”, BBC News, April 9, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43637749 (accessed December 1, 2019)