September 12, 1956 – Leslie Cheung:
“Why am I depressed? I have money and so many people love me.”
The dramatic death of Asian superstar Leslie Cheung brought as much speculation as the life he led. Cheung leapt from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong in April 2004, leaving a suicide note and leaving millions of fans stunned and devastated.
In a way, it was life imitating art; the character he played in the Chen Kaige film Farewell My Concubine (1993) was a cross-dressing actor who falls hopelessly in love with another male performer, and then kills himself.
Cheung was noted in the West for this role as one of the gay lovers in Wong Kar-Wai‘s romantic Happy Together (1997). He was a huge star in Asia, his beautiful face was frequently on magazine covers, and his erratic behavior was reported in the gossip columns. He had a loving longtime boyfriend, banker Hok-Tak Tong,who was as handsome as Cheung.
As word of Cheung’s suicide spread, thousands of female fans arrived to lay bouquets near the spot where their idol landed. His suicide dominated the headlines of Asian tabloids for months, searching every aspect of his life for clues of why he would do it.
The youngest of 10 children, he grew up in the densely populated, dangerous Kowloon section of Hong Kong. His father was a fairly famous tailor, whose customers included William Holden, Marlon Brando, and Cary Grant. His parents divorced when he was a tot. At 12 years old, he was sent to school in England. He worked as a bartender at a relative’s restaurant and sang there on weekends. It was there that he chose the name “Leslie” because: “I love the film Gone With The Wind. And I like Leslie Howard.”
After a year at University of Leeds, he returned to Hong Kong to try a singing career. After winning several talent competitions, Cheung signed with Polydor Records in 1977 and released his first two albums, I Like Dreamin’ and Day Dreamin’, recording in English. The albums flopped, and so did his first Cantonese-language album, Lover’s Arrow (1979). During a live performance in 1980, Cheung was booed by the crowd and he decided to quit his music career. But, he signed with Capital Records in 1982 and recorded Wind Blows On. It was a big bestseller. Monica, a single from the album became the bestselling single in Hong Kong history and made Cheung a music superstar. He released more successful albums, including For Your Heart Only (1985), Stand Up (1986) and the huge international hit Admiration (1986). Cheung left Capital in 1987 and released nine more albums on other labels.
He sang a genre called Cantopop produced primarily in Hong Kong. Originating in the 1970s, Cantopop reached its height of popularity in the 1980s before a slow decline in the 2000s. At its apex, Cantonpop reached fans in Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan. Cantopop is influenced by American Jazz, Rock, R&B, and Electronica.
All together, Cheung released 25 successful albums. Cheung’s acting career began in 1986 with his starring role in John Woo‘s A Better Tomorrow, which broke Hong Kong box-office records. Two years after his death, China Central Television named him The Most Favorite Actor In 100 Years of Chinese Cinema. Unlike many closeted actors in America, Cheung enthusiastically played queer characters. He came out of the closet in 1997 and his career thrived. His albums continued to be extremely popular, as were his concerts. Ironically, Cheung made his film fame as the macho hero.
The film that established him as a romantic leading man was Stanley Kwan‘s Rouge (1987), a ghost story, where he plays an opium-smoking playboy with whom a courtesan falls in love. On being rejected, she commits suicide and returns as a ghost.
The 1990s brought Cheung his most notable and varied roles with three films by Wong Kar-Wai. In Days Of Being Wild (1990), he plays a handsome heel, who spends his time hopping from one woman to another. In Ashes Of Time (1994), he transforms his boyish features into those of a middle-aged swordfighter, disillusioned by an unhappy love affair. Even more challenging was his role as a shiftless figure moving in and out of a relationship with his male lover, in the ironically titled Happy Together.
Gayness is less overt in Farewell My Concubine, probably because it was produced in mainland China. Still, Cheung is fascinating as the exotic androgynous actor of female roles in the Peking Opera, poignantly detailing the emotional torture of the character who had had the refrain “I am a girl” drilled into him from childhood. To prepare, he spent months training in the movements and gestures of the Peking Opera and learned to speak in Peking dialect.
Cheung returned to his singing career in 1997, releasing three bestselling albums Adore You (1997), Big Heat (1998) and Forever Leslie (2000). He performed what he titled his Passion Tour (2001-02) wearing long wigs, skirts, gold hot pants and a white tuxedo with angel wings. His last film was Inner Senses (2002), playing a psychiatrist nearly driven to suicide by a ghost.
On April 1, 2004, Cheung checked-in to the Mandarin Oriental around 4pm. He went straight out to the balcony at the hotel gym through a glass door, where he sat alone and ordered a glass of orange juice. There were another two or three empty tables at the balcony and the glass door was covered with curtains so that no one could see what he was doing outside. About an hour later, he asked a receptionist for a pen and paper, which he used to write his suicide note.
The note was not addressed to anyone. It read:
“Depression! Many thanks to all my friends. Many thanks to Professor Felice Lieh-Mak (Cheung’s psychiatrist). This year has been so tough. I can’t stand it anymore. Many thanks to Mr. Tong. Many thanks to my family. In my life I have done nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?”
After sitting alone quietly for about two hours, Cheung put the suicide note in his pocket, climbed over the balcony railing and jumped to his death. He was 46 years old.
Among the explanations for his suicide is the theory that he was breaking up with Tong Hock Tak, or that it was an April Fool’s Day joke that went horribly wrong.
The next day Cheung’s childhood friend and former lover, Daffy Tong, confirmed that Cheung suffered from clinical depression and had been seeing Lieh-Mak for treatment for almost a year. He also revealed that Cheung had previously attempted suicide in 2002.
Despite the risk of infection from SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the World Health Organization’s warning about travel to Hong Kong, tens of thousands of fans attended Cheung’s memorial service, including celebrities and civilians from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, the USA, and Canada.
Along with most of Hong Kong, Cheung had moved to Vancouver BC in 1990 and became a Canadian citizen.
The official Chinese media worried that Cheung’s death would infect young fans with gayness, linking LGBTQ life to violence, depression, and suicide to try to teach Chinese youth to fear homosexuality. The state run media focused on his queer identity instead of on his artistic achievements. He had already planned to retire from stage performance because of the strain of being a gay artist in Hong Kong, facing stigmatization, surveillance, and marginalization.
In 2013, Cheung’s fans from around our pretty planet made two million orizuru cranes for the Guinness World Record as a tribute on the 10th anniversary of his passing.
In 2016, on what would have been Cheung’s 60th birthday, over 100,000 fans celebrated at an outdoor birthday party at Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront with a big LED screen projecting Cheung’s video clips and pictures.
Cheung distinguished himself as a singer and an Asian actor by embodying queer politics and sexual and gender identity. He announced his relationship with Daffy Tong during a concert in 1997, making him a hero in LGBTQ communities in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.