Leslie Cheung was a megastar by almost any standard, posthumously named the world’s third most iconic singer by CNN in 2010 (following only Michael Jackson and The Beatles). Yet, in spite of a childhood spent in 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong, my first with him encountered wasn’t until 2005, and in Japan of all places. He had been a minor fixture in the Japanese home video market since the late 1980s through such films as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and the Tsui Hark produced A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). But it was his appearances in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (1993) that cemented his popularity in Japan, lauded for his exquisite beauty and professional meticulousness by not only a then-booming female fandom, but also such Japanese cultural icons as kabuki onnagata (female impersonator) Bando Tamasaburo and costume designer Emi Wada. Even American film critic Richard Corliss waxed rhapsodic about him, in prose that read more like man-crush than reporting:
Cheung could qualify as a monument to pop longevity if he was not still in his glistening prime, and if he was not still so damned gorgeous. Any visitor to Hong Kong who mentions his name to a local will hear the same refrain: “Guess how old he is” (as if he kept a rotting portrait of himself in the attic). Cheung is 44, and if he has changed at all during his half-life in the public eye, it is to become more wily in the lavishing and husbanding of his allure. He simultaneously seduces and withdraws, flirts and forbids. He is the most cunning, provocative tease in Asian showbiz.
Put in more academic terms, Leslie embodied both in films and onstage that “to-be-looked-at-ness” that activates Laura Mulvey’s male gaze, “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with [his] appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” He was available for fan consumption in both films and concerts that foregrounded his uncanny, androgynous beauty.
And it was his availability to be both looked at and desired that we might say constituted the central tension of his stardom. A star’s marketability – their livelihood – is predicated on their ability to attract an audience’s attention, yet the more skilled they are at this, the more they risk attracting too much attention, or interest, or desire. Throughout his career, Leslie worked to assuage fans’ craving for more of him through photographs, interviews, concerts, and fan-centered events, all the while attempting to cordon off some small space for himself. Even so, when Hong Kong tabloids began rooting around government paperwork for evidence that Leslie was, in fact, living with his male partner (thus confirming the barely-kept secret of his queerness) fans clamored for them. All that was on offer was a bit more detail about a relationship Leslie was hardly hiding, yet the tantalizing promise of knowing just that much more about him – and the indescribable sense of proximity and intimacy such knowledge engendered – was a powerful lure to look beyond what we were given onscreen and onstage. Even I succumbed to purchasing one of these tabloids in a niche Chinese popular culture-oriented shop in Osaka, having discovered by leafing through it that Leslie and I were asynchronous neighbors, his Tai Tam townhouse located directly next door to the complex I had lived in as a child (and, thus, increasing my own personal sense of intimacy with him tenfold).
I woke up in Tokyo on the morning of April 2, 2003 to the news that Leslie had jumped to his death the night before from the 24th floor of the Hong Kong Mandarin Hotel – an immutable fixture of my Hong Kong childhood. The handful of people who knew how much I loved him – including my then-PhD advisor – had emailed in the night to see if I was okay, understanding that, for me, his death was personal. Leslie left a note saying he was tired of battling depression (subsequently, it was revealed that he had attempted suicide a year earlier), but all I could think, from my fannish perspective, was that he was gone – his career was written – and that I hoped he had gone out on his own terms. It’s how the great Chinese actresses went out, and I wanted to see it as the swan song of a diva, rather than what it likely was: the last stand of a desperate man.
I don’t think he was hounded to death, and I do think that there was a part of him that craved the attention he received as a star. And I believe that, in the end, it was about his personal experience of depression more than anything that drove him to suicide. Nonetheless, I’m left wondering about my own culpability in his death – did I (or fans) take too much? Did we get too close, too invasive?
Or, as Corliss mused in his obituary for Leslie, was he a victim of his own – fading – beauty?
We know what it was like to see Leslie—to sense his charm, his pretty petulance and his danger—but not what it was like to be Leslie. He seemed so pleased in there, in the fairy-tale kingdom of Cheung, but he may have felt that his castle was crumbling, that his subjects were restless … And perhaps the mirror told him he was no longer the fairest one of all.
How much of Leslie’s to-be-looked-at-ness was he personally invested in? Stardom collapses without the push and pull of public/private, but there are few rules to govern that tension. I don’t (always) feel guilty about looking, but every so often I wonder if some stars aren’t standing out on a ledge, begging us to look and giving us too much when we do.
What follows is my vid(geographic study) of celebrity, persona, and the audience gaze in/through the films of Leslie Cheung set to his song “Blamefully Beautiful”.
 Unknown Author, “Michael Jackson: Your number one music icon”, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/24/music.icon.gallery/.
 Corliss, Richard (2003), “To Fall from a Great Height”, TIME, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,108021,00.html.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.