The first time I went into a hair salon in a country where I didn’t speak the language, I carried a photo of Leslie Cheung.
It was a still from his 1990 movie Days of Being Wild. His hair was parted, with one side combed back and the other permed in a wave. A few strands of hair hung down to just above his eyebrows. He had a boyish look but still exuded confidence. He was cool yet sensitive, and every time I went to the hair salon, I showed the stylist the photo and he would do his work.
This was in South Korea in 2015. There were no words exchanged and no questions asked. But later, when I learned enough of the language to ask, I realized that the stylist knew who Cheung was all along, and I understood just how broad the Hong Kong actor’s reach was across the world.
When Leslie Cheung took his own life 16 years ago on April 1, 2003, at age 46, there was an outpouring of grief and shock in Hong Kong. He was one of the city’s most brilliant artists—a chart-topping singer, a versatile actor, and a consummate performer. Women fawned over him, and men aspired to embody his brand of effortless cool.
He was the city’s first openly bisexual celebrity at a time when coming out wasn’t easy in Hong Kong. He embraced androgynous roles and challenged gender norms. His performance as a cross-dressing opera singer in Farewell My Concubine (1993) earned him international acclaim.
“My mind is bisexual,” he said in a 1992 interview. “It’s easy for me to love a woman. It’s also easy for me to love a man, too.”
In another interview, he said, “I believe that a good actor would be androgynous and ever changing.”
That he could so effortlessly switch between masculine and feminine personas was his strength. One of the first Leslie Cheung movies I saw was Happy Together (1997), about the romantic relationship between two men from Hong Kong. I was in high school in New York City, and it was my first exposure to a gay Asian character on screen.
With each film I saw, I marveled at how comfortable Cheung was in his own skin, whether he was playing a police officer in A Better Tomorrow (1986), a martial arts master in Ashes of Time (1994), a brooding playboy in Days of Being Wild (my personal favorite), or the sensitive lover in Happy Together (1997).
His range was remarkable, and as a Chinese kid growing up in America—where I didn’t always feel like I belonged or fit in with others—I saw in Leslie Cheung the possibility of being whoever I wanted to be. At a 1997 concert, he famously waltzed in a pair of sparkling red high heels with another man.
“He was young, he was energetic and was way different from the other, more conservative Chinese singers of his time,” Ginice Chow, who runs a Leslie Cheung fan club, told the South China Morning Post. “A lot of people were attracted to his aesthetic, to just the way that he moved.”
His boldness made him a queer icon not just in Hong Kong but also mainland China, Japan, and South Korea, where he remains the best-selling Chinese pop artist in the country.
Many people claimed Leslie Cheung. His Chinese fans called him 哥哥, “older brother,” but few knew much about his private life, which he kept separate from his public persona.
Toward the end of his life, he battled clinical depression and left behind a brief suicide note thanking his family and friends. In interviews shortly before his death, he alluded to the strain of being a queer artist in Hong Kong and the media attention that came with it.
“I am what I am, a firework of many colors.”
Sixteen years after his passing, Cheung continues to inspire legions of fans. The Mandarin Oriental hotel, from where he leapt to his death, continues to get flowers and tributes every year on the anniversary of his suicide.
His uncompromising performances, whether in film or music, are immortalized on celluloid and demonstrate a relentless refusal to conform.
“I am what I am, a firework of many colors,” reads a line from one of his most famous songs. “Unrestrained as the sea and sky, I will be the strongest bubble.”