Leslie Cheung was one of Asia’s hottest superstars in the 1980s and ’90s.
His dashing good looks and silky voice made him a sensation, not just in his home city of Hong Kong but also in mainland China, where he was many people’s first exposure to outside pop music.
Despite his success in music and film, Cheung struggled with depression and ultimately committed suicide in 2003. His death shocked fans around the world.
But his memory lives on in a small cafe in Chengdu, about 1,000 miles away from the singer’s hometown.
The owner, Lu Xiaochuan, grew up in mainland China just as it was just opening up to the rest of the world. Listening to Cheung’s music was the first time Lu heard popular music from the outside.
“He was different from all the other stars,” Lu says. “Not only could he sing well, he completely belonged on the stage.”
Now, Lu uses the cafe to connect with other fans who have been touched by Cheung’s work.
Autographed portraits, vinyl records, and posters of the singer adorn the walls of his modest shop in a back alley of Chengdu.
Here, customers can sip on drinks with latte art of Cheung’s visage. A television in the back loops clips of his live concerts, where he can be seen wooing the crowd with his lithe dance moves and magnetic voice.
Lu opened the cafe in 2007 and named it after a famous Cheung ballad, “For Your Heart Only.” When the singer took his own life in 2003, Lu was devastated.
“I felt like I lost a part of myself.”
“I was still in bed when my friend came to my house and told me he had died,” he recalls. “I didn’t believe it and jumped out of bed, rushed downstairs, and bought a newspaper. I felt like I lost a part of myself.”
Cheung was a major part of Lu’s childhood in China during the 1980s. The Communist-ruled mainland had just come out of a decades-long political and economic hibernation from the rest of the world. Young people were eagerly embracing pop music and culture from the outside.
“I liked Cantonese music ever since I was young,” Lu says. “At the time, pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan had just come to the mainland.”
Lu first heard Cheung’s voice on a cassette tape and was immediately drawn to his baritone voice. Later, when his older brother took him to a video shop in Chengdu, he saw footage of Cheung’s 1989 farewell concert and was immediately bowled over by his charisma and stage presence.
“He radiated a glow,” Lu recalls.
Later in his career, Cheung starred in films and became famous for his acting, particularly in gender-bending roles like a cross-dressing opera singer in Farewell My Concubine (1993).
“I saw his movies many times when I was a student,” Lu says. “From A Better Tomorrow and Rouge to Farewell My Concubine, I could see his acting become more refined as he got older. He totally immersed himself in the roles he played.”
When Lu opened his cafe, he initially thought most of his customers would be people like him, nostalgic fans who were born in the 1970s and ’80s.
But he’s surprised to see many younger fans who continue to discover Cheung’s music even after he died—fans like 23-year-old Pan Cheng, who visited the cafe from Xian, about 500 miles away from Chengdu.
Pan, who works as a programmer, says he only learned about Cheung on the day of his death.
“I was eating dinner with my family when news of his death came up,” Pan recalls. “My father was shocked that a star with such immense talent suddenly died, and I wanted to find out more about this person.”
He found some old concert footage online and was immediately touched by Cheung’s music, especially his lyrics.
“I think with singer-songwriters nowadays, especially younger ones, their lyrics are bland and mostly about love,” Pan says. “They lack depth.”
Through the cafe, Lu has met Cheung fans from around the world. Every year, he hosts fan gatherings on Sept. 12 and April 1, the day Cheung was born and the day he died.
The events attract scores of the star’s admirers from across China.
“I feel very lucky,” Lu says. “It feels like I’ve done something for him.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.