20 Years: Leslie Cheung Remembered

By Peter Chen

Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張國榮), born in 1956, is probably the most well-known Cantopop singer ever. Leslie, together with Alan Tam, defined Cantopop of the 1980s. His songs won four consecutive RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Awards from 1984 to 1988. Besides being a pop singer, he also acted in many films, eight of which are on The 100 Best Chinese Motion Pictures list. 

I’m fortunate enough to know Mrs. Choi, a childhood friend and classmate of Leslie’s youngest sister. I will quote her throughout this article.


Mrs. Choi was a friend of Leslie’s youngest sister since grade 5, in 1959. “I used to live not far from Leslie’s house, in Wan Chai (灣仔), and I and another friend would go to his house every morning to walk to school with his youngest sister. We went to the same school, I think it’s called Victoria College or something. I don’t know if it still exists. I would also go to Leslie’s house for dinner. He lived away from his parents. His father was a very famous suit tailor for American actors. These American actors would come to Hong Kong and stay for only a few days, and ask Leslie’s father to complete their suits within that time. So his father was always busy and lived in the Central District (中環), close to where he worked. As a result, Leslie lived with his grandma and a domestic worker called “六姐” (luk ze, “sixth sister”). When I first saw Leslie, he was only three years old. He was very cute and had very large eyes. We all called him “大眼仔” (dai ngan zai, “big-eyed boy”). Leslie had a box that he showed me, where he collected many small dolls and the different clothes for each of these dolls. I was a little perplexed at the time. I wondered why a boy likes to play with dolls. I guess that was influenced by his father’s profession as a tailor.” 

Leslie when he was six years old

Rose to Fame:

Initially, in the late 70s, few people appreciated Leslie’s singing. During a music festival in 1977, in which The Wynners, including Alan Tam, was part of, Leslie was booed off stage by the audience. It wasn’t until 1982, when Leslie released his first hit single “風繼續吹” (The Wind Blows On) that people started to recognize him. 1986 marked another turning point in his career. The film A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo, became a huge success. It broke the Hong Kong box office record and was ranked the second-best Chinese film of all time by the Hong Kong Film Awards Association. Leslie’s role as a young policeman who tried to bring down the triad boss made a deep impression on the audience. This opened up his film career, leading to his roles in multiple other prominent films, including Days being Wild directed by Wong Kar-wai, where Leslie was given the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor the following year.

Leslie Cheung in Days Being Wild

Residing in Canada:

In 1990, Leslie immigrated to Vancouver, Canada. Just a few years later, he gained Canadian citizenship in addition to the citizenship of Hong Kong. Initially, Leslie enjoyed life in Canada, calling it a “paradise”. But after several years, the peaceful yet mundane life in Vancouver lost its appeal, and he finally realized that Hong Kong was the real paradise. Leslie eventually returned to Hong Kong and stayed there until his death in 2003.

Leslie Cheung Memorial Bench in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Queer Identity:

In an interview in 1992, Leslie stated, “My mind is bisexual. It’s easy for me to love a woman. It’s also easy for me to love a man, too.” In his early years, Leslie had relations with several actresses, most notably Teresa Mo, who he broke up with after an unsuccessful proposal. Later in his career, he met and fell in love with Daffy Tong, who became his life-long partner. Leslie was also a pioneer in Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ cinema, acting in multiple roles portraying queer characters, such as in Farewell My Concubine and Happy Together.

Leslie Cheung and Daffy Tong

Suicide and Legacy:

Suffering from depression, Leslie Cheung lept from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on April 1st, 2003. Mrs. Choi describes how she heard about Leslie’s suicide, “On the day Leslie passed away, a childhood friend of mine called me to inform me of the situation. Because it was April Fool’s Day, I immediately told her to stop joking. But afterwards, I heard the news on the radio, and realized that it was actually true. I called Leslie’s sister, who was in Vancouver at the time. She couldn’t stop crying.” 

April 1st this year marks the 20th anniversary of Leslie Cheung’s suicide. His songs and movies are still being revisited by fans across the globe. Leslie’s death was more than that of an individual. It marked an end to the golden era of Hong Kong’s cinematography and music industry, which once dominated the Sinophone world. Yet Leslie’s spirit never perished. His works and contributions will forever be remembered in a nostalgic way.

Commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Leslie Cheung’s suicide in Times Square, Hong Kong, 2013

Top 8 Leslie Cheung films, including their trailers:

A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7ZBsUf986E

Phillip Kong wrote an article on this movie in the TBAW previously, please check it out using this link: https://tbaw.ca/2019/03/26/a-better-tomorrow-movie-review/

Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyX4OotVUrQ

Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgnpdqTUcg

A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0dpajscuPo

Once a Thief (縱橫四海): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GOx5UwnZD4

Rouge (胭脂扣): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJFfQSXfNlU

All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4AgDTE_YcU

Happy Together (春光乍洩): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp10oG0k-yo

Top 8 Leslie Cheung songs: