Leslie Cheung: A Bisexual Icon of the 80's and 90's
a narrative essay by Cathay Lau
TW: Suic*de, de*th, hom*phob*a
‘My mind is bisexual. It's easy for me to love a woman. It's also easy for me to love a man, too” - Leslie Cheung, 1992.
Dear Asian Youth,
Amongst the actors and singers of the canto-pop scene, the late Leslie Cheung springs into the mind of many as a figure who embodies the genre. My older cousins were especially fond of his music growing up and felt an affinity towards Cheung, they even called him “gor gor” (big brother), which I later found out was a nickname that the people of Hong Kong gifted him. It was clear to me that he was a figure of hope to my cousins for his determination to express his sexuality despite belonging to a largely homogenous culture. It was only natural that this admiration would be later passed onto me.
It wasn’t until a trip to Hong Kong in 2013 though that I had been truly informed of his impact, particularly in East Asia. I was in Tsim Tsa Tsui watching the famous skyline under humid heat when a dome pitched with projections of the ‘追 Chase’ music video was crowded with mourning fans. It wasn’t until I had gotten home and recounted my memories of the day that I realised it was a homage to the late actor and singer ten years after his death.
Although I was only three when he passed, his legacy had made a definite mark on me and many other young individuals. I remember stumbling across his performance of ‘Red 紅’ at his 1997 world tour concert on Youtube and feeling both enamoured and surprised at the man donning red heels and a sparkly suit while dancing sensually with his same-sex dance partner. His movements on stage evoked a feminine image to the masses despite his identity as a cisgender male. There was a part of me that felt like I was watching something taboo, not only because it was ‘gay’ in a world of homophobia, but because it was overtly homoerotic in a space that I knew was not the most open to homosexuality. BBC even reported that “at that time, homosexuality was still viewed by many as an illness and abnormality in Hong Kong, especially after the emergence of the first local case of AIDS in 1984.”
Besides his handsome face being at the forefront of his branding as an actor and singer, he wished to express himself in ways that proved his determination to take back control over his sexuality and what defined him as an individual. Global Times reported that part of his charisma was also due to his standing as a “transparent artist refusing to hide behind masks.” I have always believed in a unifying need within all of us to define ourselves without the judgement of other people. I believe that Cheung’s unabashed refusal to be held back from expressing himself was a large driving force behind his popularity alongside his talent on the screen and stage. His determination was even evident in his English name being Leslie, which according to Time, was because he stated “I love the film Gone with the Wind. And I like Leslie Howard. The name can be a man's or woman's, it's very unisex, so I like it."
One of my favourite films amidst Cheung’s widely respected filmography is Happy Together. It was directed by Wong Kar Wai, who is most well known for his work on the cult classics of the Hong Kong film era such as ChungKing Express and In the Mood for Love. Cheung takes on the LGBT role of Ho Po Wing who travels to Buenos Aires with his male partner, played by Tony Leung. After a typical turbulent fight between the two, they realise that they are stranded when they don’t have enough money to travel back to Hong Kong. By then, Cheung had already revealed his bisexuality to the masses and many people, particularly in his home city of Hong Kong, disapproved of his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the film was considered one of best LGBT films in the New Queer Cinema movement and was generally received with positive reviews despite discussions on censorship. The media during Cheung’s career were relentless when it came to mocking his sexuality at this time and preferred to ignore his artistry because of this. This continued up to the later years of his career, particularly in 2001 after the end of his ‘Passion Tour’ where he collaborated with the world renowned haute couture fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier. It was during his final tour that he donned some of Asia’s largest LGBT pop culture moments with his long hair, flowy skirts, and vinyl pants. My personal favourite had always been the angelic feather shoulders on his white blazer.
Although his fans were abundant and filled with passion, it seemed that Cheung was brought into fame in a world that wasn’t ready for him but quite frankly, should have been. His legacy still seems to capture the hearts and minds of many people today despite his unfortunate passing. He still serves as a figure of positivity and hope for many people in Asia, and even has a café dedicated to him in Chengdu, China where fans from around the world can visit and connect. According to South China Morning Post, the owner of the cafe, Lu Xiaochuan, comments that “the café on Chunxi Road is there to keep his legacy alive.” He was not only a role model for the LGBT community, but also all individuals in the world who felt like they didn’t fit in and craved the freedom to express themselves. It is times like these after the anniversary of his death that I think about his comment from Time on his home city, that seems to serve as a metaphor for the world: “The place is so extravagant, vulgar, expensive. I may be too soft for Hong Kong. I don't always count myself as one of them.” Cheung encourages us even after his death to be honest with ourselves in every aspect of our lives and to not only believe in our honesty, but to live it.
- Cathay Lau