It has been 15 years since Hong Kong pop singer Leslie Cheung (張國榮) committed suicide, but fans will never forget the legacy he left behind. While fans in Hong Kong came together for Leslie’s annual death anniversary, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), also released a special mini program dedicated to the late singer, branding him as “Asia’s Gay Icon”.
Although many cultures are increasingly more accepting of homosexuality, those who came out of the closet in the 1980s and 1990s were not so lucky – especially when Leslie lived in Hong Kong, where the culture was known to be conservative and homosexual relations were illegal until 1991.
Many might remember his iconic character Chen Dieyi in 1994’s classic movie, Farewell My Concubine <霸王別姬>. However, it was revealed that Leslie was actually offered the television version of the story in the 1981. Not knowing if he would be accepted by the public after playing Chen Dieyi so early in his career, Leslie rejected the television adaptation. As his stardom grew and his confidence increased with the support of his fans and friends, Leslie made contact with the director of Farewell My Concubine ten years later to star in a movie adaptation instead.
In the BBC special, Dr. Travis Kong, Associate Professor who specializes in Gender and Sexuality Studies from The University of Hong Kong, accepted an interview to discuss the effects of Leslie on the gay community and the shifts between Hong Kong eras. Stating that the gay movements in the 1990s played a major factor in the initial stages, Dr. Kong said it was only then, did people start hearing the voices of the gay community. Shortly afterwards in 1997, Leslie coming out of the closet during one of his concerts was one of the most powerful pushes for Hong Kong society. In front of all his fans, friends, and both his parents, Leslie openly introduced Daffy Tong (唐鶴德) as his other half, stating that he was one of the most important friends in his life.
Growing more confident, Leslie exhibited his stage charisma and brought along flamboyant outfits on the concert stages in the last few years of his life. Although his efforts were accepted and supported by many fans, many citizens grew critical and attacked his image as a public figure. As one of Hong Kong’s most popular singers, Leslie only kept quiet and smiled throughout the negativity.
Although Leslie’s life ended in tragedy, his attempts at challenging Hong Kong’s conservative society was an important push in the LGBT movement. Leslie’s courage will always be remembered, respectably earning him the title of “Asia’s Gay Icon”.