Leslie Cheung: The life of a legend

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Prominent gay author Nigel Collett tells Arthur Tam about his new biography on beloved Hong Kong icon, the late Leslie Cheung 

The story of legendary Hong Kong icon Leslie Cheung has been one of fascination, enigma and tragedy. He rose to fame in the mid-80s, became a heartthrob and international pop sensation and, later in life, came out of the closet – halfway at least – by professing his bisexuality. Soon after, though, he leapt to his death from the Mandarin Oriental, breaking his fans’ hearts.

Theories over why the singer-stroke-actor committed suicide on April 1, 2003, abounded immediately after the incident – popular ones being that he was suffering from depression or that he was possessed – but soon the tittle-tattle died down. And ever since the incident, there has never been a full biography written about the star. Until now. Prominent HK writer and LGBT reporter, Nigel Collett, has just released Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, which attempts to lay down Cheung’s life in chronological order. It’s not been an easy task, though. “In retrospect, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Collett. “His family, executives, friends and everyone close to him decided they don’t want to talk about him or have anything written about his life other than the usual stuff like music and acting.”

During the writing process, Collett was only privy to published information as well as interviews with people on the periphery of Cheung’s life. But the former Lieutenant-Colonel in the British army soldiered on. “I wanted to focus on two things: the fact that Cheung is, in fact, gay and also on the depression that led to his subsequent death. There are things that people don’t want to face.”

Collett says there are signs that point to Cheung being gay and not bi – and there’s also a steamy encounter in a sauna in the book. The 61-year-old author, whose only other biography was on notorious 20th-century British General Reginald Dye in 2005, is also convinced Cheung suffered with depression. He says he became enthralled by the star after watching 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, and was then introduced to his fan club before pursuing the story because ‘no-one has really written any biographical piece on Leslie in English or Chinese’.

Collett admits this is not an authorised biography and also says he hopes there’s a ‘more thorough’ second edition once people who knew Cheung divulge more personal information. For now, though, his honest attempt should serve as a tribute, despite the fact ‘there are things in there that will upset the fans’. “Many fans have taken the description of Leslie at face value,” says Collett. Maybe he’s about to rectify that...

Firelight of a Different Colour
Published by Signal 8 Press, priced $128. For more on the author, contact nigel.a.collett@gmail.com.

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