Remembering Julian Lee

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The last time we meet Julian Lee Chi-chiu is at his retrospective exhibition and last public event, Visionaire of Senses. The room was full. As one of the most progressive artists in Hong Kong’s history, Lee pushed boundaries, and was not remotely shy or apologetic about his sexuality or exploring his obsession with the male form. Though he was frail, he glided across the room in excitement, full of energy. Anyone that didn’t know him wouldn’t have suspected that he was suffering from a rare and incurable cancer called pseudomyxoma peritonei. Lee was disease free that evening, as far as anyone could tell, and went on his way taking pictures and signing his new photography book.

Then, after returning to London, things took a turn for the worst. Lee posted images of himself in hospital on Facebook, plugged into machines. Undergoing treatment, the pain eventually became unbearable. He posted one last message on October 10 that read: ‘I am killing myself. Too much pain and suffering of my incurable cancer. Always remember me as your dearest friend’. And just like that, he left the world, just weeks after fulfilling his goal of a retrospective exhibition.

“I’ve known him for 30 years,” says singer Anthony Wong. “In fact, we’ve known each other ever since we were students. He is a multi-talented artist. He’s an author, photographer and a director that never compromises his integrity.” After graduating from City University in 1984, Lee started his career in media working with TVB, Oriental Daily, Ming Pao and Sing Tao, eventually becoming an editor and photographer for City Magazine, writing influential and provocative columns. “He talked a lot about guilty pleasures and introduced new concepts that broadened the way people think,” says Wong. “The stories he wrote about were quite queer and he represented the first generation of queer artists in Hong Kong. He was doing it before people were even familiar with that term.” This was before homosexuality was even legal in Hong Kong and Lee was at times labelled as a deviant. But he didn’t care. “That’s what I admired about him so much,” says Wong. “He deviated from the mainstream, explored the taboos through his writing and photography, but did it in such an uncompromising and tasteful way.”

Lee graduated with a masters in photography from the Royal College of Art in 1988 and cultivated his talents in Europe for the next eight years, exploring the realm of film – his very first script inspired Wong Kar-wai’s tumultuous gay love story, Happy Together. Lee also wrote countless short stories and four novels, two of which became films that he would direct. The Accident (1999) and The Night Corridor (2003) highlighted Lee’s highly sexual, Lynchian film making style, and were well received by audiences.

Besides his recognitions, exhibitions and written pieces, Lee was also a well-loved professor at City University’s School of Creative Media. “Usually students came to him with no background in photography,” says colleague and associate professor Hector Rodriguez. “But he had a way of encouraging students to explore all facets of their life. Julian was a great photographer himself. His portrait of director Zhang Yimou captured a sensual aspect of his character in a moment of utter isolation. Julian was capable of great empathy with other people and he was a great teacher.

Former City University student, Kalun Leung, remembers his teacher as ‘down-to-earth and more of a friend that would engage with students’. “He was funny, honest and would remember every student by their Chinese full names,” recalls Leung. “He didn’t hide his emotions. I think what I learned from him the most is the importance of passion. As an artist it’s important to be able to show what you are passionate about, and he did just that.”

There is no denying that Lee has influenced and touched the lives of many through his character and work. “You have to hand it to him,” says Wong. “When he knew he was dying, he didn’t complain or blame the gods. He just did what he had to. He put things in order, came out with a retrospective exhibition of life’s work and then checked out. He’s an inspiration and I hope he rests in peace.” Arthur Tam

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