The Life Of An Artist
Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, born on 12th , September, 1956, passed away on 1st, April, 2003
As a British colony, HK long suffered an identity crisis that produced both extreme hatred and passion toward its Chinese inheritance. While the surging economy of the seventies and eighties produced an illusion of confidence, that mood was only temporary and disappeared altogether along with the rest of HKs optimism, as the economy rapidly plunged in the mid-nineties. Only false pride and vanity survived. Worse, this vanity has made it contemptuous and prejudiced against alternatives, and prevents it from any breakthrough or escape from the identity which was created in the time of economic prosperity.
Since 1997, there have been endless discussions on whether HK will remain as one of the leaders in Asia, but what kind of leader? All they mean is a leader in 'Commerce'. However, a city can never become a world-class city unless it is also a cultural centre; which is reliant on both political will and economic power for its continuous health. To promote commerce as a primary agenda has made Hong Kong become a place where material things and superficiality are worshipped; an anti-intellectual, and anti-Art culture. The obsession with getting ahead has also eliminated the importance of looking back at history as a source of inspiration for rebirth.
In order for Hong Kong to build a permanent sense of confidence and to be out of the present crisis, it has to sustain its traditional resilience while resisting a complete cultural take-over by the mainland, but it can neither rely on just money, nor a set of imported cultures and ideologies. The only option it has is to start building itself up culturally again from its root, diversify its efforts and develop other facets of society. Hong Kong has a rich and unique heritage, which contains so many potentials and possibilities that can make it a successful city and a true world-class metropolis. However, this will not happen if Hong Kong does not have a genuine desire to become more than just a larger shopping mall for tourists in Asia.
One just has to look at the pathetic quality of those local artists who are currently dominating the music industry to immediately realize how that industry is monopolized by just a few major business players and how small individual artists are stifled to the point of extinction. Presently, what Hong Kong has is a group of so-called 'Image Singers'. The meaning of this term can only be truly understood by the marketing corporations which have been promoting this concept since the early nineties. However, if you are just a normal person like me, all you can see is that its a label for those who have very limited musical abilities. As long as they look reasonably hip after a thousand-dollar makeover, they can qualify as 'Image Singers' can; some even keep receiving all sorts of music awards! (I am mystified by who sets the standards in HK, the real singers, the fake singers, the audience or those who have money? I certainly would not want to expand the discussion to include the current probe into the music industry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, ICAC).
If you are not interested in relying on them for your latest fashion inspirations, then watching or listening to this group of 'artistes' is an act of self-inflicted torture, a heartache complete with a sense of depression if you compare them with those in previous generations. This kind of brazen and arrogant way of promoting music (popular or not) can hardly bring pride or self-esteem to the Hong Kong people. As it was said once by Wong Kai Keui (the pivotal member of the once-sensational local band Beyond, who was killed in 1993, at the height of his career, in a freak accident while performing in Japan), "There is no music but only entertainment industry in Hong Kong!" (Furthermore, it is entertainment packaged and sold as a product to a group of very young consumers). This remark has summed up the Hong Kong music scene today. Unfortunately, it is also the environment in which Leslie was trying to make a difference.
Leslie's suicide shocked Hong Kong and forced its people to go through a long and painful self-examination, for it symbolized the loss of opportunities and the rejection of an artist by a society where spiritual and intellectual health is treated as an afterthought, a society managed only by a group of handpicked business magnates and government technocrats (Note 1), who show little leadership and have not the faintest vision of what a post-colonial Hong Kong should be like. I feel sad, extremely sad, because I know I was rejected by it for the same reasons. It is the rejection of new and 'impractical' ideas which do not yield immediate economic benefits, the rejection of a well-rooted, yet modern and international citizen, whose socialistic and democratic ideals do not fit into the business ideology. These ideals are more commonly shared among the educated elites who grew up in the sixties and seventies, and incidentally Leslie belonged to this group.
Over the years working as an architect, I have met many designers, but few are truly creative and original, brave enough to smash the status quo and all prejudices in order to give an idea a chance to be born; to take risks, and to live out their ideals even if the results are judged as failure. Leslie was one of those exceptions: he was idealistic, brave, stubborn and had a strong sense of who and what he was; he devoted his life to his art, and above all, he wanted to prove that high quality art can still exist even in a world dominated by commercial interests. Only after many years did he manage to make the HK audience and the show business accept him as an individual artist (reluctantly perhaps). He refused to fit into someone elses suit or to get packaged as a product; so in order to prove his ability he had to work much harder than anyone else, perhaps much harder than he should have. It was a long and hard struggle, nevertheless it was a struggle he chose and determined to win. When he finally was given some artistic freedom, the media instead put their focus on exposing his private life. One can imagine what a nightmare it would have been, for a celebrated artist to choose to live his private life more like a recluse, only to discover that his sexual orientation drew more media attention than the art that he spent all his life to perfect! It must have felt to him like a slap in the face, a total denial of his artistic contributions and achievement, a betrayal of a citizen by his society. After his Passion Tour, he was exhausted. Depression tightened its grip on him, pulled him over the edge before any help arrived. This distortion continues even after his death, which the media thrived on as an opportunity for creating more stories and gossip, and his suicide is still seen by many as an act of selfishness. What they do not criticize is the lack of support he endured from the media, the industry and the general public throughout his career. Even many of those who recognized his talents and were possessed by his striking beauty, who bonded with him for life as his fans, still failed to see the depth of his suffering from loneliness as an artist and from the isolation of simply being different. Many are still trying to cope with their inability to see or understand the causes of his death.
He died when he was about to direct a full movie of his own. The anticipation of this possibility especially thrilled his overseas fans, who were more familiar with him as a great actor than as a popular singer; with his enormous talents and experience, there was no reason whatsoever to think he could produce a bad movie. We lost the opportunity to see his talent as a film director, something that he had been wanting to do for almost two decades, and had hoped would eventually satisfy and retire all his artistic ambitions. His premature death will always remain one of the greatest losses to Hong Kong and world cinema.
Looking back at his life from my perspective as an artist, I can start to understand how his depression killed him. He could not do what we can, that is to leave HK, and quietly pursue his ideals. He was a celebrity (a Superstar), and the idiom and even the syntax of his art were the popular Cantonese/Chinese culture and its mass audience (not just the society's cultural elites); he had no choice but to stay if he were to continue his career. He did not survive but at least he persisted, long enough to make an impact on his beloved city. His suicide has become an indelible stain on Hong Kong's history and an incurable wound in the hearts of all his fans. Perhaps because of this wound, there is a need for me to write this essay, as if,
|I am answering a cry, a vague and half-expected cry,|
|From the confinement of another solitary cell, asking to be remembered as it fades.|
|An eddy rushed and carried by the rivers flow, yet revolving in a world of its own,|
|A world of a different hue, forsaken but free, parallel to this one but never meets.|
|Convergence is only a trick, our souls on their rare visits, like to play.|
He could not have survived on knowing or communicating with a few alike or compassionate minds only, he needed a larger environment which Hong Kong in particular had deprived him of. Once it was said, Leslie Cheung was not made for television, it was a box too small for him; as we look back and realize the truth - To a great artist like Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong was a box.
As for myself, the only comfort I have is knowing that: "You were beautiful and you were loved. You must have experienced the joy of ecstasy, and seen eternity face to face because you had known Art. You must have understood what it all meant to be free and alive, for Art had embraced you and your innocence without prejudice. There will be more and more people touched by your works who like I will continue to write songs and poetry for you, and their reverberation will linger on from generation to generation, and you shall live again! Time will not forsake you even if you were forsaken by your own time."
|There in my beloved city afar,|
|I do not believe the wind will continue to blow,|
|nor is there even a chance to start its true flight.|
|A possibility forever gone, is only|
|a dream, to dream of a lost dream.|
|We pay attention and we care,|
|A lie, a vanity and a fools game dealt everyday,|
|briefly stopped on one April Fools Day,|
|there in my beloved city afar.|
|Shall I stop, or just pass it by?|
|Keep my head down and avoid the contact of another pair of eyes?|
|Continue, till deserted even by time, then|
|wonder why the wind had stopped blowing|
|on one April Fool's Day,|
|there in my beloved city afar?|
- Yim Chan
In remembrance of Leslie Cheung - November 11th, 2003 (Remembrance Day)
1. technocrats technical experts as political rulers, but here I mean especially government administrators and authorities who adopt a managerial methodology that only focuses on techniques and efficiency, seldom concerned with the more complicated aspects of human nature.