HONG KONG (AP) — Fans of the late Cantopop icon Leslie Cheung flocked to the city this week to commemorate their idol’s death 20 years ago — reliving his pioneering spirit. Work done during a socially conservative period.
Zhang, who was 46 years old at the time of his death, was a superstar known for his singing, dancing and acting skills during the heyday of Hong Kong’s entertainment industry in the 1980s and 1990s. His supporters across Asia fondly remember his iconoclastic work and called him “ahead of his time.”
Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Mr Zhang’s death, which drew legions of local fans and supporters from mainland China to Hong Kong to see an exhibition about him. Even the government has included concerts and film screenings about him in the city’s first pop-culture festival, which is due to officially open in three weeks.
Outside of the official exhibits, a steady stream of fans visited the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where Zhang committed suicide. The narrow walkway next to the hotel is completely covered in a sea of flowers, cards, origami and posters.
Anthony Fung, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said local recollections of Zhang proved the late celebrity remained a popular icon for generations of Hong Kongers and reflected a desire to revive Hong Kong’s cultural influence.
“After so many years, we can hardly find any new idols, new superstars who can reach that level of importance,” he said.
Cheung, who is affectionately known as Ge Ge — “big brother” in Cantonese — has produced so many hits that even non-Cantonese music lovers in other parts of Asia can sing along. These include “Monica,” “The Restless Heart of Sleepless Nights” and “The Chase.” He also starred in such classic films as John Woo’s “Tomorrow is Better”, Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together”, Kwan Kam-fai’s “Carmine” and Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine”.
But behind all his success, Mr. Zhang suffers from depression. On April 1, 2003, he jumped to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, which shocked the whole city. He died as his hometown was battling the SARS epidemic, which ultimately killed hundreds and crippled the local economy.
“We really miss him. His songs and movies take us back to the good old days in Hong Kong that are different from now. We will miss it,” said Justin Cho, a fan from the city, who came with his friends The hotel laid flowers for the actor.
Connie Leung, a retired Hong Kong movie fan in her 60s, recalled being in disbelief when she first heard the news of his death from a former colleague. “I said ‘don’t make jokes like that on April Fool’s Day,'” she said.
Zhang’s songs never go out of style, and his fashion sense, including his signature long hair, is modern — even by today’s standards, she said.
Chris Choi, Zhang’s concert choreographer in the 2000s, said the late superstar pushed many gender boundaries by introducing “unisex” ideas, some of which were risky at the time. For example, his stage outfit includes shell culottes and red heels.
“It tells people that art has no boundaries,” he said.
Zhang also disrupted the city’s cultural status quo by boldly exposing his gay relationship in the conservative local society at the time – a decision that would have ruined his career but earned him a lot of respect from the gay community, Feng explain. The breakthrough, he said, was in the multiculturalism he celebrated.
“He actually crossed the line and had an impact and impact on Hong Kong culture,” Fung said.
Zhang’s work inspired not only older fans, but also those who were toddlers when he died.
College student Justin Jiang said he was 3 years old when Zhang died, but later became a fan in high school after learning more about Zhang’s personality and charisma from the works he left behind. The 22-year-old, who lives near Guangzhou, visited Hong Kong with a friend this week to pay tribute to his idol.
He praised Zhang Yong for being brave enough to express his views and breaking through a society deeply influenced by gender stereotypes many years ago.
“My brother is very courageous and worth learning from,” he said.
Associated Press video reporter Alice Fung contributed to this report.
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