That's our Leslie: suave, cocksure, with a touch of the brute (they love him for it) and a hint of sad solitude. A Canto-pop idol and film star since the late '70s, Cheung has been called "the Elvis of Hong Kong" by Canadian critic John Charles. He gets top dollar for film work, his new CD Forever Leslie is climbing the charts, and his concerts still pack 'em in around the world; for a pre-Christmas gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, tickets went—fast—for as much as $238.
At home he is catnip for the voracious paparazzi. "They follow me everywhere," he says. "They know my car numbers, so they're there whether I'm at the Mandarin Hotel Coffee Shop or at Propaganda (a hip new club). I don't even put my litter outside the house. People try to find things and sell them."
Cheung could qualify as a monument to pop longevity if he was not still in his glistening prime—and if he was not still so damned gorgeous. Any visitor to Hong Kong who mentions his name to a local will hear the same refrain: "Guess how old he is" (as if he kept a rotting portrait of himself in the attic). Cheung is 44, and if he has changed at all during his half-life in the public eye, it is to become more wily in the lavishing and husbanding of his allure. He simultaneously seduces and withdraws, flirts and forbids. He is the most cunning, provocative tease in Asian showbiz.
As an actor, he is terrifically versatile, at ease in art films (as Farewell My Concubine's conflicted gay opera star), action thrillers (as the sensitive young cop in A Better Tomorrow), fantasies (as Brigitte Lin's mountaintop lover in The Bride with White Hair), dark romances (as the haunted singer in The Phantom Lover) and fluffy comedies (as the music mogul in He's a Woman, She's a Man). Last year he played a psycho killer in Double Tap.
Inside these varied characters is the irreducible, enigmatic "Leslie": a beautiful man whose sexuality is a gift or a plague to those who fall under his spell. Typically, they love him and he leaves them; he must have said, "I don't love you" more times than anyone else in movies. But he doesn't just mesmerize the camera; he works subtle wonders before it. He glamorizes a scene in Days of Being Wild just by appraising himself in a full-length mirror while doing an expert cha-cha. And then, in unforgiving closeup, without moving a muscle, he will somehow change emotional temperature. You can see feelings rise in him like a blush or a bruise.
In concerts he woos staid Cantonese audiences until they are dancing en masse in front of the stage, votaries to the pop god. Their innocent ecstasy turns him on; Cheung has an almost naked love for being loved. In his year-long Passion tour, which concluded two weeks ago in Hong Kong, he wore eight Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, in ascending order of outrageousness, from a white tux with angel wings to a naughty skirt (and long black wig). At his Toronto concert a voice cried out, "I love you, Leslie!"; he said, "I love you too, whether you're a boy or a girl." The line happens to be one he delivered in He's a Woman, She's a Man, but it winks at Cheung's androgynous appeal. With a soul both pensive and explosive, equally capable of derisive laughter and hot tears, Leslie is all man-woman.
Cheung enjoys this audacious role playing; his latest music video featured a pas de deux (with a Japanese male ballet dancer) so sexy that it was banned by TVB, Hong Kong's top channel. He also knows that it leads audiences to the suspicion—or compliment—that he is gay, though he has not publicly declared his sexual orientation. "It's more appropriate to say I'm bisexual," Cheung notes. "I've had girlfriends. When I was 22 or so, I asked my girlfriend Teresa Mo (his frequent co-star in TVB serials of the time) to marry me." As a guest on Mo's cable TV show last month, Cheung bantered, "If you'd agreed to marry me then, my life might have changed totally."
His life was eventful long before then. Cheung Kwok-wing was born the youngest of 10 children of a Hong Kong tailor—he made suits for William Holden and Alfred Hitchcock—and his wife. "I didn't have a happy childhood. Arguments, fights and we didn't live together; I was brought up by my granny." His nearest sibling was eight years older; Leslie says he was "the youngest and the loneliest. My brothers would be dating girls and I was left alone in the corner, playing GI Joe or with my Barbie doll. It was miserable. My father couldn't control his emotions, with me or my mother. I used to think, 'And this is what they call marriage.'"
At 12 he was sent to the Norwich School in Norfolk, England. "There were racial problems, discrimination," he says. "But I made friends there. And on weekends I'd go see my relatives in Southend-on-Sea, where they ran a restaurant. I was a bartender, and I'd do amateur singing." By this time he had chosen his English name. "I love the film Gone with the Wind. And I like Leslie Howard. The name can be a man's or woman's, it's very unisex, so I like it."
After a year studying textile management at the University of Leeds, he returned to Hong Kong and placed second (singing American Pie) in ATV's Asian Music Contest. His 1978 film debut, Erotic Dream of the Red Chamber, was notable only for his butt-baring. Still, filmmakers saw his appeal as a new kind of star: beautiful, tender, dangerous. He still has it, and better. He's James Dean with a mean streak, or a deeper Johnny Depp.
Cheung did smart star turns as the lovers of two beguiling specters in A Chinese Ghost Story and Rouge, and he would later earn international acclaim in Chen Kaige's Concubine—still his fullest, grandest performance. But it was Wong Kar-wai who illuminated the inner Leslie on the big screen. Days of Being Wild made him a '60s Ah Fei (shiftless youth) whose mistreating of women is his payback to the mother who deserted him; it won Cheung a Hong Kong Film Award for best actor. In Ashes of Time, cast as a martial-arts scoundrel, he ably anchored a film of top Chinese stars and rapturous visual splendor. In the not-so-gay drama Happy Together he taught Tony Leung Chiu-wai how an actor prepares.
The film opens with a stark scene of the two main characters having sex. "When we tried to shoot the love scene it really shocked Tony," Cheung recalls. "He refused to do it. For two days he was miserable, lying on his bed. So I went up to him and said, 'Look at me, Tony, I've gone through so many scenes kissing, touching girls, grabbing breasts, do you think I really enjoyed it? Just treat it as a job, a normal love scene. I'm not going to fall in love with you, and I don't want you to really have sex with me. You're not my type.' So he agreed to do the scene." In other words: Tony, dear boy, why not try acting?
Though Cheung has directed an hour-long music drama and an all-star anti-smoking film, he will keep acting; he soon joins Anita Mui and Karen Mok in a Stanley Kwan film, and hopes to work with Zhang Yimou and the Crouching Tiger princess, Zhang Ziyi. Still, forever-young Leslie is having midlife doubts about his standing in post-'97 Hong Kong. "I've worked bloody hard for 20 years," he says passionately. "I was penniless, dying hard for my groceries. I can now live in a reasonably sized detached house. I'm still very strong in Japan and Korea. But I may be a little passE in Hong Kong. The place is so extravagant, vulgar, expensive. I may be too soft for Hong Kong. I don't always count myself as one of them."
Leslie, dear boy, why not try looking at yourself in the mirror and doing an elegant cha-cha? You'll see what you've been and still are: phantom lover, concubine, sweet prince.