Gay Icons 1: The Unhappy Concubine

Anything and everything about gay life anywhere in the world, especially Asia, other than Thailand.
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Gay Icons 1: The Unhappy Concubine

Post by fountainhall »

A couple of years ago, I wrote some articles for a blog site that died in the spring this year. Asiaguys had been started as a sort of plaything for a young Australian who eventually found it too much and deleted the entire blog. One group of articles I wrote had as its focus gay icons. Since not many seemed to read the blog and the icon series was tucked away in a small box rather than in the main body of the blog, I know from friends that they missed it. So I will add some here with a few changes. I hope they may be of interest to those who like longer articles, even if you may have read the originals some time ago. And indeed even if you feel other icons have been overlooked.

For gay people, there have been many icons through the ages. Most are dead, their iconic status celebrated precisely because they were gay at a time when being gay went against the social norms of the day. Not all are famous in all parts of the world. But in their own way, they made significant contributions to the celebration of gay men and women.

The oldest gay icon is perhaps Alexander the Great who was deeply in love with his childhood friend Hephaestion. Aristotle described them as “one soul abiding in two bodies.” Arguably the best known of the ancient figures to attract iconic status now is St. Sebastian, the young, beautiful, near-naked youth, his body tied to a tree and pierced by arrows. Throughout history, hosts of artists have painted their ideals of his martyrdom. Gay filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1976 “Sebastiene” uses him to examine the overlap between sexual and spiritual ecstasy. In “Confessions of a Mark” by the gay right-wing Japanese novelist, playwright, actor, film director, ultra nationalist and sado-masochist, Yukio Mishima, one character has his first ejaculation over a reproduction of St. Sebastian.

Yet the odd thing is that St. Sebastian did not die as a nubile youth nor from the arrows. He was rescued from that tree by a nun, brought back to health and lived well into middle age, by then with a paunch and looking more like a graduate of Tawan Bar than Jupiter 2018! The Emperor Diocletian finally had him clubbed to death.

Perhaps a result of the influence of missionaries and colonisers, Asia has few gay icons. Some Chinese Emperors were notably gay. Two remembered today are King Anxi of Wei during the Warring States period around 250 BC precisely because of his relationship with Lord Long Yang. Long Yang was the name given to various gay clubs around the world where westerners and their Chinese/Asian admirers continue meet on a regular basis. There used to be a branch in Bangkok but it died some years ago,

Around 4 BC Dong Xian, the lover of Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, fell asleep on the Emperor’s arm. Rather than wake him, Ai cut off the sleeve of his robe. “Cut sleeve” gave rise to a popular euphemism for a sexual relationship between two men. This is still occasionally used today.

Some suggest the first Asian gay icon was Mishima. A regular participant in Tokyo’s underground gay nightlife, he eventually married and had two children – although only after a brief dalliance with Michiko Shōda, later to become the present Empress of Japan.

But it was the gruesome manner of his death that really thrust him into the world spotlight. An extreme right-wing nationalist, in November 1970 he delivered a speech intending to instigate a coup d'état. Mocked by the officers he had hoped to inspire, he then committed ritual harakiri. The friend assisting in the task of beheading him after disembowelment failed in his task several times before another completed the deed. Although some grieved at the loss of such a talent, Mishima is not a figure that many admire today outside Japan.

One who was adored far and wide was Hong Kong singer and actor, Leslie Cheung. Handsome in the extreme, he was hugely successful as a silky-voiced singer, actor and songwriter. For 20 years he presented the image of a massively talented, beautiful, actor and singer. Audiences could not get enough of him.


Unlike other movie stars, Leslie played several gay characters in Hong Kong and Chinese movies, mirroring his secret life as a closet homosexual. He came to world attention in the 1993 movie “Farewell My Concubine” with an utterly superb portrayal of a gay Chinese opera singer who ends up committing suicide. This gorgeous film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the only Chinese film ever to do so, and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.


By this time, Leslie was known as one of the Canto-pop “kings”, four Hong Kong Cantonese singers (three were gay) who dominated record sales around Asia for over a decade. In 1997 he starred in another movie, “Happy Together”. This is a dark tale of two 30ish gay Hong Kong lovers who decide to travel to Argentina’s stunning Iguazú Falls on a tiny budget in an attempt to reignite their relationship. It does not work. Both spend time seeking other sexual encounters. Throughout the entire movie themes of loneliness and emotional pain are intertwined in a recurring cycle of mutual abuse and dependence. Unlike the title of the film, in reality it depicts the inevitable destruction of the couple’s relationship. “Happy Together” gained worldwide acclaim, including another Palme d’Or for its director and a third Best Actor nomination for Leslie.

Returning from training college in England with a view to his taking over his family’s textile business, Leslie had come to the attention of a Hong Kong TV station after winning a local singing competition. He was soon under contract and began appearing in many soap operas and movies. This photo is taken from the 1981 Hong Kong movie “On Trial”.

Photo: Pinterest

Can you imagine three more cute young actors? Danny Chan (left) was virtually already a star in his own right. Leslie Cheung (middle) reached stardom in 1984. Paul Cheung (right) became a popular DJ. Danny and Leslie were closet gays at that time.

All three died tragically young. Then 23, Danny Chan always had an entourage of at least six gay and mostly western young men. He loved clubbing. But even in 1981 he had fallen victim to drugs. He was found in a coma as a result of an overdose aged 33 and died 18 months later. Paul committed suicide aged only 30 allegedly because of huge debts he had amassed. Of Leslie’s death, more later.

Having achieved mega stardom as a singer, in 1989 Leslie filled 10,000 seats in the Hong Kong Coliseum for an astonishing 33 consecutive nights. That's the equivalent of 15 nights at Madison Square Garden or London's O2 arena! That same year he turned down an offer from the London impresario Cameron Mackintosh to star first in an Asian tour of “CATS” followed by a stint in the Broadway production of “Phantom of the Opera”. Had he taken up the offer, he could have gone on to become Hong Kong’s and even Asia's biggest-ever worldwide star. As it was, his following was already huge. He remains the only artist ever to have performed 16 consecutive concerts in Japan.

Eight years later at another series of concerts for which Jean-Paul Gaultier designed his costumes, he announced that he was gay and had had a lover for many years. In fact, he and his banker partner had been childhood sweethearts. It did nothing to upset his adoring female fans, although some of the guys were disappointed!

What was not known then was that despite his legendary fame in Asia and his growing fame around the world, Leslie started suffering from severe clinical depression. On April 1 2003 his manager was waiting for a meeting in the mezzanine lounge of Hong Kong’s Mandarin-Oriental Hotel. When he was very late, she called his cell phone. “I’m sorry,” he said. And in a touch of horrible irony, added, “I’ll be down in a moment.” Unknown to her, he was already having a soft drink on the hotel’s 24th floor. Within moments he left his table and jumped to his death. He was 46 years old.

Leslie left a short suicide note thanking his family, his lover and his psychiatrist. He added, “I can’t stand it anymore . . . In my life I have done nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?” His funeral was the largest Hong Kong had seen since the death of another movie icon, Bruce Lee, with many thousands flying in from all over Asia as well as North America.

In a 2010 CNN poll Leslie was voted the Third Most Iconic Musician of all Time after Michael Jackson and The Beatles. Had he lived, he would be 63 in September next year.

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