The Iconic Queer Legacy of Leslie Cheung

For Liu, Cheung inspired Asia’s gay community just by existing. “He was the only openly-queer superstar in the ‘90s,” he says. “And being accepted by his fans—due to his unique charisma and artistic achievements—he really showed that gay people can be themselves in a beautiful way… He was a significant figure to me and to my gay circle of friends. He showed us a silver lining. We hoped to be out and proud but we were not ready yet to fight the real world.”

In 2019, Sandoval became the first trans woman of color to direct (and star in) a film competing at the Venice Film Festival, with her sensual social justice thriller Lingua Franca. Sandoval says she found inspiration in Cheung’s refusal to conform to gender norms. “I love that Leslie embraced and reveled in his queerness enough to manifest what made him sexy, captivating and singular,” she told GQ. “He was fearless, he didn’t care what you thought, and he wasn’t just going to fit conveniently into neat little boxes to please you.”

The designer and restaurateur Humberto Leon, partner in the seminal downtown fashion boutique Opening Ceremony and now the chief marketing officer behind L.A. restaurant Chifa, learned Chinese from watching Cheung and Anita Mui movies and variety shows. “His exuberance and flamboyance was really attractive to me,” Leon says, “to see an Asian man be that was super cool.” Leon continued, “I was kind of watching a muse. It was like how you felt on the inside but somebody’s living that on the outside… Creatively, he’s always been at the back of my mind as a mood board of who I love, who has really kind of paved the way for me.”

Even mainstream pop culture isn’t immune to Cheung’s influence. Earlier this year, BTS member V posted a clip of Cheung’s memorable mambo from Days of Being Wild on his Instagram and later posted a video of himself echoing those moves. Similarly, the Korean actor Yoo Ah-in has posted Leslie Cheung vinyl on his Instagram.

The Bushwick bar Mood Ring, which aims to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color, is unabashedly inspired by Wong’s filmography, from the In the Mood for Love-referencing name to a cocktail named after Tony Leung. Fittingly, a Happy Together neon sign and a Days of Being Wild (another of three Wong films that starred Cheung) tapestry get pride of place. “For those of us who love him, Leslie is an undisputed icon and forever star heartthrob of our greatest dreams,” Mood Ring founders Vanessa Li and Bowen Goh said via email. “His performance in [Happy Together] is heartbreaking… He’s left us something that we’ll be pondering for centuries.”

Cheung’s Ho disappears about halfway through Happy Together, but his ghost lingers. When Leung’s Lai is crying into a tape recorder or cruising for trade in public restrooms, it’s Cheung that he—and we—are thinking of. Like In the Mood for Love, Happy Together is a film whose title betrays it. A movie about being home sick, about being love sick, about the struggle of immigrants and the impossibility of returning to better days—everyone’s always talking about going home in Happy Together, but they never get there. “I had no regrets until I met you,” Lai tells Ho at one point. “Now my regrets could kill me.”

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