What China's Talking About Today: Anniversary of a Gay Icon's Suicide

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China remembers Leslie Cheung, an actor and the founding father of Cantopop.

cheung april2 p.jpg

Flowers and photographs left outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong Reuters

One of the founding fathers of the Cantopop -- Cantonese pop music -- Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, leapt from the 24th floor of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, this week in 2003. Cheung was 46.

Nine years later, micro-bloggers on Sina Weibo are commemorating the death of the gay icon, whose roles in films like Wong Kar-wai's 1997 blockbuster Happy Together helped advance a dialogue on homosexuality in Chinese society.

Discussion of Cheung's death spanned a whopping 5.5 million comments in little over a day.

In a poll asking micro-bloggers to choose their favorite of Cheung's movies, 31 percent of roughly 20,500 voters chose Farewell My Concubine (1993).

The film, directed by auteur Chen Kaige, illustrates the effects of Chinese revolutionary history on a traditional opera troupe. Cheung portrays Cheng Dieyi, an opera singer who interprets the female lead in Chinese operas and falls in love with his heterosexual leading man.

Tormented by the turbulence of 20th century Chinese history and his unrequited love, Cheng Dieyi commits suicide while performing the part of a concubine, who kills herself before Han soldiers enter territory belonging to the king, her lover. The scene is especially chilling, given Cheung's real-life suicide -- which is officially attributed to depression and widely rumored to have resulted from problems with his relationship.

Many Weibo commenters wrote of Cheung's role in changing Chinese perceptions of homosexuality.

"It was Leslie Cheung who helped change my impression of gay people," wrote user Smokerlou.

Homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Health Ministry's list of mental diseases in 2001.

User Vickybaby1 summed up the sentiments of most other comments, saying, "Miss my older brother Cheung, on this 9th anniversary [of his death]."

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Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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