Review: ‘Firelight of a Different Colour’

Firelight of a Different Colour: The Life and Times of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, by Nigel Collett, Signal 8 Press (February 25, 2014), 486pp, bibliography, notes and index

firelightWhile many of Leslie Cheung’s songs, recordings, concerts and films were widely known outside of Southeast Asia during the 1980s and 1990s, the impact of his death by suicide in 2003 on fans in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea probably wasn’t deeply understood by most of the English-speaking world.

Yet, in the years leading up to and including the British handover of Kong Kong to China in 1997, Cheung was in many ways the very embodiment of the colony’s film and recording industries.

Collett’s thoroughly researched Firelight of a Different Colour is both a tribute to Leslie and a likely resource for all future biographies and documentaries about the widely respected actor and highly popular Cantopop star.  For many English-speaking readers, the book is a wonderful, in-depth introduction to Leslie, Hong Kong’s entertainment business, and to the difficulties of gay performers within the colony’s compact and often-hostile media environment.

During the months leading up to his death, Leslie was plagued by clinical depression, fatigue and multiple physical ailments that friends and fans couldn’t help but notice. Yet, they were unprepared to lose him to anything other than early retirement. His death created shock waves followed by an outpouring of grief that, even now, suggests Collett has left “the pain still too raw for a full biography” from the viewpoint of the family and many fans.

Collett sees this book as provisional and fully hopes it will be superseded by true biographies and assessments. The strength of the book for those future works comes from its encyclopedic approach to Leslie’s life and career along with the collected footnotes and bibliography. The weakness–which is a small one at that–also comes from a linear and occasionally exhaustive presentation of facts (large and small) that includes lengthy plot summaries of films.

Inasmuch as films, concerts, and other celebrity events are strongly visual events for fans, the book would have been well served with the inclusion of personal and professional photographs of Leslie and other film and recording stars, concert venues, album covers, movie posters and production stills from “Farewell, My Concubine,” “A Better Tomorrow” and other films.

On balance, Firelight of a Different Colour represents the author’s very diligent attempt to re-energize the memories of fans, introduce Leslie to a wider audience, and gather the resources of another era for the writers and researchers of the future. It’s a must read for fans and a heart-felt introduction to those meeting Leslie for the first time within its pages.