Wanbao’s coverage of Leslie Cheung’s death

“Every day, they had 6 to 8 pages on Leslie, 2 on SARS, and just 1 on the Iraq War,” my friend Russell said. Interesting priorities this newspaper had, I thought.
Leslie Cheung, a very well known actor and singer, died on 1 April 2003. He threw himself off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hongkong. Within just 2 hours, news of his death beeped repeatedly into my cellphone, text messages sent by my friends. It clearly gripped many in my circle.

However, I am not really plugged into the Chinese cultural and entertainment scene, and this death, tragic as it was, was somewhat distant to me.

Newspaper-wise, my daily staple is The Straits Times, our main English-language broadsheet. It carried, more or less, one story a day about Cheung’s death and the outpouring of grief from Hongkongers and Singaporeans. This was for about a week until the funeral. On one of those days, it had a full page retrospective about Cheung’s’s life and career. For a reader like me, this level of coverage seemed just right, especially since greater events were in full swing: the US invasion of Iraq (currently dubbed Gulf War II) and SARS [1] scaring the daylights out of many Singaporeans.

So, it was a bit of a surprise to learn from Russell that Lianhe Wanbao, a Chinese-language evening paper, devoted 6 – 8 pages a day to the aftermath of Cheung’s suicide. With much of the front page too. To me, it seemed almost obsessive.

“But that’s what tabloids do,” Russell explained. “That’s the market they cater to.”

* * * * *

The more interesting question was, how did Wanbao handle Leslie Cheung’s sexuality? He had, some years ago, outed himself as a “bisexual”. His long relationship with Daffy Tong, a former banker, was also well known.

I went back to Russell to ask his views.

Having followed every issue of Wanbao through the period, he felt that there was no particularly strong comment on whether homosexuality was good or bad. The stories were sympathetic, but generally focused at the level of the individuals involved.

Early in the coverage, Tong tended to be cast as the philandering boyfriend and there was some suggestion that he and a third party possibly contributed to Cheung’s suicide. Very quickly soon after, it was revised, for Cheung too had one or more third parties. Tong was then seen as a more understanding person coping with the difficulties of a relationship.

Wanbao gave prominence to a late-night press conference by Daffy Tong, and reported all the details of his role in the funeral – his flowers, his last love-note, and how he was near collapse as he pushed the button to send the coffin into the furnace.

In all this, he was seen very sympathetically as the loyal grieving lover. Yet even so, there was the subtext that, what a pity, it was a gay relationship.

There were three specific details which Wanbao reported and which Russell felt was noteworthy that they did.

First was the fact that Tong’s name headed the list of surviving relatives. It’s a Chinese tradition for the family of the deceased to issue a formal list of descendants and kin. It’s very important from the point of view of legitimate succession. A list is normally headed by the spouse, if there is a surviving spouse, or by the eldest son.

The family put Tong’s name right at the top of the list, in a position where a spouse would normally be, except that Tong’s kinship was described as zhi4 ai4, or “beloved”. There was no pretence that he was a “friend”, a guise many others in a similar situation might be inclined to hide behind. He was the beloved one, and the primary successor.

Second was the special mention by Leslie Cheung’s niece, of Uncle Tong’s place in the family’s hearts, said in front of family and friends.

Third was a statement issued by the Taiwanese gay community pointing out that it was a milestone that the family placed Daffy Tong’s name at the head of the list.

Russell felt it was notable that Wanbao reported all these details.
But was it just culling from the Hongkong media, or were these stories written by Singapore journalists? It’s difficult to say because Wanbao generally does not attribute their stories to specific reporters or sources. However, since most tabloid-quality newspapers wouldn’t have their own reporters stationed abroad, it stands to reason that most of the content would have been drawn from Hongkong’s newspapers.

A few stories might have been locally written. Wanbao’s reporters appeared to have listened in on various bulletin boards to get a flavour of what ordinary people might have to say about Leslie’s life. There were criticisms of his committing suicide, about not setting a good example. There were also a few opinions expressed about whether it was right or wrong to be gay in a Chinese society.

Even if Wanbao didn’t have reporters in the thick of things in Hongkong, it could nonetheless exercise its own editorial discretion and choose to play up or play down certain aspects of the story. Russell felt that much could be read from the way it had been handled. “To the extent that Leslie Cheung was a flawed icon – one with a questionable lifestyle – it was significant.”

This episode might be saying something about how editorial boundaries are shifting. Perhaps the paradigm of heterosexuality need not always be defended strenuously.

* * * * *

Another friend of mine, Woon Chou, also read Wanbao during the week after Leslie Cheung’s death. He was more critical than Russell of Wanbao’s slant.

In his view, the editors were selecting reports that suggested homosexuality was a regrettable lifestyle choice. There was much speculation that Cheung’s sexuality was due to his lonely childhood and broken home. For example, Woon Chou noted a headline that said (in Chinese), “Unhappy childhood, (so Cheung) plays (the game of) homosexuality.” He noted the use of the Chinese word “gao3” which means to play at a game.

Another angle was that he had a number of girlfriends, but none of these relationships worked out. Hence, he was driven by these unhappy experiences to homosexuality.

In both, the suggestion was that this was not the original Leslie Cheung, but what he chose later in life. The subtext, as Woon Chou saw it, was that homosexuality was not a natural condition, but a less-than-perfect choice.

Woon Chou agreed that Daffy Tong was treated sympathetically, and their 18-year relationship was much praised. But he also noticed a report that said, “Leslie’s chosen homosexual life style was irresponsible towards his young fans as this misled them through a bad example of perverted acts.” (Woon Chou’s translation)

All in all, in his view, although editors were more subtle than before, carefully highlighting the disapproval of others without condemning homosexuality themselves, the message still had not changed.

So, are you the male or female type?

Midweek, a reporter from Singapore’s Chinese-language Channel 8 asked around for a gay person who might be prepared to appear in a TV program about Leslie Cheung. However, no one fluent in Chinese and prepared to be on TV, could be found at such short notice.

I myself was rather skeptical about the proposed interview. From experience I doubted if the reporter’s idea had been fully cleared with the editors, and anyway, on Singapore TV they were often more interested in soundbites that reinforced existing prejudices than in any new thoughts. The complexities of understanding sexuality do not lend themselves well to quick-response programs serving a celebrity-fixated audience.

Anyway, as my friend Kelvin Wong later told me, “the reporter never came back to us, and it was no loss anyway.” He didn’t think it would have achieved anything, especially as the particular reporter who had made contact didn’t know the first thing about gayness. “She even asked me over the phone, whether I was the male or female (type of gay)!”

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