Cheung rose to prominence as a teen heartthrob and pop icon of Hong Kong in the 1980s, receiving numerous music awards including both Most Popular Male Artist Awards at the 1988 and 1989 Jade Solid Gold Best Ten Music Awards. In 1989, Cheung announced his retirement from the music industry as a pop singer. Returning to the music scene after a five-year hiatus, Cheung released his chart-topping comeback album Most Beloved (寵愛) which achieved a huge market success. In 1999, he won the Golden Needle Award for his outstanding achievement as a musician at the RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Awards, and his 1984 hit song Monica was voted as Hong Kong's "Song of the Century". He was honoured as "Asia's Biggest Superstar" at the 2000 CCTV-MTV Music Honours.
Cheung's music and films not only captured fans in Hong Kong but also other Asian areas including Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Japan and South Korea. He is the first foreign artist to hold 16 concerts in Japan that has yet to be broken and the record holder as the best-selling C-pop artist in Korea.
Cheung was ranked as the favourite actor in the 100 years of Chinese cinema. In 2010, he was voted the third "Most Iconic Musicians of All Time" (after Michael Jackson and The Beatles). CNN considered Cheung as the "Most Beautiful Man from Hong Kong Cinema" and one of "Asia's 25 Greatest Actors of All Time."
Cheung committed suicide on 1 April 2003 by jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. A suicide note left by Cheung stated that he had been suffering from depression.
Cheung was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, the youngest of ten children in a middle-class Hakka family. Cheung Wut-hoi (張活海), his father, was a fairly well known tailor, whose customers included American actors William Holden, Marlon Brando, and Cary Grant. His parents divorced when he was quite young. While in Hong Kong, Cheung attended Rosaryhill School at Wanchai on Hong Kong Island. At age 12, he was sent to Norwich School in England. He worked as a bartender at his relatives' restaurant in Southend-on-Sea and sang during the weekends. It was around this period that he chose his name, Leslie. According to Cheung, he chose this name because "I love the film Gone with the Wind. And I like Leslie Howard."
In several interviews, Cheung stated he had had a fairly unhappy childhood. "I didn't have a happy childhood. Arguments, fights and we didn't live together; I was brought up by my granny." "What I would say most affected me as a child, was that my parents were not at home with me. As a young kid, one could not always understand why his parents weren't at home. This made me depressed sometimes."
He attended the University of Leeds where he studied textile management. He continued university through the end of his first year when his father fell ill. After his father's recovery, Cheung did not return to England to complete his studies.
Following his participation in the talent contest, Cheung signed with Polydor Records in 1977 and released his first albums, I Like Dreamin and Day Dreamin, recording the full contents of the album in English. The albums flopped as did his first Cantonese-language album, Lover's Arrow, in 1979. During one performance in 1980, Cheung was booed by the crowd and the singer briefly departed from his music career, until signing with Capital Artists in 1982 where he released his breakthrough album, Wind Blows On that year. In 1984, his song "Monica", became the best-selling single in Hong Kong history and made Cheung a music superstar. Cheung would release more successful albums including For Your Heart Only (1985), Stand Up (1986) and Admiration (1986). Cheung left Capital Artists in 1987 and released nine more albums on the Cinepoly label.
He donated profits of the 1989 album Salute to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, which was named the Leslie Cheung Memorial Scholarship after his death.
Cheung's stance as one of Hong Kong's biggest artists brought him in competition with fellow superstar Alan Tam (譚詠麟), leading to increasing hostility with their fans, starting a long-standing conflict that soon put heavy pressure on both singers. In 1988, Tam publicly quit all pop music award ceremonies. In 1989, Cheung announced his intention to retire from his music career as a singer. Cheung then set a record by being the first singer ever in Cantopop history to hold a retirement concert series Final Encounter of the Legend, which ran for 33 consecutive nights (he was 33 at the time) at Hong Kong Coliseum.
The turning point in Cheung's acting career came in 1986 with his starring role in John Woo's (吳宇森) A Better Tomorrow, which broke Hong Kong's box office record. In the following years Cheung was praised for his performances in films which found popularity with audiences worldwide, including A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Rouge (1987) and Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild (1991).
Although Cheung quit his career as a pop singer from 1989 to 1995, he continued his music career as a songwriter. He composed more than ten songs during that time. In 1993, he won Best Original Movie Song Award from Golden Horse Film Festival for the theme song Red Cheek, White Hair to the film The Bride with White Hair (as a film score composer). In 1995, he wrote all three theme songs for the film The Phantom Lover. As for songwriting, Cheung won four nominations for Best Original Movie Song Award at the Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards and two nominations for Best Original Film Song at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 1998, he was a member of the jury at the 48th Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1995 Cheung signed a contract with Rock Records, returning to music as a singer. At the same year, he released his first post-"retirement" album, Beloved. Beloved achieved large market success with the award of IFPI Best Selling Album.
In 2001 Cheung collaborated with William Chang, the art director of Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild (1991), to make his music video Bewildered, about the intimacy between two gay men. Japanese ballet dancer Nishijima Kazuhiro played Cheung's lover in the video. The music video was demonized the video for advocating homosexuality and became banned by TVB, but Cheung refused to edit the scenes and censor himself.
Cheung's last concert tour was the Passion Tour, which took place in Hong Kong and overseas from 2000 to 2001. Cheung collaborated with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, transforming Cheung "From Angel to Devil" in six costumes: the Angel, the Pretty Boy, the Latin Lover, and the Devil – denoting cross-cultural drag and focusing on Cheung's androgyny and bisexuality. Although Passion Tour was acclaimed in Japan, Korea, and Cananda for Cheung's glamour and dignity in using drag performance through Gaultier's costume designs, in Hong Kong it was received with disapproval. Psychotherapist Bo-neng Lee criticized Cheung for presenting through cross-dressing and eroticism what he interpreted as a mental disorder, concluding that Cheung hated of his own body and had a weakness of character.
Cheung distinguished himself as a Canto-pop singer through embodying the politics, sexual and gender identity of a queer subject position. He announced his gay relationship with Daffy Tong during a concert in 1997, earning him prestige in LGBT communities in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In a 2001 interview with Time magazine, Cheung said: "It's more appropriate to say I'm bisexual. I've had girlfriends. When I was 22 or so, I asked my girlfriend Teresa Mo (毛舜筠) to marry me.", but was unsuccessful In two interviews in 1992 and 2002, Cheung also stated that "My mind is bisexual. It's easy for me to love a woman. It's also easy for me to love a man too" and "I believe that a good actor would be androgynous, and ever changing," referencing his performance of intersexuality, androgynous dressing, and gay femininity in his music videos and films.
Cheung and Ngai Sze-Pui (倪詩蓓), a Hong Kong model and actress whom he met on the set of Agency 24, were in a relationship for two years.
Cheung responded to the question regarding lover, “In terms of lover, I think I can be a better friend than a lover. Because I am a workaholic. To share my romance, that person has to compromise something.” This statement was out during the interview following the release of Okinawa Rendezvous.
Cheung was never married but was in a long-time relationship with childhood friend, Daffy Tong.
Cheung was a supporter of several charities concerning children's welfare. He was a patron of the Children's Cancer Foundation, a charity provides caring service for young children with cancer and their families. Cheung donated HK$1 million (US$128,000) in 1996 and launched five sets of RED cards to help raise funds for the Children's Cancer Foundation. He was also a patron of the End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation (ECSAF), founded by veteran actress Josephine Siao (蕭芳芳). In 1999 and 2000, he appeared in TVB charity shows to help raise funds for ECSAF, in which he was appointed a goodwill ambassador in 2002.
He moved to Vancouver in 1990 and became a Canadian citizen by naturalisation. He held Canadian citizenship.
Cheung committed suicide on 1 April 2003 at 6:43 pm (HKT). He leapt from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, located in the Central district of Hong Kong Island. He left a suicide note saying that he had been suffering from depression. He was 46 years old.
As one of the most popular performers in Asia, Cheung's death broke the hearts of millions of his fans across Asia and shocked the Asian entertainment industry and Chinese community worldwide. The day after Cheung's death, his partner Daffy Tong confirmed that Cheung suffered from clinical depression and had been seeing Professor Felice Lieh Mak, a famous therapist, for treatment for almost a year. He also revealed that Cheung had previously attempted suicide in November 2002. Later at his funeral, Cheung's niece disclosed that her uncle had severe clinical depression and suffered much over the past year (2003).
Despite the risk of infection from SARS and the WHO's warning on traveling to Hong Kong, tens of thousands attended Cheung's memorial service, which was held for the public, on 7 April 2003, including celebrities and other fans, many from other parts of the world such as mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, the United States, and Canada. Cheung's funeral was on 8 April 2003. For almost a month, Cheung's death dominated newspaper headlines in Hong Kong and his songs were constantly on the air. His final album, Everything Follows the Wind (一切隨風), was released three months after his death.
Cheung's suicide note (translation):
"Depression! Many thanks to all my friends. Many thanks to Professor Felice Lieh-Mak (麥列菲菲) (Cheung's last psychiatrist). This year has been so tough. I can't stand it anymore. Many thanks to Mr. Tong. Many thanks to my family. Many thanks to Sister Fei (沈殿霞). In my life I have done nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this?"
Local Hong Kong media and professionals worried that Cheung's death would infect youth who looked up to him with sexual disorientation and queer ideologies, linking gay life to violence, depression, and suicide in order to try to teach young people to fear homosexuality. Many media outlets focused primarily on arguing about his queer identity instead of on his artistic achievement in film and music. Previous to his death, Cheung mentioned in interviews that he had become depressed because of negative comments about the gender-crossing in his Passion Tour concert. He had planned to retire from stage performance because of the strain of being a gay artist in Hong Kong, facing stigmatization, surveillance, and marginalization.
In a 2012 interview, Cheung's eldest sister, Ophelia, stated Cheung was diagnosed with clinical depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. She said that reporters were frequently found outside of her brother's home which hampered his ability to get to his doctor's facility. Thus, he would come over to her house to consult with his doctor. He would ask his sister, "Why am I depressed? I have money and so many people love me." He was reluctant to take medication for his depression.
In 2013, Cheung's former music agent Florence Chan organised two memorial concerts entitled "Miss You Much Leslie" on 31 March and 1 April for the 10th anniversary of Cheung's death. Big names of the Hong Kong entertainment industry such as Jacky Cheung (張學友), Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (梁朝偉), Andy Hui (許志安), Leo Ku (古巨基), Chilam Cheung (張智霖), Vivian Chow (周慧敏), Kelly Chen (陳慧琳), Joey Yung (容祖兒), Grasshopper, and others performed at the concert at Hong Kong Coliseum. In addition, in 2013, Cheung's fans from around the world made 2 million orizuru cranes for the Guinness World Record as a tribute to the anniversary.
On 12 September 2016, on what would have been Cheung's 60th birthday, over one thousand fans joined Florence Chan in the morning at Po Fook Hill Ancestral Hall (寶福山) for prayers. At night, Cheung's fans club, Red Mission organised "Leslie Cheung 60th Red Hot Birthday Party" to commemorate Cheung. It was an outdoor birthday party at Central Harbourfront Event Space with a big LED screen projecting Cheung's past video clips, concerts, songs and pictures. Eason Chan (陳奕迅) as a member of Red Mission joined the party singing one of Cheung’s song “4 season” (春夏秋冬) as a tribute to Cheung. In the same month, another fans club, United Leslie also celebrated the big day of this renowned star. United Leslie organised an exhibition and movie screening of Cheung's two selected movies in PMQ, Central of Hong Kong.