She is an iconic actress. Most young artists when asked, would cite her as a role model, that she had a career any serious talent would emulate and use as important reference. She appeared in countless Hong Kong commercial movies in the 80s before her first collaboration with Wong Kar Wai in ‘As Tears Goes By’, with Ann Hui in ‘Song Of Exile’, with Stanley Kwan in ‘Centre Stage’, and with Peter Chan in ‘Comrades, Almost A Love Story’. She would go on to win one acting award after another, both from the East and the West. ‘In The Mood For Love’ cemented her as one of the greatest actresses and a symbolic oriental beauty this side of East Hollywood, in arguably the most cheongsam changes within a feature film. Almost a decade later, she would win the coveted best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for ‘Clean’, directed by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas. At the end of the film, she sang a song.
She has been in semi-retirement since ‘Clean’. She was last seen on screen in 2010. With a cameo in ‘Hot Summer Days’. And showcased in ‘Ten Thousand Waves’, a nine-channel video installation by London-based artist Isaac Julien. In the video, ‘Better Life’, she is featured as the goddess of Mazu that juxtaposes contemporary Chinese cultures against ancient myths. It was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York until mid-February this year. She was in a relationship with Beijing based architect Ole Scheeren till 2012. Turning down movie roles, she shifted her focus to art, philanthropy and making music. In 2010 she was appointed as UNICEF’s Ambassador to China. In 2011 was awarded the degree Doctor honoris causa at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
She is Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk. Last week she made the headlines again. On May Day in Shanghai, the screen icon took to the stage of Strawberry Music Festival to realise her dream to become the next rock star. Modern Sky, the music label who discovered some of the best indie voices in China, announced she had formed a five-piece rock band and had been rehearsing tirelessly. Expectations rose. Cheung greeted the crowd around 7.30pm and performed songs including a rock version of Teresa Teng’s classic Tian Mi Mi (As Sweet As Honey), a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’ and her own song ‘Visionary Heart’. Her 45 minutes performance ‘wowed’ the audience, but not exactly in the way she intended. Most of the audience found her low-pitched singing flat and out of tune. Some walked out, others thought she should stick to acting. A stinging comment on the NetEast website went viral. “This is a voice that is forsaken by heaven.”
Miss Cheung’s comeback to this cold reception was tongue-in-cheek. The four points she made before her performance in Beijing were widely covered by the media. “1. Yesterday, I used Pinyin to check on Baidu how not to sing off key at the Strawberry Music Festival. I checked for a long time to no avail. So today I will continue to go off key. 2. A clarification. Today I am 49 years, 7 months and 3 days old. Not over 50 years old. 3. It is my dream when I was very young to sing. After acting over 20 times, I was still said to be a vase. Please give my singing 20 chances. 4. I will not stop.” She did not stop singing even when the stage nearly collapsed from strong winds. Netizens and fans found her spirit praiseworthy. For the rest of us, this bold and almost sad rejoinder by Cheung is a reminder we need to give ideals a chance, and to give dreams a chance.
I went online to watch her performances. She is admittedly older, and a little too thin. The music is loud, noisy. She is no longer the Maggie in “Days Of Being Wild’, or ‘Green Snake’. I told myself this is how an ageing rock chick looks like. While watching, I suddenly saw something I did not see earlier. Her bravery. Her courage. She once said she had fulfilled her potential as an actor. Now, I see her acting out her dream to be a singer. Not just any singer, but a rock singer. That she is one of the most accomplished actors makes this transition to singer a high-profile career risk. She is out of her comfort zone. Is she out of her depth? The jury is still out, but the critical judgements are coming in fast and furious. Those of us who have seen the most unlikely second acts taking off should hold our horses. I take my hat off to such an act of bravado. Here’s looking at you Maggie!