“So what will this story be about?,” she asked. “Is it about my acting career? Is it about fashion? Or is it about me and Hong Kong?”
The story is about your mind, the answer was. This story is about the mind of Maggie Cheung.
A lot of things have been said about a woman’s birthright to changing her mind – but when a woman does make up her mind, it is set, and set for life.
And Maggie Cheung, throughout her colorful life, has changed her mind again and again, as well as made it up resolutely, in many, many ways.
Watching her, listening to her, talking to her, you would clearly put yourself willingly in her presence. It is unavoidable. It would be a pity if you were to miss just one word, one gesture, in the never-ending, ongoing transformation that is Maggie Cheung, a personality so vivid that it changes color and tone by the minute, so prismatic that whatever light she catches – and she catches quickly – and immediately gives back.
She is an actress, after all. I once called her a movie star and I was immediately corrected – actress is the term she prefers. With a show business career that has spanned over 20 years, Maggie has excluded very little in her resume, from a stint in a Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant to TV to martial arts movies to her reinvention as one the world’s most-awarded Chinese actresses to – well, well, well- a Palm D’Or at Cannes last year. Though she accepts movie offers very, very selectively nowadays, to understand Maggie the Actress, whose talent and charm and magic is every bit what an Actress ought to be, is to understand Maggie the Woman.
One evening, I caught her in a wonderful actress moment: a photo shoot inside one of Hong Kong’s historical trams. Costumed in Victorian lace, she leaned her head out the window, stared into the neon lights, and made her jet black eyes go sad and wet. And you were not so sure where the Woman ended and the Actress began.
How else could a woman be so strong, confident and sure of her powers, and yet so lost, so wistful?
“I am a contradiction, in many ways,” she admits. “I was born in Hong Kong, and then I left when I was seven years old, with my family, to England. I stayed there for 10 years. It was difficult at first–I felt so alienated. The boys teased me mercilessly, as I was the only Asian girl in the entire school. There was a point that I refused to speak Chinese, I dyed my hair blond, I just wanted to belong.”
And then, she changed her mind. At 17 she decided to fly back to Hong Kong because – of all things – she had developed a fancy for an actor she had spotted in one of her mother’s Hong Kong soap opera videotapes. “I am going to meet him!” she declared, and found her way to the homeland.
That was in the early Eighties, right when Hong Kong was still the Crown Colony of the British Empire, joyfully increasing its GNP while painfully coming to terms with the not-too-distant reality of the handover back to China. Amidst the prevailing sentiment, Maggie stumbled upon stardom, and her twenties were to be spent enveloped in movie set klieg lights and paparazzi flashbulbs, ascending the dizzying ladder of success.
“Lucky – I was very lucky. I am a Dragon, you know,”she says, referring to her Chinese horoscope. (Maggie was born in 1964.) “But after a while it dawned on me that I no longer wanted to rely on my luck to get me through life.”
Maggie the Celebrity was a role she accepted, but had a difficult time playing. “If I had a choice between total fame and total anonymity, I would choose the latter, though now I am trying to find a balance between the two,” she says. “The Hong Kong media can be the most vicious, it can eat you alive. I’m glad I was able to get out, and I’m glad I can now deal with it on my own terms. I had the courage to do it my way–it’s not a power game, but just a way to protect myself.”
And so after over 10 years in Hong Kong, Maggie changed her mind once more. She shot Irma Vep with filmmaker Olivier Assayas, fell in love with him (they have since been married and divorced –ed.), and moved to Paris – coincidentally, right before the Handover, and around the time thousands of other Hong Kongers, terrified by the specter of China’s communism, migrated to North America, Europe and Australia.
Maggie the Parisienne, it turned out, brought out Maggie the Chine. She describes the paradox wonderfully: “When I moved to Europe, I realized how deeply Chinese I really am. It is a part of me. I cannot run away from it, no matter how long I stay there. Even in the West, I remain Asian. I really am a contradiction.”
And you know that what she says is true.
Listen to her speak French and be delighted– it has a lovely lilt, a femininity, a voluptuousness, so distinct from her low-pitched British English and her solid Cantonese.
Dine with her and enjoy a Western meal taken in like a Chinese feast.
Pick apart her unique fashion sense–forget the cheongsams of “In the Mood for Love”– and find yourself unable to place it in any city or era or influence.
Laugh with her–she laughs often–and wonder in which part of her fragile physique she must hide her reservoirs of dramatic intensity for all those acting parts.
And just look at her face. It is a Chinese face, absolutely, but something about her eyes and the purse of her lips betrays a soul that has seen other, stranger worlds.
Giorgio Armani himself–whom Maggie has never even met–cited her looks, along with Helena Bonham Carter’s, as the epitome of today’s beauty, a woman who “could belong to the past or the future, [having] mystery and a touch of madness.”
There is a certain madness about Maggie—but not in the psychotic sense. A woman as strongly individual as her—with all that she alternately reveals and conceals—is impossible to absorb completely, which only makes her all the more absorbing.
She is maddening, rather.
Over dinner with Maggie once we played a peculiar game by which we were to describe every one at the table as an object—a flower, a car, a city, a color, among other categories.
Each one of us had a different answer for Maggie.
She was a rose to one, an orchid to another, a chrysanthemum to yet another.
She was scarlet, she was silver, she was gold.
She was a Bentley, a Mercedes, a Ferrari.
She was Paris, she was London, she was Shanghai.
And each of us felt we were all correct, for she was all those things—this mercurial, ever-changing Maggie.
So the last time I saw her, I asked her for a metaphor on Hong Kong—what it still means to her, how she sees it now.
Her reply, so rich, astounded me. “The story of Hong Kong…. Is like the story of a step sister. Hong Kong was raised by a British mother, but had a Chinese father—a father she shares with her siblings Shanghai and Beijing. And now it is time to return to the family, because the mother is gone, and Hong Kong is a bit sad, a bit shy… but also eager to share all that she has learned, all that she has become, to her new family, which is actually her REAL family. Hong Kong is coming back home.”
Later, I pressed myself for my own metaphor for Maggie.
Read back on this story—this story about a woman’s mind—and you could replace all the “Maggie’s” with “Hong Kong”—and you would find that it actually makes sense: ever-changing and mercurial yet one day unchanging; Western and Eastern; a survivor and a success; local and international; a performer, a contradiction, a feast for the senses; a rose, an orchid, a chrysanthemum; a woman-child finding her way back home.
Maggie Cheung is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is Maggie Cheung.
Text: Paula Nocon Published in Issue 15 HONG KONG, 2005