Course:ASIA321/2022/Maggie Cheung

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Maggie Cheung, a former Hong Kong actress and model is recognized and respected by many for her strong presence in the national and international film industry. In this Wiki, we will be documenting the social and cultural significance of her journey to success including transitions into and out of the spotlight. Through a critical perspective, we aim to help others interested in Maggie Chueng better understand her contributions on screen, her philosophies and her compelling personal life that extends beyond acting. Additionally, we hope to convey how celebrity culture and a celebrity’s private lifestyle can assert influence on society’s expectations and understandings of the world around them.


Maggie Cheung in Miss Hong Kong pageant

Maggie Cheung was born on September 20, 1964 in Hong Kong just when the popularity of cinema began to rise. Her birth mother is from Pakistan, however, she was adopted by a Chinese family at the age of 3.[1] She did not find out about her nationality until the application process. At the age of eight, her family decided to move to the United Kingdom.[2] For quite some time, she stayed in London, England. When Maggie was 18 years old, she returned to Hong Kong.[3] She started her modelling career and participated in the beauty pageants. Maggie was placed second in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant and earned the title of Miss Photogenic.[4] That year, she was also a semi-finalist in the Miss World pageant as a representative of Hong Kong.[4] Her participation in both events helped increase her social presence and eventually lead her to different opportunities.

It is interesting to note that her given name is Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk (張曼玉). In Chinese culture, names are very important. They represent the parent’s wishes for their child in the future. The first character Cheung 張, is her surname. The following Chinese character 曼 means beautiful and 玉 means jade in Chinese.[5] Her parents had hoped that Maggie would be as beautiful as jade.

The year 1985 was the year Maggie immediately rose to stardom from her role in the Police Story film series with Jackie Chan.[6] Maggie won a plethora of awards worldwide. She is known for having the most wins in the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress category and the Golden Horse Best Leading Actress in Taiwan.[7] Her contributions to the film industry were not only celebrated in the East, but in the West as well.[8] She received many awards globally including the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992.[8] Furthermore, Maggie was also the first Asian Actress nominee for the César Award for Best Actress. [8] She did not enjoy the first few years of her career, Maggie often cried and felt homesick.[5] Although she became a well-known figure, she did not like the way the entertainment industry functioned. In her eyes, the environment was very toxic, mentally and physically draining. The entertainment industry as perceived and experienced by Maggie was composed mostly of networking parties and fake smiles.[5]

Life roles

Early Life and Education

Maggie’s upbringing in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom allowed her to become a fluent in many languages. She had a talent for speaking different languages from Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, English to French fluently.[2] Her parents were also Shanghainese, hence, she learned the language.[2] She spent most of her life in England as a student focused on learning English and completing her academic studies.[2] This made Maggie considered herself to be much more westernized than Chinese. Due to exposure to two very different cultures, she struggled with racist misrepresentation, identity crisis and feelings of belonging. However, her ability to speak many languages allowed her to enter the Chinese and Western film industry. Despite being adopted, there were little interferences with her professional career and personal development. She had difficulties applying for Chinese nationality, but Maggie ended up being approved.[1] Prior to Maggie’s vacation to Hong Kong in 1983, she had no intentions of becoming involved in the celebrity circle. Initially, she wanted to become a hairdresser and then a model.[2] Returning to Hong Kong allowed her to adopt new life roles as a model and a runner-up pageant girl.[2] Maggie also worked briefly as a TV presenter before signing a contract with TVB (The Television Arm of the Shaw Bros. Studio), a renowned Hong Kong broadcasting station.[2] The media exposure from these roles played a huge part in her growing popularity.


Maggie Cheung achieved the peak of her movie career at Cannes Movie Festival in 2004

She began taking on various acting jobs, the Police Story film series with Jackie Chan was her first big step into the film industry.[6] She was hardworking, she appeared in 12 movies in one year, but her fame was only limited to local HK. She was a decorator in the highly streamlined movie industry. Maggie Cheung’s artistic career thrived with the HK New Wave movie’s emergence. When young film auteurs were at the start of their careers and faced the pressure of investors worrying about the box office, they are forced to select actors and actresses from the most popular ones in the commercial area. Maggie Cheung starts to coordinate with Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan. From then on, she continued to take on different roles. Many people praised Maggie for her ability to fully immerse and portray various roles. Although Maggie played a role in many great films, the character she embodied in Centre Stage was the best representation of Maggie’s life as a celebrity.[9] In Centre Stage, she played a character by the name of Ruan. Ruan was a popular Chinese celebrity just like Maggie herself.[9] For Maggie and Ruan, tabloid press acted like a double-edged sword that contributed to their rise to stardom while also drawing negative attention to them through gossip. The similarities between Maggie’s real life and her character helped make her on-screen acting much more authentic. This film helped her earn the Silver Bear Award in 1992.[9]

After entering the new century and Hong Kong movie industry declined a lot, Maggie movies her career centre to Europe and Mainland China. She achieved the peak in 2004, when she won the Best Actress at Cannes Movie Festival by the movie Clean.

Maggie Cheung and Olivier Assayas on set of Irma Vep

With her prestige and fame, Maggie was appointed the UNICEF ambassador in China. As an ambassador, she dedicated personal time and fame to help children in need. She personally visited underdeveloped areas in Liangshan, Sichuan Province with a film crew to raise awareness for poverty.[10] This contributed to establishing a warm-hearted and caring image for Maggie.

Currently, Maggie has decided to permanently withdraw herself from the spotlight. She now refers to herself as a former actress.[11] The last major film project that Maggie participated in was over 10 years ago. After she stopped acting, she pursued a few other professions including film editing and singing.[11] She was able to pursue a musical career for a short period with the connections she made from being in the celebrity circle as an actress and model. However, her music career was much more rocky in the beginning.[11] Despite being labelled as a poor singer, people continued to respect her for her acting.

Personal Life

She met her former husband in a Western film titled “Irma Vep” directed by Olivier Assayas, a French director.[12] In 1998, Maggie was married to Oliver Assayas.[12] With Maggie’s acting career continuously progressing, she landed on more significant roles. Two of which required her to stay in China for over a year.[13] This came at the expense of her marriage, as a result, they signed divorce papers in 2001.[13] Even after the divorce, the former lovers continued to work together on a film. Her next publicly revealed relationship was with Ole Scheeren, a German architect. [14] They were linked together since 2007, but after 4 years, their relationship came to an end.[14]

Screen roles

Maggie Cheung’s screen career began in 1984 with the rom-com movie Prince Charming, where she played one of the potential love interests of a Hong Kong businessman vacationing in Hawaii. This established her onscreen persona as light and humorous; after gaining more recognition from larger filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, this role serves as a sharp contrast to some of her later, more dramatic and refined roles. Since then, she has had over 90 different screen roles, ranging from lesser known roles like the Police Story franchise to internationally recognized arthouse cinema like In the Mood for Love.

Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in As Tears Go By (1988).

Cheung’s breakthrough role was in As Tears Go By (1988), which Wong directed and cast her in alongside Andy Lau, a notable Hong Kong actor like herself. Cheung plays a woman living in poverty on Lantau Island who must travel to Kowloon for medical treatment. Her character eventually falls in love with Lau’s character: her gangster cousin. This role required vulnerability in Cheung’s acting and was a step up from any roles she had played before, setting a precedent for her subsequent work.

Farewell China (1990), directed by Clara Law — another Hong Konger and a female filmmaker  — cast Cheung in the particularly challenging role of Li Hong: a Chinese immigrant navigating New York City alone. The role required Cheung to channel her acting into the two polar sides of her character’s personality and portray the traumatic experience of an immigrant in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. This duality undoubtedly prepared her for future roles that demanded a complex range of emotional expression.

Maggie Cheung’s performance in Center Stage (1991), directed by Stanley Kwan, saw her revive the persona of beloved 1930s Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu who died by suicide. This role not only tested Cheung’s mastery of linguistics by combining Cantonese, Mandarin, and Shanghainese dialogue; it also fused her iconicity as a young, beautiful Chinese actress with that of Ruan Lingyu. The role went on to win her the Best Actress Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, where she was the first Chinese woman to receive the honour.

The Heroic Trio (1993) was director Johnnie To’s interpretation of a superhero film through a Hong Kong lens, combining Maggie Cheung with other legendary Asian actors Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui. While this film may not be as thematically rich as her other works, it still cemented Cheung in a popular, more widely accessible genre of cinema.

Another film that strategically draws upon Cheung’s Hong Kong identity is Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), which is regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed Hong Kong films of all time. It earned nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including best actress for Maggie Cheung’s portrayal of Lee Kiu, who undergoes massive character development and abandons her financial obsession in exchange for the non-material riches in life.

Irma Vep (1996) is a self-reflexive film directed by Olivier Assayas, whom Maggie Cheung would marry and later divorce. Cheung plays herself being hired (and later fired) for the titular role of Irma Vep in a TV remake of Les Vampires (1915–1916). Irma Vep (1996) is a self-reflexive film directed by Olivier Assayas, whom Maggie Cheung would marry and later divorce. Cheung plays herself being hired (and later fired) for the titular role of Irma Vep in a TV remake of Les Vampires (1915–1916). Notably, the film cast a Chinese actor in a presumably French role, challenging directorial convention and establishing Maggie Cheung as unique, able to break boundaries and open up casting to more Asian actors[15].

Maggie Cheung as Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love (2000).

Maggie Cheung may be best known for her role in what many regard as Wong Kar-wai’s best film, In the Mood for Love (2000). Cheung stars alongside Tony Leung, where the two form a couple after suspecting each of their spouses are having a secret affair. Due in part to Wong Kar-wai’s rich colour palette and intricate cinematography, both Cheung and Leung comprise a visually stunning and sensual film, whose beauty has won the hearts of viewers within and beyond China. The two actors form a captivating dynamic that Wong, as well as other filmmakers, have utilized to continuously entice audiences. Creating a sense of familiarity and reinforcing a perceived camaraderie between actors is an effective way to draw upon audience sentiments and foster devotion toward certain filmmakers and actors. This is precisely how Cheung and Leung have become such an iconic duo in Chinese cinema.

Four years after In the Mood for Love gained international renown, Cheung won best actress at Cannes for her performance in Clean (2004), becoming the first Asian woman to do so. She plays a mother struggling to overcome a drug addiction while mending her relationship with her rock musician son. Her character, Emily, finds herself weaving between Vancouver, Paris, and London, which results in her repeatedly switching languages — demonstrating Cheung's own adept multilingualism.

Substantive analysis of the celebrity's profession

A critical analysis of Farewell China

Farewell China (1990) movie poster
Li Hong (Maggie Cheung) is interviewed to obtain a U.S. visa in Farewell China (1990). A stone eagle sits on a pedestal in the background.
An example of the "present" plot line colour editing: Zhao Nansheng (Tony Ka Fai Leung) in a car with Jane (Hayley Man), a young runaway he meets on the streets of New York City in his search for Li Hong.
Li Hong (Maggie Cheung) examining a photo of her husband after killing him out of perceived self defense before a statue of the Goddess of Democracy. In this scene, the past plot line has caught up with the present, but the gloomy lighting evokes the sense of hopelessness that both Zhao Nansheng and the viewer feel after Li Hong has dissociated from her former self past the point of no return.

Farewell China (1990), directed by Clara Law, charts the journey of a Chinese couple to America while framed against the Tiananmen Square. Zhao Nansheng and Li Hong, the film’s central couple, are separated when Li Hong is denied a visa, so she must travel to the U.S. alone as an illegal immigrant while her husband and child are left behind in China. Once she establishes residency, gains a quality education and a stable job, her family can join her. This familial split is where the two characters’ identities and their ties to the Chinese motherland begin to unravel; the inhospitable environment of New York pulls at this same thread until the entire fabric of Zhao and Li’s former life is unrecognizable.

When viewed through a historical lens alongside the June 4th Incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989, just one year prior to the film’s release, Farewell China offers a commentary on the anxiety felt by Chinese citizens after the Chinese Communist Party’s attack on democracy. Many fled China in search of more freethinking democratic nations, though director Clara Law challenges the dominant definition of such nations by presenting a decaying, hostile version of New York City — America’s cultural capital. An alternate reading of the film could also include the Hong Kong handover from a hindsight perspective. Those who experienced the handover firsthand could relate to the trauma of displacement and identity loss that Farewell China’s central characters grapple with.

Maggie Cheung is of Hong Kong descent, so she has firsthand experience of Hong Kong’s turbulent political status, as well as perhaps the identity crisis that comes with it. Like Li Hong, she has also moved from a Chinese-speaking country to an English-speaking country, so she knows what it is like to be transplanted between two entirely different cultures and experience racism and Sinophobia from non-Asian populations. One particularly memorable yet distressing scene from Farewell China that illustrates this experience is when Li Hong is being interviewed by a U.S. immigration officer to obtain her visa. As a lone Chinese woman with a minimal understanding of English, the American man exploits Li’s vulnerability by speaking too quickly and not pausing to see if she has comprehended what he said. This scene should be relatable to anyone who has applied for a government ID or travel document, especially if they faced racial, gendered, and/or language barriers.

In terms of symbolism, eagle imagery is present throughout the film, often lurking in the background about Li Hong’s head. In the same scene as the immigration interview, a large stone eagle sits on a pedestal behind her. In a later scene at the school Li Hong is attending to learn English, an eagle painting looms above her head, as if to make very clear that she is not in China anymore and must answer to a new authority — the U.S. government. Rather than finding a fresh start, Li Hong and her husband only fall victim to the state once again.

The editing in Farewell China juxtaposes the past (Li Hong’s struggles with a language barrier and Sinophobia in an unfamiliar city) with the present (Zhao Nansheng’s search for his wife). The cool bluish colour toning of the “past” plot line creates a stark contrast with the “present” plot line, suggesting that there is still some hope in Zhao’s quest for Li. Despite Li and Zhao’s eventual reunion, the trauma of Li’s transnational immigration has irreversibly scarred her, erasing any remaining semblance of her past self and life.

The celebrity’s contribution to their professional field (cinema, film culture, and beyond)

Maggie Cheung as a transnational icon

As a Hong Kong-born actor who moved to England at eight years old, [16] Maggie Cheung exemplifies the transnational global celebrity. Her multilingualism — reflected in her ability to speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, English, and French — is unusual among most Chinese actors. This means Cheung is able to reach wider audiences, as well as market herself to both domestic and international filmmakers, in a way that other actors cannot. It also allows her impact as an actor to be more influential. For example, China has historically struggled with repackaging its soft power (i.e., cultural power) in a way that is more palatable to global audiences. Maggie Cheung’s ability to successfully enter and even top Western box offices reflects the appeal of her acting to non-Chinese viewers, and is a critical step toward Chinese media expansion into foreign markets, as well as the popularization and acceptance of China’s soft power.

The evolution and reimagination of a Chinese actor and celebrity

In the late 2000s, after the arguable height of her acting career thus far, Maggie Cheung expressed her interest in the filmmaking and directorial process, coupled with a desire to step away from acting. Earning higher accolades was no longer her top priority. In a 2007 interview with The Independent, she is quoted with saying that she “feel[s] fulfilled as an actress” and “doesn’t have any dreams of winning an Oscar,” having already won best actress at Cannes a few years prior. [16] Having lost a key connection to the film world, some would argue that the divorce persuaded her to take a break from acting. A more likely explanation for someone as independent and successful as Maggie Cheung would be that she simply wanted to steer her ever-adapting career in yet a new direction. She claims, “Now I want to enjoy life, leave the sadness behind. I'm ready to change.” [2]

Nonetheless, her impact on both Asian and international cinema has been undeniably remarkable. Maggie Cheung is recognized as one of few Chinese stars to breach U.S. markets. Unlike some of her counterparts (e.g., Gong Li and Siqin Gaowa), she has no formal training in acting, which is very impressive given the breadth of her characters and the international reach of her films. According to The New York Times, she is possibly one of the most famous women in China. [2]

Key societal, economic, political, moral, and historical forces that influenced Maggie Cheung’s career

Anxiety, displacement, and identity loss amid the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident and 1997 Hong Kong handover

There is much scholarly literature on major Chinese historical events, and likewise, ample news coverage of iconic celebrities like Maggie Cheung. However, little scholarship exists examining the relationship between the two. We aim to put these two topics into dialogue by comparing Maggie Cheung’s career milestones alongside the June 4th Incident at Tiananmen Square of 1989 and the Hong Kong handover of 1997 and examining how these events affected the Chinese populace, and in turn how they were reflected in Chinese celebrity culture.

These events served as a catalyst to strike up national and international conversations about the changing state of China through the medium of cinema. The Tiananmen Square Incident created an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty about the status of democracy in China. As demonstrated in Farewell China, many Chinese citizens fled the country to find refuge in democratic Western states. These migrations open up transnational channels to foreign markets, as well as stimulate national conversations within the Chinese diaspora.

Due to their geopolitical separation from mainland China and censorship from the Chinese Communist Party, Hong Kong filmmakers had more creative liberty to add commentary to their work than most mainland directors. Other themes, like the overall identity crisis that Hong Kongers experience in relation to the politically gray area that Hong Kong occupies, translate well to the big screen. This is because Hong Kong represents a global centre of democracy and free expression, which resonates with many Western audiences (that also happen to be major centres for film distribution and award festivals).

In turn, these historical events also presented major opportunities for Maggie Cheung. For example, Anita Mui was the first person to be considered for the role of Ruan Lingyu in Center Stage (1991). However, she had sworn to never return to China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Incident, so the role ended up going to Cheung. [17] Mui’s protest thus opened up a door for Maggie Cheung to take on a career-changing role.

The Hong Kong handover transformed Cheung’s career as well. It seems logical that Hong Kong directors like Wong Kar-wai, Stanley Kwan, Yim Ho, and Ann Hui (all of whom Cheung has worked with) would not only seek out talented actors, but also people who embody similar identities and lived experiences as Hong Kongers like themselves. 2046, another collaboration between Wong and Cheung, is set on the cusp of the 50-year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. It is unlikely that the role would have gone to a mainland Chinese actor. We argue that, in addition to her raw talent, Cheung’s multinational identity, experience with displacement early in life, and already established iconicity in Hong Kong created ideal conditions for her recognition by Hong Kong film auteurs.

China’s simultaneous rise in hard and soft power

The beginning of Maggie Cheung’s career aligns almost exactly with the dawn of a new, fifth generation of Chinese cinema, marked by the release of Chen Kaige’s The Yellow Earth in 1984. [18] The popularization of this film indicated a similar trend in China's political power leading up to the turn of the century. Cinema is a primary mode of recording, communicating, as well as rewriting national histories, and the Chinese government began to realize this as well. Leaders pushed to promote Chinese cinema as a way of introducing Chinese culture (i.e., soft power) to international audiences and thus gain more political influence (i.e., hard power) on the global stage. [19] The government carried out a series of reforms of the Chinese film sector lasting from the mid-1980s to the late 2000s, [19] which matches perfectly onto Maggie Cheung’s running years as an actor, suggesting that Maggie Cheung’s film career almost certainly benefited from this restructuring and expansion of the Chinese film market.

Reception of the celebrity

Reception in Greater China

A Gang Feng photo of Maggie Cheung with red lipsticks, long curly hair and soft light filter

‘Gang Feng’ (Hong Kong Aesthetical Style)

‘Gang Feng’ is a rising aesthetic style in mainland China these years. Young women try to simulate the fashion style of the ‘Golden Age’ Hong Kong movie stars in the 80s and 90s. Gang Feng gives the impression of working women in a metropolitan city, their clothing style is gender-neutral and comfortable with the retro style makeup.[20] Finally, a heavy soft light filter is added to complete the whole outfit. Maggie Cheung was the representative star of the Hong Kong movie golden age, her outfits in the movies of her early career become the prototype of the Gang Feng style. Her independent woman image also becomes a role model for modern Gang Feng fans.

Why netizens cannot accept Maggie Cheung as a rock star

Maggie Cheung sang on the stage

Maggie Cheung stopped making films gradually after 2010 and tried to play independent music. She maybe gets inspiration from her role as a drug-addicted rock star in the French movie Clean in 2004. The most controversial thing in recent years was her performance at Shanghai Strawberry Movie Festival in 2014. The Chinese netizens cannot accept her rebellious rock star image that overturns her elegant impression with her unprofessional singing skills. They left negative comments on Weibo and other Chinese platforms. These comments disturbed Maggie Cheung a lot. In an interview on a TV show, she mentioned that she cried for days and kept her distance from the public because of this unpleasant experience on the stage.[21] But she continued to write songs for movie.

It may be surprising that Gang Feng hot and the criticism of Rock Star Maggie Cheung are happening at the same time in the 2010s. When people pursue the cosmopolitan spirit of Maggie, her change to a rock’n’roll image is unacceptance. The favour of Maggie Cheung and her Hong Kong profile is maybe conditional for mainland audiences. When Hong Kong is losing her thrives, people no longer understand any postmodern action of the unglamorous middle-aged woman Maggie Cheung.

The rescreening ticket of In the mood for Love in South Korea

Reception in South Korea

There is a similar hot of Golden Age Hong Kong movie stars in South Korea. Many commercial movies had success in Hong Kong and left a deep impression on Korean people. As for Maggie Cheung, it is worth notetaking that the movie In the Mood for Love becomes long-lasting popular in South Korea. After its first screening in 2000, Korean cinemas rescreened this art movie in 2020 and 2022 with a newly restored 4K version. The popularity of this move may imply the reminiscence of Shanghai-gestured image and elegance in East Asia.

Reception in the West

Maggie Cheung’s stay away from Hollywood commercial movies makes the North American audiences not know much about her until she got the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 for the movie Clean. In the interview with The New York Times Magazine[22], the interviewer also uses the term ‘uncertain barometer of public reception’ to describe her stardom in North America. But in the EU, Maggie Cheung has been more accepting of playing in French movies as a foreign outsider. For Maggie Cheung herself, she seemed to not so care about her fame in the West. She expressed more interest in interviewers than in talking about her mission as an Asian actress. She has never been driven to disprove American audiences' stereotypes of Asian performers. She is not compatible with Hollywood’s lifestyle.

And it’s always the French director who understands her needs. Her cooperator and ex-husband Assayas designs the role in the movie Clean to show the talent that has nothing to do with cheongsams or Asian femininity. Maggie Cheung does not want to be dragon ladies or Chinatown mafia molls or martial artists or mysterious fortunetelling women. She wants to be herself in a foreign movie and the audiences would first view her performance and then notice her Chinese identity. In Europe, she has been halfway but in the US, it’s just the start.

Critical literature review

Salty-cool: Vulgar beauty: acting Chinese in the global sensorium by Mila Zuo[23]

Mila Zuo tries to summarize the unique personalities of Chinese actresses from their appearance in the global sensorium. For Maggie Cheung, Mila Zuo connects salt’s thermal absorption and cooling effects with the possible negotiation of racist and misogynistic heat (Zuo, 74)[23]. Salt is also described as an immigrant substance to make the metaphor with the English-speaking role of Maggie Cheung. Salt gives extra flavour as a material accent to food, just as the ornamentalized Chinese woman in white-male director’s films. The ‘foreignness’ of actresses is emphasized to indicate cultural pluralism. But at the same time, the reluctance and uncertainty of the outsiders are aestheticized to give the illusion of being accepted by different societies. The Salty-cool finally becomes the mask of Maggie Cheung’s screen roles to prevent further exploration of self-images under the terms like “icon of modernity,” “transnational,” and “cosmopolitan” (Zuo, 80)[23].

‘Just play yourself, “Maggie Cheung”’: Irma Vep, rethinking transnational stardom and unthinking national cinemas by Dale Hudson[15]

This article about French national cinema points out how Maggie Cheung is selected as the tool for anti-nationalism in European movies and the interplay between the movie role actress ‘Maggie’ and the real actress Zhang Man-yuk. The author talks about the transnational backgrounds in and out of the screen, especially when eurocentrism’s political and economic underpinnings have begun to be eroded by changes in the world economy (Husdon, 214).[15] The decline of the EU leads to the rising of Maggie Cheung’s Asia profile in French cinema as a new ‘archetype’ under a more globalized context. By referring to multiple interviews between Maggie Cheung and the French press, the author also explores Maggie Cheung’s self-perception about playing in a French movie without speaking French and her hybrid identity as not a Chinese-Chinese (Husdon, 226).[15] Maggie Cheung and the Hong Kong movie industry represent ‘invaded’ EU in an uncompleted way, there are still oriental signs in this movie. The emphasis on transnationalism works in tandem with nationalism, the author never negates this argument.

Fifteen minutes of fame – Transient/transnational female stardom in Hero by Olivia Khoo[24]

Khoo talks about the conflicts and connections between Maggie Cheung’s transnational stardom and the predominantly masculinist narrative of Chinese nationalism offered by the movie Hero. The author discusses the unique career path of Maggie Cheung that she enters the global film industry not by being absorbed into American and Hollywood industries. Also, she expresses the unwillingness to ‘sell her culture’ when she pulled out the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, a Hollywood movie with a Japanese story. Maggie Cheung’s selection of movies gives a sign of embracing Chineseness as an icon of modernity. She and Zhang Ziyi construct the multifaceted Chinese femininity in Hero.

The Female Voice in Two of Stanley Kwan’s Sinophone Films: Maggie Cheung, Sammi Cheng, and the (Un)translatability of Personae by Dorothy Wai Sim Lau[25]

In this article, Lau discusses the interplay between star identity and Sinophone articulation (Lau 135).[25] Using Stanley Kwan’s movie Center Stage as an example, Maggie Cheung’s remake of silent actress Ruan Lingyu with a similar bilingual life: Cantonese and English/Shanghainese. Therefore there is a translatability between the personifier and personified (Lau 135).[25] This successful attempt at the vocal match is duplicated in her transnational co-productions. Lau also mentions the difference between Cheung and other contemporaries migrating to Hollywood after getting famous in Greater China and gets the conclusion that Maggie Cheung’s screen persona often draws upon her Hong Kong profile and is considerably tied to the Sinophone context (Lau 137).[25] However, back to Center Stage, Maggie Cheung expresses a new modern Hong Kong sensibility, which differentiates from Ruan’s tragic image. So there is also untranslatability between Maggie Cheung and her Sinophone persona: her star image as a heterogeneous and Hong Kong localized new woman actress makes herself more versatile.

The Palimpsest Body and the S(h)ifting Border: On Maggie Cheung’s Two Crossover Films by Yiman Wang[26]

Yiman Wang connects Maggie Cheung’s excessive foreignness with the potential of rupturing gender politics inside her crossover films. The gender dynamics between Maggie Cheung and male directors are addressed: though these two crossover films (Center Stage and Irma Vep) intervene in the national film historiography, their utilization of Cheung’s gendered foreignness still seems problematic (Wang, 964).[26] Maggie Cheung is a heterogeneous female body in these films, her body is focused on too much by the male directors. Therefore, we cannot deny the patriarchal and Orientalist framing from the postmodern “high style” directors. But Maggie Cheung herself still expresses implosive effect in the movies by her border-crossing screen passing to break the patriarch and force the new concept of national cinema deriving from her femininity (Wang, 976).[26]

Critical debates

Gender – does the icon of modernity raises new gender issues in Maggie Cheung’s case?

Scholars commonly use the terms ‘modern’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ to describe Maggie Cheung’s star image. However, when playing these ‘new women’ images, does Maggie Cheung still meets gender hierarchy under the hegemony of male directors? We use one of the most famous roles played by Maggie Cheung as an example to show the debates. In Center Stage, the participation of the Hong Kong women Maggie Cheung interacts with her performance of Ruan Lingyu, the famous Shanghai actress in the 1930s. Tony Williams argues that this setting is a smart attempt of using Maggie’s survival and modernity to compare with Ruan’s tragedy to stop the tears (Williams, 300).[27] But this self-reflexive examination attempt is challenged by Yiman Wang as she thinks the interview part between Maggie and the director becomes an instructional session (Wang, 960).[26] Maggie Cheung does not have her subjectivity in this part and becomes the director’s tool for showing his right to interpretation.

What we want to add to this debate is Maggie Cheung’s career background in the early 1990s. Many scholars also mention that Maggie Cheung is not the first choice of director Stanley Kwan. He used to invite Anita Mui to play Ruan Lingyu, as he found more similarities between the most famous actress in Shanghai and the most celebrated singer in Hong Kong (Lau, 137).[25] While Maggie Cheung is a newcomer to art house movies and just gets rid of being a ‘flower vase’ in the commercial movies. Under this circumstance, it’s more reasonable that Stanley Kwan gives more instructions on her performance. But as Yiman Wang criticizes, this mismatch exposes the submissive position of a relatively newer actress facing an experienced male director. When the signature cosmopolitan style of Maggie Cheung’s performance has been constructed through this movie, the dependence on the hegemony of the male director keeps existing whether it’s a modern movie or not.

Chinese Nationalism – to what extent does Maggie Cheung’s stardom adapt or dissolve Chinese nationalism?

Because of Maggie Cheung’s hybrid cultural background, she is naturally thought to hold a fragmented identity in many communities. Her ability to use Cantonese and English – but not Mandarin and Shanghaiese emphasize her uniqueness. Many scholars have agreed on the importance of heterogeneous language use for Maggie Cheung in movies. The localization decentralizes the agenda from a monolithic notion of “Chinese cinema” to a Hong Kong perspective in the movie Center Stage (Wang, 975).[26] Also, the French directors try to reflect the diversity of postcolonial nationalisms but not ethnocentric nationalism through Cheung’s Hong Kong profile (Hudson, 224).[15] But for a mainland Chinese director, how does Zhang Yimou explore the adaptation of Maggie Cheung’s stardom to a national discourse? Olivia Khoo tries to find an alternative explanation of Maggie Cheung’s career path: her refusal of stereotyped Hollywood Asian roles gives some space for nationalism promotion and expresses anti-hegemony of Western cultures (Khoo, 127).[24] So when she plays the Chinese martial arts movie Hero, it’s natural to translate it as an act of being close to Chinese culture.

Is this adaptation successful? Indeed, Hero makes a huge success in Asia and Western countries. However, the Chinese audience could easily find the unnatural mandarin speaking of Maggie Cheung. It echoes Dorothy Wai Sim Lau’s untranslatability of Maggie Cheung’s image in Sinophone movies: though Zhang Yimou gives a traditional Chinese women role for Maggie Cheung, her rigid language exposes the foreignness of the actress herself. From this point, Maggie Cheung expresses a very incompatible part of a monoculture. So the adaption is only superficial, Maggie Cheung herself is a dissolution of Chinese nationalism.

Transnationalism & Race – to what extent is the perception of racial and ideological understandings in a film production shaped by Maggie Cheung's transnational persona and significations?

Transnationalism refers to the process by which exchanges occur between different nations. Olivia Khoo claims that the cast of Hero was carefully selected by the director to create a film that garners attention globally while still appealing to domestic audiences in East Asia (Khoo, 123).[24] Transnationalism is what leads to globalization, globalization is the exchange of culture, media and technology on a much larger scale. Maggie entered the celebrity world through modelling and filmmaking in Hong Kong. She quickly became known as one of the best actresses in Hong Kong at the time. However, her significations began to change when Maggie decided to participate in the filming of Irma Vep (1996). Her personal connections, fame and upbringing lead her to the opportunity to partake in a Western film. This film series became globalized with audiences from both the Western and Eastern parts of the world tuning in. Until recently, Asian actors only represented approximately 1% of Hollywood's leading roles.[28] Maggie's birth mother was from Pakistan, but she was adopted and raised in both Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. With a complex personal background, she was criticized for not being Chinese enough. Her racial and ethic background gives her the quality of uniqueness. Regardless, Maggie is extremely well-known for her break throughs as an East Asian actress. Hence, the film was perceived as a huge stepping stone for East Asian culture. It also symbolized the attempts made by Westerners to be more progressive and inclusive with Maggie's involvement. Being able to portray herself in Irma Vep (1996), she became perfect icon for transnationalism and racial equality. Simultaneously, this production also made Maggie's transnational persona more pronounced leading her to more roles. At the time, Maggie was offered a role in Hero, she had already established a fanbase in different parts of the world. Through her fame and reputation as an individual, the director of Hero was hoping to attract attention from her diverse fanbase (Khoo, 127).[24] Thus, making Maggie Cheung and the cast of Hero act as the bridges for transnational cultural and media exchange. By recruiting Maggie, the director wanted the film to be appreciated worldwide. However, some scholars believe that Hero could be viewed as a film that promotes narrow nationalism and self-conscious cosmopolitanism (Khoo, 129).[24] .Olivia Khoo deemed Maggie’s roles in Centre Stage and Irma Vep to be rather “self-conscious” (Khoo, 129).[24] In both films, her characters have trouble assimilating and dealing with judgement from others. Through Maggie’s presence in both films Irma Vep (1996) and Hero, both are considered to be inter-nationalized. Olivia Khoo suggests that Maggie Cheung’s mere presence in films provides credibility and inter-nationalizes the film (Khoo, 128).[24] Although Hero is seen as a film encouraging transnationalism by many, some argued that it better represents narrow nationalism and self-conscious cosmopolitan. This reveals the issue of how fictitious elements of film can be intertwined with the reality of the cast. Some even took the step to compare Mulan to Flying Snow, both films are centred around martial arts.[29] The director explicitly said there were no political intentions behind Hero, but the story line seemingly promotes the idea that China is as a united nation.[29] This goes to show it is debatable whether a celebrity’s persona and signification can affect public perception of racial and ideological concepts presented in a film production.


Maggie Cheung has come a long way since her film acting debut nearly four decades ago. Initially cast in “eye candy” roles for her beauty and public image as a pageant queen, Cheung has come to defy superficial conceptions of her ability as an actor based solely on her appearance. Taking on complex and emotionally demanding roles in films like Center Stage and Farewell China has cast aside any doubt by those who mistake her as merely a pretty face. The variety of her performances shows that she has both breadth and depth, and can skillfully adapt to wildly different genres yet still manage to win the hearts of diverse audiences, as she does in Hollywood chart toppers like Hero.

Cheung is unique in that her career has not fit one singular mold. Her acting history alone has shifted between genres: from comedies and action films to dramas and experimental cinema. Still, she has remained selective about the roles she takes on and has avoided participating in too many films catered toward Hollywood that risk reinforcing Asian stereotypes. Importantly, this has not prevented her from becoming one of the best-known Asian actors in the world. Cheung stands out for her multilingualism, multinational upbringing, and representation of modern yet classic Hong Kong ideals while challenging Orientalist tropes. Her casting in a role is enough to elevate the entire film. She exists at the intersection of challenging national Chinese discourse while rejecting superficial Western conventions, forming a heterogeneous and multifaceted celebrity who reflects the diverse background she grew up in and the postcolonial Hong Kong she has come to represent.

Beyond acting, Cheung has also delved into the music industry, albeit unsuccessfully, and expressed an interest in being behind the camera as a filmmaker. Now a retired actor with an impressive list of accolades, she tends to keep out of the public eye.

Maggie Cheung’s inherent talent and appeal to audiences and filmmakers alike cannot be ignored. However, the trajectory of her career was also dependent upon sociopolitical context. Major Chinese historical events like the Tiananmen Square Incident and the Hong Kong handover had sizable impacts on Cheung’s career by prompting other actors to leave China and by creating an atmosphere of anxiety that cinema could help resolve — especially through Hong Kong representation. The Chinese government’s efforts to expand the film sector into transnational markets also opened up doors for the consumption of Cheung’s filmography, aligning closely with her acting career.

Our critical biography explored Maggie Cheung as both a transnational icon and a symbol of Hong Kong culture. After giving a synopsis of her life and notable works, we analyzed how race, gender, and (trans)nationalism intersect to form the celebrity persona of Maggie Cheung. We also touched upon how different historical events influenced her career trajectory. Further research could explore how China’s intention to reabsorb Hong Kong is impacting Chinese celebrity culture and cinema in general, as well as interactions with Western filmmakers and audiences.


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