Julian Cheung exhibits a hint of weariness as he steps into the photographer’s studio, but all signs of lethargy wear off the minute he slips into a spiffy checked suit for our first shot. He looks every bit as suave and dapper as his character in the 2004 TVB drama Point of No Return.
Now 40, the singer-actor has been working around the clock lately. Fortified during our chat by tea prescribed by a doctor to boost his health, he shares that shooting for Patrick Kong’s Natural Born Lovers has just wrapped up. Slated to hit Hong Kong cinemas in September, the romantic comedy tells the story of a nurse (played by Annie Liu) who tries at length to woo the guy (Cheung) of her dreams.
Though dubbed a comedy, the narrative is based on the heart-wrenching story of a nurse who was prosecuted for pestering her ex-boyfriend with emails and phone calls. Between casting calls, Cheung and his co-stars managed to snag a visit the day she was due to appear in court. “Nothing much happened really, the nurse admitted her crime, paid a fine and left.” Despite the mundane court proceedings, it was an emotional ride for Cheung. “I’ve personally never encountered anything like that, but I couldn’t help but think: when has love become a crime? Those in love often walk a thin line between passion and madness,” he opines.
Cheung knows a thing or two about love having been married to actress Anita Yuen for 10 years. The couple has a son, Morton, now aged six; the boy had just turned one when we interviewed Cheung for the December 2007 issue of BACCARAT and he was happily taking a break from show business to devote himself to his family.
Now, after two decades in the industry, the veteran performer no long counts acting as a challenge – “The key is to live instead of play the character”; instead the greatest qualm he had about filming Natural Born Lovers was the erratic sleep schedule. “It was my first movie since 2009, so the night shifts were a gruelling experience.”
“I think I’m an alien in many ways. I don’t follow one particular path, so it’s often difficult to predict my next move.”
Looking ahead, he is in the last round (hopefully, for fans) of filming for Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters, alongside A-listers Tony Leung Chiu-wai (as Yip Man), Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen and Korea’s Song Hye-kyo. The biopic is fast approaching its third year of production and while rumours of a December release date have been circulating on the internet we have yet to get a confirmation from the auteur himself.
Cheung’s work does not end there, of course. “I won’t get a break at all!” he complains jokingly. Shooting for his next television series, Triumph in the Skies II, commences this summer. What can we expect from his character in this long-awaited sequel to the popular 2003 drama about pilots? “Oh, I only hope that he won’t have such a grim outlook on life – after all, television is first and foremost about entertainment.”
Despite the back-to-back filming schedule and the medicinal tea, Cheung displays no visible signs of stress, radiating a vigour that proved itself handy in 2009 when his passion for music was re-ignited. “I felt ready to take the plunge again,” he says simply of the sentiment. He landed a contract with Neway Star Music and released What is Love two years later. A potpourri of heartfelt ballads and pop tunes, his 27th album strived to capture all type of loves, from his affection for Morton (“Toy Story”) to the debt of gratitude he felt he owed his supporters (“Loving an Alien”).
Capitalising on the buzz of his new album, in March last year he staged his first solo concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum. Besides undergoing intense voice training, the self-professed bon vivant was put on a rigorous diet. “It was tortuous, but I guess it was worth it at the end of the day,” he pauses before breaking into a grin: “I did look pretty good on stage.” The name of the concert, I Love Alien, was, perhaps, a cheeky reference to his ability to move fluidly between the different facets of the entertainment industry. “I think I’m an alien in many ways. I don’t follow one particular path, so it’s often difficult to predict my next move.”
“There aren’t many things that a guy would obsess over, watches being one of them.”
In a marked contrast to four years ago, when he fervently attacked the Internet for “destroying the market”, Cheung is decidedly more optimistic about the music industry’s future. “The world is constantly revolving, from vinyl records in the 1970s, to cassettes and CD-roms in the ‘90s, and most recently, the internet. One just needs to keep up with the times,” he notes. “I can’t say that the local music scene is in its darkest hour. Yes, record sales have plummeted, but there are still concerts to be held, music to be played on the radio. In a way, the Internet has allowed diverse voices to be heard – just think of the many musical sensations that You Tube has birthed in recent years,” he adds, commenting on the democratising effect of social media.
With another album in the works, Cheung is looking to put his stamp on the music scene. The track titles have yet to be released, but if there is one thing that we can expect it is that this LP will not be dominated by your usual tear-inducing – and often chart-topping – ballads. “The music industry is saturated with depressing songs about love. I want to do something different this time – to inject a dose of positivity you can say,” he declares ambitiously. The album will contain its share of break-up songs though – after all, as he reluctantly admits, “Eight out of 10 times people will pick sad rather than happy songs during karaoke. Somehow it makes them feel better about their lives.”
Inspired by the crop of singer-songwriters entering the music industry, is Cheung game to try his hand at composing his own songs? “Not at the moment. I mean, it’s great that the young generation are more focused on their music careers – and that the industry is encouraging such a trend – but I have my hands full at the moment.”
“I can’t say that the local music scene is in its darkest hour. Yes, record sales have plummmeted, but there are still concerts to be held, music to be played.”
Having been spotted at the Salon de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in January 2012 Cheung is known to be partial to timepieces. “There aren’t many things that a guy would obsess over, watches being one of them,” he notes, while humbly objecting to being called a watch connoisseur: “I wouldn’t say I know a lot about watches – an admirer perhaps.”
When asked the qualities he looks for in a watch, he refrains from waxing lyrical and simply responds: “Aesthetics.” Indeed, for the simple act of telling the time he does not glance at the beautiful precision instrument that may grace his wrist but – like many a tech junkie in modern-day Hong Kong – his iPhone!
“Aesthetics” may well be the concluding remark of the day. In addition to being a multi-talented performer and doting father, Cheung proves to have a palpable sense of style – cash swiftly changes hands on set as he negotiates with our stylist to buy an unusual ceramic bowtie (from Cor Sine Labe Doli) sourced from Harvey Nichols for him to wear.
The age 40 denotes different things for different people: a watershed moment between youth and middle age, the prime of life, the dawning of wisdom. In Cheung, it seems to signify a quiet evolution of sorts. His name, once synonymous with boyish good looks, has given way to a calm vitality and a more sophisticated nonchalance.
When we comment that the watches he is wearing in this shoot are new models of Audemars Piguet’s iconic Royal Oak that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, he thus protests, never for a minute letting go of his charm: “I’m not vintage!”
This profile originally appeared on Luxury Insider.
Photography: Billy Kan of Rost Production
Styling: Anson Lau
Hair: Vic Kwan of ii Hair & Nail
Makeup: Maggie Yeung