It’s very early on a Sunday morning. It’s 2006, I think. I’m in a grotty KTV somewhere beneath the streets of a third-tier city. My grimy, skinny cohorts are fading fast, clutching tepid bottles of imported beer, sweating on the pleather couches as the gaudy colored lights continue to swirl. None of us have anywhere else to be. But we’re out of money for the room. It’s time for one final song.
There’s only one choice. One of my friends takes the mic — he suffers from anorexia and is so emaciated you can see his teeth move behind his cheeks. He has a glorious singing voice.
He knows this number well, and captures Leslie Cheung’s 张国荣 Cantonese diction — clipped, matter-of-fact. Only the sentimental synth adds any audible emotion. Yet soon half the group are in tears.
“I am what I am,” he sings, first in English.
我永远都爱这样的我 (wǒ yǒngyuǎn dōu ài zhèyàng de wǒ) — I’ll always love the way I am
快乐是…快乐的方式不只一种 (kuàilè shì…kuàilè de fāngshì bùzhǐ yī zhǒng) — Happiness is…there’s more than one way to be happy
“I Am What I Am” — simply 我 (wǒ, “Me”) in Chinese — was released only three years before Cheung threw himself from the window of his suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. China reeled from the loss of one of its true icons, a soft-faced androgynous actor-singer-songwriter who brought a uniquely quiet energy to everything he touched. For queer people, Cheung was also a potent symbol of courage — he remains one of the only truly mainstream Chinese celebrities ever to come out publicly — and of indescribable, life-ending pain.
我就是我 是颜色不一样的烟火 (wǒ jiùshì wǒ, shì yánsè bù yīyàng de yānhuǒ)
I am what I am, a firework of a different color
天空海阔 要做最坚强的泡沫 (tiān kōng hǎi kuò, yào zuò zuì jiānqiáng de pàomò)
The sky is wide open, the ocean broad, and I’ll be the strongest bubble
我喜欢我 让蔷薇开出一种结果 (wǒ xǐhuān wǒ, ràng qiángwēi kāichū yī zhǒng jiéguǒ)
I like what I am. May the rose bloom as it wants
孤独的沙漠里 一样盛放的赤裸裸 (gūdú de shāmò lǐ, yīyàng shèng fàng de chìluǒluǒ)
Bloom just as scarlet even in a lonely desert
As a song, it’s formulaic. It’s simplistic. It has none of the swelling vocals of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” or the defiance of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Am What I Am.” It’s not a song to march to. It’s a voice we’ve all heard inside ourselves, softly, insistently reassuring us not that things will get better, or the world will stop hurting us, but that, despite all that, it’s still OK to love ourselves.
I didn’t come of age with the help of Leslie Cheung. But, swaying in the gloom, my arms slung around the fragile, clammy shoulders of those who had, I was glad he’d found his way to me.