These Hong Kong icons ruled and dominated their generation and continue to live on through their works. Many of the celebrities of yesteryear were triple threats that sang, danced, and acted their way into our hearts – here, we pay tribute.
While renowned as a shopping destination and an international financial hub, Hong Kong has a unique culture, including quirky traditions and beliefs, local popular culture slang and weeaboo subculture groups. Find out more about this city’s culture through its legendary celebrities and popular figures – these are the Hong Kong icons that have made it into the history books and will always be loved and treasured.
Hong Kong icons that the city will always remember
1. Tony Leung
This Hong Kong actor is one of the most successful and internationally renowned actors of all time. Tony Leung won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 for his role as Chow Mo Wan in In the Mood for Love (2000) and has been described as Asia’s answer to Clark Gable. He is known as somewhat of a muse of legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, and has been praised for his many diverse role performances with the director. These include Chungking Express (1994) in which he starred alongside Faye Wong; Happy Together (1997), in which he played alongside Leslie Cheung; and – our favourite – In the Mood for Love (2000) with Maggie Cheung. Moreover, who can argue against his Hollywood debut when he was the absolute star in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)? When it comes to Hong Kong icons, Tony is boss.
2. Chow Yun Fat
This actor is arguably the most beloved Hong Kong icon of all time. Chow Yun Fat began his screen career in the largest local TV network, TVB, and rose to prominence in the 1980s playing the roles of a Shanghai gangster in the TV series The Bund, and later, a gangster in the movie A Better Tomorrow which dominated box offices across Asia. Though the actor has acquired international movie star status, he is renowned in Hong Kong for his down-to-earth, humble, and respectful demeanour. His willingness to engage and converse with the public has also consolidated his image as one of the most beloved Hong Kong icons.
3. Faye Wong
Faye Wong is a Hong Kong singer-songwriter and actress that is renowned for her unique musical sound which shifts between alternative and mainstream Cantonese pop. Born in Beijing and moved to Hong Kong in the late 80s in the pursuit of a music career, Wong rose to international success by the early 90s. In 2000, the Guinness World Records listed Wong as the Best Selling Cantopop Female Artist of all time. Faye Wong has also shared her acting talents in Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong movie classic, Chungking Express (1994).
4. Leslie Cheung
The late Leslie Cheung dominated the acting and singing worlds in Asia in the 1980s; even today, he is still recognised as having led the charge for the prominence of Cantopop in Asia, as well as being considered a gay icon. Cheung has received multiple awards for his music, including Most Popular Male Artist Award and Golden Needle Award. He has also been recognised for his acting talents, winning the Hong Kong Film Award and Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award. Cheung’s last concert tour – Passion Tour (2000-2001) – embodied aspects of drag and androgyny. Although it was regarded controversial and was scrutinised during its run, this performance will be forever remembered for being ahead of its time.
5. Maggie Cheung
Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung made her debut on television screens in the early 80s as a contestant for Miss Hong Kong and Miss World, in which she ranked as runner-up and semi-finalist respectively. Cheung has achieved both national and international success including winning Best Actress at Hong Kong Film Award, Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, and she is the first Asian actress to Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. And who can forget Cheung’s captivating grace and elegance starring alongside Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000)?
6. Andy Lau
Andy Lau became a household name in Hong Kong through playing lead role in the TVB television series The Return of the Condor Heroes. Later, the Hong Kong icon moved on to movie roles, including starring alongside Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai’s directorial debut, As Tears Go By (1988). Lau has won Best Actor at the Golden Bauhinia Awards and Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. He is best known to the Western world for his performances in Infernal Affairs (2002) (the Oscar-winning remake, The Departed (2006), was directed by Martin Scorsese) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).
7. Anita Mui
Late Hong Kong icon, singer, and actress, Anita Mui was regarded as the Cantopop diva, the Madonna of the East, and is still regarded as being one of the leaders in popularising Cantopop. From humble beginnings, she entered the show business industry at the age of four with her sister, performing at nightclubs in order to support their family. Winning a television singing competition, Mui signed with record companies, and went on to win the Top 10 Jade Solid Gold Best Female Singer Award for seven years in a row. She has also been awarded for her acting talents including Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards and Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. While Mui once again appeared in the headlines in 2021 with the release of her biographical musical drama film, Anita (2021), in the theatres, her legacy lives on. She will always be remembered for her eccentric personality, charismatic stage persona, and influence on the Cantopop industry.
8. Stephen Chow
Stephen Chow is a legendary Hong Kong actor, comedian, and director. Chow, like many other Hong Kong icons, began his career with local television network TVB. He shot to stardom with his film Fight Back to School (1991) which became the top-grossing Hong Kong film of all time. Chow is best known internationally for his film Shaolin Soccer (2002), for which he won Best Director and Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards; and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) which won Chow Best Director at the Taiwanese Golden Horse Awards. His works are, without a doubt, some of the funniest movies of all time.
9. Leon Lai
Hong Kong actor and Cantopop singer Leon Lai is better known by his stage name Lai Ming, which means ‘dawn’ in Cantonese. He, alongside Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, and Jackie Cheung were regarded as Cantopop’s ‘Four Heavenly Kings’, due to their mass market appeal and musical stage presence. Lai began his career after placing second runner-up in a television singing competition; later, he signed with a record label and went on to win Jade Solid Gold Top Award and RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Award.
10. Aaron Kwok
As one of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ in Hong Kong, Aaron Kwok was recognised for his singing, dancing, and acting talents. He was considered a teenage heartthrob in the mid 80s, and started his career as a back-up dancer at TVB. Today, he remains as one of the best dancers in Hong Kong. His music focused in the dance-pop genre and it has won him awards at the Jade Solid Gold Top 10 Awards and RTHK Top 10 Gold Songs Awards. We will always remember Kwok as one of our favourite Hong Kong icons for his unforgettable concert looks – from his pink hair, to his crystal-embellished attire and over-the-top headpieces.
11. Donnie Yen
One of the top Hong Kong action icons, Donnie Yen is renowned for bringing recognition to mixed-martial arts in Asian cinema. After steadily starring in films in the late 1980s to 1990s, Yen broke through in the 2000s. Notorious in Asian film and Hollywood circles for his fight choreography skills, Yen brought in further box office and critical success with his portrayal of Ip Man in the semi-autobiographical Ip Man series. Western audiences may know Yen in films such as Rogue One (2016), XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017), and John Wick 4 (2023).
12. Jackie Chan
No list of Hong Kong icons can be complete without the one and only Jackie Chan. One of the most popular action stars of all time, Chan is recognised for his slapstick fighting style. His work in Drunken Master (1978) brought him mainstream success and led him on the path to action film notoriety. Police Story (1985) gave Chan a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film and showcased Chan’s ability to perform thrilling and dangerous stunts. Chan broke through to Hollywood via films such as Rush Hour (1998), eventually starring in many Hollywood roles. Next time you visit the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, see if you can spot Chan on the Avenue of Stars and in Los Angeles, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!