It was the sort of leap that could end an opera.

One of Asia's most celebrated pop and film stars walked out on a balcony at a landmark hotel. He scribbled "Depression" on a piece of paper, adding a quick goodbye to his lover, his psychiatrist and his family. He looked out at a skyline dominated by banks that have fallen on hard times, the towers cloaked in a miasmatic haze, the air laden with a killer virus. He faced north toward Victoria Harbor and beyond to mainland China -- the same direction in which money and global interest is increasingly flowing as this once swaggering island slips toward irrelevance.

Then, he climbed over the railing and let himself go.

The suicide of Leslie Cheung, a Cantonese idol best known in the West for his role as a cross-dressing Beijing opera star in the 1993 film "Farewell My Concubine," has brought an already gloomy city further down into the morbid ooze.

Cheung was at once a pretty boy cooed over by teeny-boppers, a pop star whose songs were sung by taxi drivers, and a serious actor admired around the world for his nuanced roles characterized by an ambiguous sexuality. He was part of a wave that helped Chinese film eclipse the old "chop-socky" confines of the martial arts genre.

In a society still quite traditional, he was openly gay and seemed comfortable with his place in the world: someone who typified the way Hong Kong likes to see itself -- casual but urbane, Chinese and modern, multidimensional and confident.

"Narcissistic? Absolutely," Cheung once told a British film documentary team. "I have some quality which is unique, something the audience identifies with."

Now, it turns out, he was haunted by private demons. As he fell toward earth, another layer of Hong Kong's former invincibility was stripped away.

"It's like, can things get any worse?" says Yuen Chan, who grew up in London but has made Hong Kong her home for more than a decade. "It's so depressing already, and then Leslie Cheung goes and bloody tops himself. I was really shaken when I heard this."

Hong Kong was indeed already struggling. Investment bankers who once cavorted about in Jaguars when not doing deals over shark's fin soup are now copying re{acute}sume{acute}s and begging for work. More than a decade of roaring growth has turned into stagnation, as the city casts a wary eye north to Shanghai, which seems to ascend by the day.

Once part of the British Empire, with its rule-by-law and free speech, Hong Kong is now submitting -- though not without discord -- to a new anti-subversion law being drafted at Beijing's direction, one that may officially shackle an increasingly cowed press. The man who runs the island, Tung Chee-hwa, is a Beijing political appointee much disliked by the majority. His authority is derived from Hong Kong's hand-over to China in 1997, a milestone now recalled here as the beginning of the end of the island's glory.

The coup de grace may be the virus, whose name -- SARS -- is uncomfortably close to Hong Kong's designation as a Special Administrative Region of China, or SAR. This city has long emphasized its distinction from mainland China, taking pride in its modern health-care system and high standards of sanitation. Now it finds itself in the grip of a bug that appears to have emanated from China's Guangdong province, where Third World pig farms are interspersed with silicon chip factories.

People are now too frightened to go out or ride the subway, afraid to simply inhale. Nearly everyone interacts with the rest of the world from behind the safety of a surgical mask. Getting in an elevator with another breathing soul feels as risky as jumping into bed unprotected with a stranger met at a bar. A sneeze inside a restaurant brings looks of terror and consternation. Every morning, the local press serves up fresh tales of tourists avoiding the island.

"The Hong Kong government desperately needs to do some spinning," Hong Kong magazine penned in a recent editorial, "before our already shaken economy totally falls through the floor, our hotel occupancy numbers start resembling Baghdad's, and the thing we become best known for is a deadly disease with a really, really unfortunate name."

Such was the backdrop on Tuesday, the day that Cheung, 46, arrived at the private club on the 24th floor of the Mandarin Hotel. It is a fusty, darkly lit place that bespeaks old Hong Kong, where the carpets are thick, paintings of emperors hang on the walls, and the ladies' room is called "the powder room."

It was 4:30 in the afternoon. According to local press accounts, Cheung sat down, ordered a lemon soda, a pack of cigarettes and an apple. Then he asked his waiter to move his table out to the balcony so he could take in the view of the ships dotting the harbor. He borrowed a pen and some paper from one of the wait staff and wrote his last words.

"Thank you to all my friends," he wrote in Chinese. "This year has been tough, I can't stand it anymore." He thanked his longtime live-in companion, Daffy Tong. "Thank you to my family. Thank you to fat sister. I have not done one single bad thing in my life, why is it like that? Leslie."

Why, indeed. Cheung's career had appeared as a steady progression. Born in Hong Kong in 1956 and educated in England, Cheung returned home and launched his career when he was runner-up in a 1976 television singing contest on which he sang "American Pie." Then came television soap operas and historical dramas.

He made his film debut in 1978 in a soft-porn flick called "Erotic Dream of the Red Chamber." In 1982, he stoked controversy with "Nomad," directed by one of Hong Kong's earliest "new wave" directors, Patrick Tam. Playing a boy inappropriately obsessed with his mother, Cheung's first scene showed him clothed in only his underwear while he talked to her on the phone and pleasured himself. That scene was later reshot with Cheung wearing pants.

He would later work with all of the best-known directors in the Hong Kong film scene -- John Woo ("A Better Tomorrow"), Wong Kar-wai ("Days of Being Wild," "Happy Together"). Those films would make the rounds of the world art-house circuit. "Farewell My Concubine" would win the Golden Palm award in Cannes, elevating the standing of Chinese filmmakers.

But out of public view, something was clearly wrong. Local media accounts have reported that Cheung tried to kill himself late last year with sleeping pills, but was saved. This time, he chose a nearly foolproof method.

His body landed in Connaught Road, a major thoroughfare. It crushed a brass railing. He was carrying a mobile phone, a wallet with about $1,180 in cash, a lighter, and a green surgical mask. Though he apparently died on impact, the local tabloid press assured the public that his handsome features were unmarred.

The news spread quickly, first by television and radio, then by instant messaging on mobile phones. Women wailed in the street. In Internet chat groups, people bemoaned the loss of an icon. "Hong Kong has hit bottom," says Chang Chi-tao, founder of the Leslie Cheung Internet Fan Club. "In public he was very strong. He was a role model for many. I don't want to find out why he died."

But a lot of other people want to know. Since his death, the local press has been consumed with Cheung's motivation. Some speculated that he was upset because of a supposed breakup with Tong. Other accounts suggested that Cheung was stuck in a love triangle and agonizing over whether to go off with a man in his twenties.

Tong shot down both of these theories. "All this is just imagination," he told the Hong Kong Standard. In an interview with Apple Daily, he added: "There were problems in his career. Many things. It's complicated."

A feng shui consultant, Mak Ling-ling, has become to Leslie Cheung's death what Alan Dershowitz was to the O.J. trial, saturating television commentary. She maintains that Cheung's facial features suggest that he would have died young anyway: His earlobes were not long, and the space between his upper lip and nose was not great. Then, there is the explanation favored by those focused on Cheung's most recent film credit, "Inner Senses," a ghost thriller in which he plays a psychiatrist who attempts suicide after being assailed by evil spirits. If life really does imitate art, perhaps Cheung was possessed and leapt to his death to liberate himself.

Outside the Mandarin, people have deposited flowers and notes in a makeshift shrine that runs for half a block. People taped photos torn from fan magazines to the wall -- Cheung as young bad boy, his hair clipped short; later, singing in a blue sequined suit; dancing in stiletto heels and a white boa.

Someone left a new silver watch in a case. Someone else left an empty cappuccino mug. People stop and take in the scene, some bemused, most sad, and many disillusioned.

"The economy, the war, the pneumonia, now this," says Julia Ho, 60, as she scanned the flowers and the cards. "After 1997, these few years, it seems everything has gone down."

A fan of actor-singer Leslie Cheung places flowers at the site of his suicide.Leslie Cheung, here meeting with fans last year, worked with the best-known directors in the Hong Kong film scene but was haunted by private demons.Mandarin Hotel workers, masked against the SARS virus that has plagued Hong Kong, place flowers at the site of Cheung's suicide.