Leslie Zhao was born as Zhao Chuan and graduated from the Fine Art School at Shanghai University in 1987. He graduated from the Photography Studies College in Melbourne in 1989 and moved to Sydney the following year. In 1995 he was one of eight contributors to the Chinese-language essay collection Eight Eccentrics of Sydney (using the pseudonym Chao Yi) and also published a book of photography with Chinese and English text (using his birth name Zhao Chuan). That same year he won two literary prizes: the inaugural Australian-Chinese Literature Writing Award for his Chinese-language short story A Stroller in the Ditch; and third prize at the Overseas Chinese Writing Awards in Taipei for his Chinese-language essay Porcelain. During 1997 and 1998 he spoke at several Australian writers' festivals.