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How does Kit Chan square up against her Forbidden City persona?

The dramatic character she plays might strike fear into the hearts of many, but in real life, the singer is a picture of easy, quiet charm.

Returning to the stage in August, Kit Chan reprises the role of Empress Dowager Cixi in Forbidden City: Portrait of An Empress for the fourth time. The character remains unchanged, and the lines might be the same, but what has changed is Chan. In the decade since she last put on the elaborate stage costumes, she has matured. Where she had to posture and pose to portray the Dowager, she now simply has to look into herself to exude the gravitas of the formidable historical figure.

Chan is ready to reprise the role of Empress Dowager Cixi, this time with the added wisdom gleaned from a decade of life.

The 45 year-old says that, even as a child, she was mature by five more years compared to her peers. She already had the mentality of a middle-aged person by the time she was in her late 30s. “I noticed a change in my attitude towards children. In my teens, I hated children. In my 20s, a little less. By the time I was in my 30s, I found them slightly more acceptable. And now, there are actually moments where I find myself liking them,” she reflects. “This, I suppose, is growing up.”

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She exudes a calm inner-strength in the way she speaks, one which is often perceived as a sense of confidence. “I’m not sure if I was a very confident child,” she says, recalling her days growing up. “I was rebellious then, and many often misinterpret it as an expression of confidence, but that is not true. As a kid, you might be able to put up a convincing act of confidence through rebelling, but as a grown up, you need more than that.”

“To be confident, you have to accept yourself – both the good and the bad. When you are doubtful of yourself, you will be afraid of being called out, and will constantly try to wear a mask in front of others.”

From knowing, to accepting, to loving yourself takes a marathon of life experiences, and it is only through them that Chan came to be connected with her true self: “I struggled between my early 20s and mid-30s, because I worked with many people and was constantly bombarded by all sorts of feedback. It was a lot to digest.”

With so much emotional burden to shoulder, she took to writing: “It was my emotional outlet.” But she no longer needs that now. “Just living life normally is enough for me. Be it reading books or watching movies, just about every thing in everyday life is a channel for emotional expression.”

“Happiness is in the small things in life, rather than big events, and certainly not in winning whatever awards,” says Chan, who recounts a recent holiday to New York, where she finally gained entrance into a small museum after three failed visits. And that made her extremely happy.

She continues to enjoy her solo trips even after marriage. “Some people become unhappy after marriage, because they feel they need to change. But there is no need to at all,” Chan opines.

“Of course, one always have to think about their family and their loved ones. But what I mean is, don’t change for the sake of changing. Whatever you do in your life, whichever stage you are in your life, you should know what it is that makes you happy. I do not know how to change myself – I only know how to do that when I am acting.”

Kit Chan is playing Empress Dowager Cixi in Forbidden City: Portrait of An Empress, Aug 8 to 27 at the Esplanade Theatre.

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This article first appeared in the August issue of ICON as “Understanding Life Without Losing One’s Way” by Dion Tan.  Translation by Koh Yuen Lin.