Forbidden City: Portrait of An Empress

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Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress is a Singapore Musical that tells the story of China's Legendary Empress Dowager Cixi. It was staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre originally on 17-19 October 2002 at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, as part of its opening festival, and back again in 2003 by popular demand and in 2006 as part of the IMF meetings in Singapore. It will have a world tour in 2008. Forbidden City was developed by Stephen Clark, Dick Lee and Steven Dexter. 15 years from its premiere, it was staged once again on Aug 2017 back at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

2006 Cast[edit]


Act One[edit]

Kate Carl, an American artist, is invited to paint the portrait of the Empress of China, Cixi. When she arrives in China she hears many rumours about the Empress. She also meets George Morrison, an English journalist on the train to Beijing. He tells her not to be intimidated by the rumours that they heard from the locals. After meeting the Empress, she was asked by the Empress when the work on the portrait can begin. Kate then tells her that she must know her before painting the portrait as art is a two way process. The empress is then suspicious of her at first, but begins her story which unfolds back fifty years ago when she was a young girl...

The empress who was known as Yehernara as a young girl, yearns to become the Emperor's escort after the then empress was pregnant. As was the custom, the Emperor would start to look for a new escort. Yehenara desperately wanted to be chosen by the Emperor to be his escort, and she was indeed chosen. After three months, she was pregnant and the emperor started choosing yet another escort. Yehernara was then taken to the Summer Palace as it was said to be the best place to give birth to a child, where she gave birth to a son, Tung Chih. This was the Emperor's first son and was very important to the dynasty. However, as was the custom, the baby was taken away from Yehenara to be brought up by the court.

Prince Tun, the emperor's scheming brother was devastated by the birth of Tung Chih as he had plans to take the throne for himself. However, whilst still at the Summer Palace, the British attacked and destroyed the Palace. The Royal party fled to the Winter Palace. By then, the Emperor was becoming very weak and was dying. Yehenara knew that if he died without naming Tung Chih as his heir, Prince Tun would claim the throne and her son's and her life would be in grave danger. She was prevented from finding her son so that Prince Tun would be the next Emperor but she found her son and rushed to the Emperor's chamber. No one could stop her while she was carrying the Emperor's son. With his last breath, the Emperor named Tung Chih as his successor and Yehenara as Regent.

Act Two[edit]

A few years later, Tung Chih grew up to be a rebellious young man. He was tempted by Prince Tuan, the son of Prince Tun, to go to the brothels. Indulging in his new-found freedom he became ill with syphilis. Yehenara was helpless to do anything but wipe his feverish brow with her handkerchief as he died. Again Prince Tun saw a chance for power but was thwarted as Yehenara quickly named her nephew, Kuang Hsu, as the next Emperor.

All this time Kate writes to Morrison about all these events. He is amazed that the Empress is being so open and notes that the stories the Empress has told Kate contradict all the rumours he has heard. After that he wonders how he is going to write a book on the Empress. Meanwhile, the story continues...

She tells Kate that Kuang Hsu became an ambitious Emperor, determined to reform China. But this led to the Boxer Rebellion and China was crippled by the internal conflict. Despite everything Yehenara has tried to do, she is surrounded by loss and failure.

Kate meets with Morrison. She is falling in love and Morrison continues to be fascinated by everything she tells him about the Empress. The day arrives when Kate is to show the Empress the completed portrait, but the Empress was furious as a newspaper stated her to be very evil to the extent that she killed Tung Chih with a smallpox laden handkerchief. She thought that Kate has betrayed her, but Kate then finds out Morrison has betrayed her instead and the reason is to get a bigger market for opium in China as the opium war didn't do the trick.

After learning the truth, Kate was devastated as she had fallen in love in Morrison. The story then draws to a close and Kate was back in the museum and the people had started to stream in. After seeing the portrait, the people continues their thinking of Empress Cixi as a dragon lady. Even though Kate tries hard to tell her story, nobody wants to listen. The musical ends with both Yehernara and the Empress looking at the portrait and telling her that their real story has been told.


  • Dragon Lady
  • Why The Forbidden City
  • Starting With The Eyes
  • My Only Chance
  • I Need Him, Falling In Love
  • Summer Palace
  • Now China Has A Son
  • The Land of Our Fathers
  • Gentle Touch
  • Blood in the Streets
  • Why Dream of Love (New song added in 2003)
  • Stories
  • My Only Chance (Reprise)
  • Why Dream Of Love (Reprise)
  • Stories (Reprise)

Differences between the three runs[edit]

Some scenes were being altered or deleted as the musical was being extended so as to attract more people to watch it.

  • In the original run (2002), Prince Tuan was shot dead but in 2003 and 2006, Prince Tun was the one being shot.
  • In 2002, Prince Tun was telling the empress to allow him to lead a battle else the allied troops launch an attack after dusk. But in 2003 and 2006, it was Yehernara as there was another song to be sung by her, Why Dream of Love, which was added in 2003.
  • In 2002, it did not show the stages where Kuang Hsu were growing up, but in 2003 and 2006, there were a scene where Kuang Hsu was reading a book when he was a little boy, before becoming a teenager and finally, an adult.


Information obtained from Singapore Repertory Theatre. The making of Forbidden City can be found at the SRT website.

External links[edit]