Ming-Na Biography

Actress (1963–)
Chinese-American actress Ming-Na is best known for her portrayal of Dr. Deb Chen on the medical drama ER.


Born in Macao, China, Ming-Na moved the United States when she was four years old. In 1988 she became the fist Asian-American actress to land a contract role on a daytime soap. After appearing films like The Joy Luck Club and voicing the Disney princess Mulan, Ming-Na starred in the primetime medical drama ER.

Early Life

Actress. Ming-Na was born to Cantonese parents on November 20, 1963, on the Coloane Island of Macau. This colonial outpost off the coast of China was under Portuguese administration at the time of Ming-Na's birth but was returned to Chinese control in 1999. Ming-Na's parents divorced when she was still a baby, and she and her mother moved to Hong Kong. When she was four years old, Ming-Na, her mother and stepfather moved from Hong Kong to New York City. After five years in New York, they moved again to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They opened a family restaurant called The Chinatown Inn, which remains a popular spot for Chinese food in Pittsburgh.

Ming-Na fell in love with acting in the third grade when she played a bunny rabbit in a school play. "When I did this funny bit," she later recalled, "the audience responded with laughter and I was hooked." Growing up as an Asian-American in predominantly white suburban Pittsburgh, Ming-Na says she often felt uneasy with her ethnic identity. "I grew up in white suburbia, so I always felt a little bit uncomfortable in my own skin. I always felt I couldn't fully be me or fit in," she recalled. At one point she even experimented with changing her name to something more American. "When I was in junior high school I tried being Doris, because my mother loved Doris Day," she said. "Then I tried Maggie. But I came back to Ming-Na because it means enlightenment and illumination. Now I think it's cool to have a name that's very different. I take great pride in it."

Ming-Na continued performing throughout middle school and high school, and upon graduating in from high school 1982 she was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study acting. She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in theater in 1986.

Acting Career Breakthrough

After leaving college, Ming-Na moved back to New York City, where she almost immediately landed roles at theaters such as The Ensemble Studio Theater and Playwrights Horizons. Notable productions included Redwood Curtain, Speed the Plow and Luck, Pluck & Virtue. In 1988, Ming-Na became the first Asian actress to land a contract role on any American daytime drama when she was cast as Lien Hughes in the popular soap opera As the World Turns. After three years on the TV drama, in 1993 she delivered a highly praised performance as June in the film adaptation of Amy Tan's acclaimed novel The Joy Luck Club. Ming-Na then demonstrated her versatility as the fearless female lead Chun-Li in the 1994 action flick Street Fighter (based on the iconic Nintendo game of the same name) and then landed a recurring role on the sitcom The Single Guy (1995-97). In 1998, Ming-Na played the voice of the title character in the widely beloved Disney animated film Mulan. She won an Annie Award for Best Female Voiceover Performance and later played Mulan again in the 2004 sequel.

Ming-Na appeared on the popular medical drama ER in 1995 as a medical student named Deb Chen, but her character's story arc ended after only a few episodes. Five years later, in 2000, she received word that the show's producers wanted to revive her character—now Dr. Deb Chen—as a series regular. "It's nice that they remembered," Ming-Na said. She went on to star on ER for the next four years, transforming Dr. Chen into one of the program's most enduring characters. While performing on ER, Ming-Na also continued her career as a voiceover actress in the animated series Spawn (1998-99) and the animated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Since leaving the cast of ER in 2004, Ming-Na landed a series of leading roles in a diverse group of popular and acclaimed shows. She played Ellen Yin in the animated series The Batman (2004-2005), a federal agent in the drama series Vanished, and Judge Linda Harris in the comedy series Two and a Half Men (2007-2010). Ming-Na also played Camile Wray on the sci-fi drama Stargate Universe (2009-2011).

Ming-Na married film writer Kirk Aaanes in 1990, and they remained married for three years before divorcing in 1993. In 1995, she married her second husband, actor Eric Michael Zee; they have two children.

A prolific and versatile television actress who also has an impressive resume onstage and on the big screen, Ming-Na is one of the most successful Asian-American actresses of her generation. Asked about the future direction of her career, Ming-Na, who once appeared on Broadway in the Tony-nominated 1998 play Golden Child, said that she wants to return to her roots as a stage actress. "I've been lucky, knock on wood," she says of her career thus far. "But you have to have a sense of humor and grounding about all this stuff. I have a gypsy spirit. That's why I keep an apartment in New York for when I want to get back to theater, because Broadway always will be my final fantasy."

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