Ming-Na Wen

"I pray to God, Buddha and the Force!"

 

Be it Mulan, Melinda May, Fennec Shand, or June Woo; Ming-Na Wen has portrayed many roles that impacted our lives. But before she was a Disney Legend and an acclaimed Actress, Ming-Na is also a daughter, a wife, and a mother. 

Chinese Name: 溫明娜 | Birthdate: November 20th, 1963

Horoscope: Scorpio | Zodiac: Rabbit | Language: English, Mandarin, Cantonese

On November 20th, 1963, on Coloane Island, Macau, Lin Chan Wen gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Ming-Na - Ming 明 which encompasses the sun and the moon and Na 娜 which represents grace and elegance, together they mean enlightenment. But her parents' marriage did not last long, and after their divorce, Ming-Na's mother brought her and her older brother, Jonathan Wen to Hong Kong. Being a single mum, her mother held down three jobs to provide for her and her brother. Despite their struggles, Ming-Na still recalls fond memories with her mother in Hong Kong.

“I remember my mother walking to my Catholic school - which was the best school, even though we were Buddhist - just to bring me lunch with milk and make sure I drank it all.”

- Ming-Na Wen, LA Times, 1995. 

Not long after, Ming-Na’s mother married her stepfather, Soo Lim Yee. But with the Cultural Revolution brewing in 1960s China, the couple decided to bring their two children to Queens, New York in search for a better future. Ming-Na was only 6 then and did not know a single word of English.

“I didn’t speak a stitch of English when I came here, so it was a challenge going through special classes. The cultural differences were also challenging for my whole family, and the move from the diversity of Queens to a much more suburban life in Pittsburgh was another harsh leap.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Pittsburgh Magazine, 2013

As her family relocated once again, this time with her younger brother, Lang Yee, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ming-Na found herself in Mt Lebanon. Being excellent chefs, her parents decided to open a restaurant, Chinatown Inn, in the old Chinatown area.

Chinatown Inn did not only provide for her family, but was a second home for Ming-Na - located in a predominantly white suburban area, being able to meet people from similar backgrounds brought her great comfort. Growing up at the restaurant, Ming-Na spent most of her days there, doing her homework and helping out. From cash register duties, to taking take-out orders and waitressing, her mother made sure she could do them all.

“My brothers & I also put in the hours there. Growing up, I waited tables before breaking into acting. And even though I may be a Disney Legend now, if I visit there, trust me, I’ll be put to work!!”

- Ming-Na Wen, Instagram.

 

But what was unexpected was how working at the restaurant helped out in Ming-Na’s career. Interacting with many people from various walks of life, Ming-Na was always watching and observing, studying the different day to day personalities that will one day help her in her acting. 

Chinatown Inn 

520 Third Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

 

Serving excellent Chinese Cuisines for over three generations, Chinatown Inn stands as the last restaurant of Chinatown, Pittsburgh. The traditional Chinese architecture stands out in the neighborhood, and within the walls, the homely ambiance of the restaurant makes it the place to be for every family occasion. Serving delicious Cantonese, Szechuan, and Hunan dishes, you’ll be able to find something that suits your palate. Chinatown Inn is owned by the Yee Family, the restaurant is currently run by the eldest son, Jonathan Yee, and his wife. Do show your support to Ming-Na’s family restaurant when you pop by Pittsburgh!

110307334_2729255097343425_8843974190687

The acting bug bite when Ming-Na was in 3rd Grade, when she was playing “Thumpy the Rabbit” in her school Easter play. As she stepped on stage, Ming-Na fell, drawing a laugh from the audience. But instead of feeling embarrassed, Ming-Na was inspired by her ability to make people laugh and smile. Ming-Na fell in love with acting ever since. 


But like most Asian parents, Lin Chan wanted Ming-Na to be a doctor, a career perceived to be more stable and successful. Her mother was also worried about the “casting couch”, thinking that an actress would have to “sleep her way to the top”. Despite Lin Chan’s initial objection, she always knew Ming-Na was destined for the arts.

"My mother reads faces. When I was born she told me that because I have this particular nose and the way my eyes and eyebrows are shaped, she always knew I was going to get into the arts. So when I was growing up and had an interest in anything besides the arts she would try to encourage me to do the other thing, but deep in her heart she always knew that this was my destiny”

- Ming-Na Wen, The 130 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time

Lin Chan Yee

Mother, Role Model and Inspiration

One of the biggest role models and inspiration in Ming-Na’s life is her mother. 

“She went through the Cultural Revolution, her family lost everything. She’s a survivor. She was a nurse in China and that meant that she had intelligence and she had to downplay all that in order to survive that time period. And then for her to then bring children to America and not speaking any English, raising kids in this country, she is truly the most dynamic woman that I know.”

- Ming-Na Wen, CAPE #IAM Interview  

At a young age, Ming-Na’s mother taught her to stand up for herself, a valuable advice that came in handy throughout Ming-Na’s career, as she constantly fought for roles in spite of her ethnicity. 

68945917_126965718624118_855639585961943

It was only in 2019, during a family holiday to her mother’s hometown in Suzhou, China did Ming-Na found out about her mother and grandmother’s love for theatre. 


“As a little girl, my mother loved going to the theatre with her mom. The surprise and delight in her voice when she saw it still existed made me so happy & sentimental. I imagine my mom being a little girl with her mom, right where we’re standing now in this photo.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Instagram

 

Studying at Mount Lebanon High School, the extensive theatre and drama program helped Ming-Na honed her craft in acting. Being a huge geek girl, Ming-Na was also President of her Science Fiction and Fantasy Club in her high school. As a kid, when she was not working hours at the restaurant or doing homework, Ming-Na would hang out at arcades or play Dungeons and Dragons. Comic books, Sci-Fi and fantasy were her life and Star Wars was her religion.

Being the Chinese American teenager, with the Chinese name in her neighbourhood, Ming-Na struggled to feel like she belonged in the white suburbia of Mt Lebanon, and often felt lonely. The world and adventures of Star Wars changed that and became Ming-Na’s escapism and religion.  

“I remember I used to take turns fantasizing being Luke, Han or Leia. I loved them all for different reasons. My imagination took me on so many adventures with them.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Instagram

95643227_1218656628467723_10336730184943

It has been Ming-Na’s lifelong dream to be part of the Star Wars franchise. In 2019, Ming-Na stepped onto Luke Skywalker’s home planet on the set of the Mandalorian. Staring into the binary suns of Tatooine, the little girl who once wished for something more, had her dreams come through. Cast as Fennec Shand in Disney+’s The Mandalorian, Ming-Na plays an assassin and appears in Episode 5: The Gunslinger. 

 

Read more about Fennec Shand and Star Wars impact on Ming-Na here.

Ming-Na graduated from Mount Lebanon High School with Double High Honours in 1981. To pursue her dreams of becoming an actress, Ming-Na applied to Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. In fact, Carnegie Mellon was the only school she applied for - Ming-Na was not aware that she would be officially accepted after she auditioned for the admission process and only applied to one school. 

 

Her mother was surprised when Ming-Na shared the good news, but not because she was accepted into the drama program, but that American universities provided college degrees in drama.

“She didn’t believe me until I was graduating with honours. And she said: “Oh American school so easy!”

- Ming-Na Wen, CAPE #IAM Interview

 

Ming-Na attributed her successful career to the strong foundation Carnegie Mellon has provided her in college. Starting her college with 75 freshmen, Ming-Na was one of the 17 remaining students in her program when she graduated with high honours in 1986 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama. But surviving Carnegie's drama program was not an easy feat. Besides the long, demanding curriculums and strict faculty-determined cuts, in her third year, Ming-Na realised she was getting assigned smaller roles in main stage production due to her ethnicity.

"It started pissing me off so I went to the head of the department and I said, 'Listen, I know that you guys are probably having a hard time finding a niche for me, but other than doing one-woman shows on my own, I'm paying the same tuition like everybody else in this school and it's my parents' money and I want to get the same education and the same stage experience!"'

 

- Ming-Na Wen, The 130 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Times

 

Her actions caught the attention of Mel Shapiro, the head of the theater department, who eventually became her mentor. Ming-Na was subsequently assigned more prominent roles and was even allowed to perform outside of the school’s program. Ming-Na was then able to perform in major roles in Pittsburgh’s  theatre scene, earning her equity card before she even graduated. 

While it worked out for her, Ming-Na realised the problem lies with people not knowing there is a problem, and hence not seeking a solution. Instead of fighting racism in the industry head on, Ming-Na chose to actively point out problems, getting people to see the issues and talk about it.
 

"The way you go about doing this is to just talk to people. You drop little seeds, you don't have to pound them over the head with issues. Just say, "Hey, what do you think about me as the girlfriend? Or what do you think about me as the wife? Or the executive? Or the super-hero?"'

- Ming-Na Wen, The 130 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Times

 

Throughout her career, be it a doctor or fighter, Ming-Na made sure she was seen and remembered during auditions, making Directors and Producers see beyond her ethnicity and proved that she was best suited for the role.

Ming-Na Wen at the Tony Awards 2018

 

Ming-Na presented the Excellence in Theatre Education Award to Melody Herzfeld. The Excellence in Theatre Education was created by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University to recognise theatre educators. 

Dress: Mark Zunino | Hair & Make Up: Jeong-Hwa | Jewelry: Erica Courtney & Zameer Kassam | Clutch: Tadashi Shoji

1.jpg

With some theatre credits under her belt when she graduated from college, Ming-Na moved to New York, to kick start her career. She worked graveyard shifts in a word processing job at the World Trade Centre, keeping her mornings free to attend auditions. Ming-Na eventually made her TV debut in 1988 as Lien Hughes in As the World Turns, one of the most popular soap operas on TV then. She was also the first long-term contract Asian Actress on daytime television, and her role as Lien lasted 3 years. 

 

Ming-Na eventually ventured to film as well, with An American Affair as her first movie in 1989. One of the highlights of Ming-Na film career would definitely be The Joy Luck Club. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club had a huge impact on Ming-Na and to be part of the movie was on her bucket list after she had read the book.

“I didn’t realize there were other Asian Americans who was dealing with the same struggles and the same identity crisis and generational gaps, as well as cultural gaps with their parents. And Amy just nailed it each and every time, with each of the characters.” 

- Ming-Na Wen, CAPE #IAM Interview

 

 

Not only did Ming-Na landed the role of Jing-Mei “June” Woo, one of the lead characters, she also became lifelong friends with the “daughters” - Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao and Lauren Tom. During their Joy Luck Club Reunion Facebook Live with Gold House on June 2020, the daughters shared how Ming-Na and her husband, Eric Michael Zee first met.

Ming-Na was supposed to hitch a ride from Rosalind to the Joy Luck Club Premiere but Rosalind had to back out at the last minute due to some babysitting arrangement. Ming-Na called her acting teacher in Los Angeles for help who sent his student, Eric to pick her up. 

Ming-Na sharing about the first time she met Eric. 

Video credits: Gold House Joy Luck Club Reunion Live 2020

 

On their first date, the lovebirds enjoyed a picnic by the beach of Malibu. Eric had prepared a seven course meal, with a mix tape of love songs to set the mood for their date. It did not take long for them to fall in love. In 1994, barely a year after they started dating, Eric proposed to Ming-Na, on Surfers Paradise Beach in Australia, when Ming-Na was filming Street Fighter then. On June 16, 1995, Eric and Ming-Na eloped to Maui and got hitch on the beach at sunset.  

 

On November 21, 2000, Ming-Na received the best birthday present when she gave birth to her daughter, Michaela Kitlin Zee a day after her birthday. But her pregnancy came as a surprise.

“This was a surprise. Condoms don’t always work!″

- Ming-Na Wen, TV Guide, 2000

Ming-Na was then filming ER, playing Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen when she found out about her pregnancy. She was nervous about informing the showrunner about it, but they were really supportive and even wrote in her pregnancy for Dr. Chen’s story. 

Ming-Na and Eric welcome the arrival of their second child, Cooper Dominic Zee on October 13, 2005. As a teenage boy, he is a huge geek like his mom.

Besides their two children, Eric and Ming-Na also has a furbaby, James. 

IMG_1880.PNG
IMG_mk1lb4.jpg

Ming-Na and Michaela 

 

The mother-daughter duo has been credited in the same projects many times, the most recent being Mulan 2020, where Michaela joined her mom in New Zealand for her top-secret cameo. Mulan’s producer, Jason Reed made sure Michaela could join her mom in this very special cameo tribute.

 

Other projects they have been credited with together include Ralph Breaks the internet where Michaela voicing Nafisa, one of the arcade girls and Sofia the First, where she was the voice of Princess Jun. On both occasions, Ming-Na reprised her role as Mulan.

 

As Ming-Na’s career progressed and reached greater heights over the past years, her family remains at the core of her life. Despite her busy schedule, Ming-Na always finds time for her family. 

This is a fan-made website. No copyright infringement intended. No affiliation with Ming-Na Wen. If you would like to be affiliated with MNU, please contact us. A big THANK YOU is in order for the following sites and accounts: Getty Images, Far Far Away Site, IGN 

Welcome to MingNaWenUniversity

Follow us on SM