Ming-Na Wen is the ultimate example of a person who has achieved the American dream. She was born in China and she entered Hollywood at a time when roles for Asians were scarce and the few roles that did exist were not great. But she beat the odds and has not only become a Disney princess but has evolved into one of the most sought after action stars, appearing in some of the most popular sci-fi series in the world. Even she acknowledges that her career is so unlikely that it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Born in 1963 on the island of Coloane in the Chinese city of Macau, she later moved to Hong Kong with her mother and her older brother after her parents divorced. Catholic school student Wen always had a love for performing from a young age and her mother could tell that acting was in her future. She could even see it in her nose (Chinese people will understand what I mean by that), even though acting was not seen as a serious profession in her family. But Wen knew it was the career she wanted to pursue, especially after one of her earliest acting gigs in an Easter play when she accidentally tripped and fell on stage and got laughter from the audience. Yes, they were laughing at her, but she loved the feeling of bringing joy to a crowd.
Ming-Na Wen’s family later moved to the United States. She grew up in New York City where she learned how to speak English (in a Queens accent) before relocating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and studying acting at Carnegie Mellon University (where she learned how to speak without a Queens accent) in the eighties. Although she faced adversities at the prestigious college. Wen, who was one of Carnegie Mellon’s first Asian-American theater students, would often get bit parts in the university’s theater productions while white students often got lead parts. Her acting teacher thought this was acceptable because he thought this was just “how it is” for Asian actors. This only made Wen more determined to succeed and afterwards she pursued bigger roles.
Wen’s first television role was in 1985 on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (which was filmed in Pittsburgh) as a royal trumpeter in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and after graduating from Carnegie Mellon she starred in 42 episodes of the CBS soap opera As the World Turns.
But the thing that really gave her a career boost was The Joy Luck Club (1993) a drama film directed by Wayne Wang adapted from the 1989 novel by Amy Tan highlighting the conflicting relationships between Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers. Wen starred in the film alongside Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, France Nuyen, Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom and Tamlyn Tomita. The film received positive reviews and was a modest success at the box office. Both Siskel and Ebert even placed it in each of their lists of the top ten best films of 1993.
She got credibility among nerds for the first time (of many times) when she played Chun-Li in Street Fighter (1994) directed by Steven E. de Souza and based on the Capcom fighting game. Wen would become known primarily for her action roles later in her career but this is the one that started it all.
One of her best known roles was as the voice of the title character in Disney’s Mulan (1998), a character who was based on the heroine Hua Mulan of Chinese legend who impersonated a man to take her father’s place in the army. Wen would reprise her role as the Disney character in the movies Mulan II and Ralph Breaks the Internet, as well as TV shows like Sofia the First and video games like Kingdom Hearts II.
Other voice roles include Aki in the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), Jade in the HBO series Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn (1998-99), Detective Ellen Yin in The Batman (2004-05), Vega in Sofia the First (2017-18) and Natsumaru in Yasuke (2021) as well as guest roles in Jimmy Neutron, Robot Chicken, Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy’s Law, Adventure Time, We Bare Bears and Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart.
After her success in The Joy Luck Club in the nineties, Wen was cast as Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen in the NBC medical drama ER, which she had a recurring role in for the first season before becoming a series regular years later from 2000 to 2004. In between that time she starred in the NBC sitcom The Single Guy (1995-97) where she played Trudy, the wife of the best friend of the lead character, opposite Jonathan Silverman, Joey Slotnick and Ernest Borgnine.
Following these shows, Wen has guest starred in sitcoms like George Lopez, Two and a Half Men, Fresh Off the Boat and Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens and dramas like Private Practice and Boston Legal before finally entering the world of science fiction in 2009 with her role as Camile Wray in Stargate Universe, which led to the Sci-Fi Channel series Eureka (2011-12) where she played Senator Michaela Wen, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-20) where she played Agent Melinda May and The Mandalorian (2019-20) where she played the assassin Fennec Shand, who she would reprise as a main character in the spin-off series The Book of Boba Fett and in a voice role in Star Wars: The Bad Batch.
It’s almost hard to believe how far Ming-Na Wen has come in her career seeing as how she is a 58-year-old Asian woman in a business full of sexism, racism and ageism. Especially in the sci-fi genre which is notoriously not the most welcoming to anyone who isn’t a young white guy. On the contrary, the nerd community has embraced her! And it’s not hard to see why. Ming-Na Wen is a self-described introvert herself, she has been a fan of Star Wars since the first movie came out, and she is a magnetic and charming presence in every interview she does and every comic book convention she appears at. She’s the kind of person who would probably be embarrassed I was writing an article about her. But her career is a great thing to talk about because, if anything, it proves that you can pursue your dreams no matter how unlikely they may be. And who knows, you might just end up fighting alongside Boba Fett in the deserts of Tatooine.