25 Joan Chen 陳沖

Alice Nguyen

Joan Chen 陳沖 (Chén Chōng) is a Chinese American actress and director who was most popular during the 80s and 90s. As of March 12, 2023, Chen has acted in ninety-six works as well as directed six films. Overseas, she is most recognized for her role in Twin Peaks, a surrealist crime drama TV series.

Chen was born on April 26, 1961, in Shanghai, China. Her parents were doctors who had gotten their education overseas at Harvard University. At age fourteen, she started attending the Shanghai Film Studio under the Actors’ Training Program where she was soon discovered by a well-known Chinese director, and cast as the lead in his film. Chen graduated high school at seventeen and enrolled as a student at Shanghai International Studies University, where she chose to major in English. During this time, she starred in another film called The Little Flower (1979); the movie became wildly successful and her performance in it ended up winning her China’s Best Actress award before she reached the age of twenty. Chinese media outlets affectionately dubbed her “The Elizabeth Taylor of China.”

In 1981, when Chen turned twenty, she went overseas to the United States to pursue her acting career. She studied filmmaking, first at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and later transferring to the California State University at Northridge. She took a number of small parts for a short while before her first break in Dino De Laurentiis’s Tai-Pan (1986). Her performance put her in the spotlight and she was soon cast in another big Hollywood film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987). Three years later, she would take on another wildly popular role in the cult TV series Twin Peaks (1990.) These three works are her most popular in Europe and North America.

After Twin Peaks, Chen has avoided stereotypical roles that depict her as an exotic temptress or villainess. In 1992, she married her current husband, Peter Hui, with whom she had two daughters. She took a brief hiatus from acting in order to focus on motherhood, and returned to the scene as a director, her debut film being Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1999.) The film won several awards and reached critical acclaim internationally.

Around age forty, Chen started taking a liking toward roles in small independent films. One of her more notable appearances during this era was her role in Alice Wu’s Saving Face (2005), where Chen plays a Chinese mother who becomes pregnant with no husband, and must turn to her adult lesbian daughter for residence and support.

Goldsea Asian American Daily puts Joan Chen as #45 on their living list of “130 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time.” She is an iconic figure both in China and the West for both her appearances in media and the work she has created. Chen strives to break stereotypes and to show that any individual can accomplish what they want, even in the face of adversities like a hostile industry and social pressures. She is a site of negotiation for Asian American identity, and advocates for a stronger unity between Sino-US relations.

“There are many ways you can make money. Certain ways will make you happy, certain other ways will make other people happy. But if you go in because there’s money in there, you’re bound to fail, bound to fail!”

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Joan Chen 陳沖 Copyright © 2023 by Alice Nguyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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