Chin was born on 30 November 1933, in Tianjin, China, where her father was on tour. Chin is the third daughter of the legendary Peking opera actor and singer Zhou Xinfang and Western-educated mother Lilian Qiu (aka Lilian Ju). Chin has a brother, Michael Chow.
Tsai Chin's first significant film role came when she was cast in the film The Inn of Sixth Happiness (1958), in which she played the adopted daughter of Ingrid Bergman's character.Her big break, though, arrived when two Broadway shows came to London at the same time. Initially, Chin was cast as one of the two leads in the musical Flower Drum Song. However, she also auditioned for the play The World of Suzie Wong for which she was offered the title role. The Daily Mail quoted Chin as saying, "I had a terrible decision to make." She opted to star as Suzie Wong at The Prince of Wales Theatre, London (1959–1961), where she saw her name in Lights for the first time. The play, generally panned by the critics, was a commercial hit. Chin drew good reviews, with Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard saying, "Tsai Chin is a lovely creature with all the vivacity, simplicity and gusts of unpredictable Eastern temperament." Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times said, "Tsai Chin who has cool clear beauty and considerable talent."
The 1960s were busy for Chin. Apart from her singing, she played Juicy Lucy in The Virgin Soldiers alongside Lynne Redgrave (1969), directed by John Dexter; helped to "assassinate" Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (1967); worked for Michelangelo Antonioni on Blowup (1966) and for Fred Zinnemann in Man's Fate (1969), when MGM studio unfortunately collapsed before the film barely started. From 1965 to 1969, she made five films opposite Christoper Lee as the Lin Tang, daughter of Fu Manchu, a Chinese arch-villain intent on dominating the world. As soon as she was in the position to do so, she fought to make Asian roles more truthful.
Chin followed this success by recording several more singles and two LPs, later incorporating many of these songs, written specifically for her, into a cabaret act which she performed from 1961 to 1966. As well as touring her cabaret show throughout the United Kingdom, Chin also performed in London's most exclusive venues, including The Dorchester, The Savoy, The Society, and frequently Quaglino's and Allegro, sharing a bill with David Frost, then at the start of his illustrious career. Her cabaret act was also aired on television in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Variety called her a "Savvy entertainer, with most of her material tailor-made for her personality." London's Evening News was "impressed…by the way she held her audience, wasn't a murmur not even the clatter of one piece of cutlery."
Her stage work at this time included leading roles in The Gimmick, with Donald Sutherland, at Criterion Theatre, West End (1962); The Magnolia Tree, at Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (1966); Mrs. Frail in Love for Love, by william Congreve, in Watford (1970); and touring the United Kingdom in the title role of The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1969), with Paul Massie.
Chin made her television debut in the popular British hospital drama, Emergency Ward 10, ITV, then Dixon of Dock Green, BBC (1965), The Man of The World (1963), International Detective (1960) ITV, and The Troubleshooters (1967). In 1962, Chin traveled to New York City for the first time to guest star for a Christmas special The Defenders. In 1964 she had a recurring role in TW3, short for That Was The Week That Was, a popular satirical comedy show which was at the time a new concept in television presented by David Frost and produced by Ned Sherrin. She also co-starred with Roy Kinnear and Lance Percival in Five Foot Nine Show, and later starred in her own show, On Your Own for ITV (1965). Chin was invited to sing on a myriad of variety shows, talk shows and even game shows during this time. Her popularity was so high at that time that she even had a Chinese leopard in the London Zoo named after her.
The Cultural Revolution started in 1966. China shut itself off from the rest of the world and artists were purged, which eventually claimed the lives of both Chin's parents.
The end of the 1970s coincided with the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. Mao died in 1976, artists and intellectuals were reinstated, and universities closed for ten years reopened. Chin became the first drama coach invited from abroad by the Minister of Culture to China since the Moscow Arts Theatre's withdrawal in the fifties.
In 1972, Chin portrayed Wang Guangmei in The Subject of Struggle, a docudrama directed by Leslie Woodhead, for Granada. Chin's performance as Wang, wife of Liu Shaoqi, Chairman Mao's chief rival, and the film about her trial by the Red Guards were unanimously praised. "It's all brilliantly done" The Sunday Times; Of Chin's performance: "Played superbly," Clive James of The Observer; "The most important program of the night…brilliantly, unforgettably played by Tsai Chin," Tom Hutchinson, Evening Standard TV guide; and by critic Elizabeth Crawly, Evening Standard: "Tsai Chin leaves The World of Suzie Wong a long way behind with this brave, haggard performance." It was a role Chin could identify with, as her father was undergoing the same brutal treatment in China. Moreover, it was almost the first time Chin was asked to play a mature and intelligent person with depth and complexity, a far cry from her usual stereotypical roles. To quote her autobiography: "For the first time, the Artist and the woman within me met at last." This film would signify the end of the first phase of Tsai Chin's acting career.
At the end of the 1980s, Chin resumed her acting career by returning to London's West End in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly (1989), starring Anthony Hopkins and Glen Goei, directed for the second time by John Dexter. It was during this production that Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, walked into her dressing room at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London.
After working in China, Chin returned to London where she spent most of the decade serving as a cultural liaison between China and the United Kingdom, where, among many projects, Chin helped connect the British Arts Council with the theater arts in China and introduced Peking Opera productions. During this time she made many trips to Hong Kong to help transform Hong Kong Repertory Theatre to a fully professional theater company, teaching and introducing the works of Anton Chekhov to Hong Kong students. In Hong Kong, Chin directed the Asian premiere production of The Seagull (1982) and later Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1988), as well as serving as consultant to The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (1993).
In 1988, Chin's autobiography, Daughter of Shanghai, commissioned by Carmen Callil of Chatto & Windus, was published in England and became a worldwide best-seller. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian said, "The world of Tsai Chin has been a good deal more interesting than The World of Suzie Wong, the play that made her into a star." Richard West of The Sunday Telegraph wrote, "An extraordinary and occasionally tragic life story." Beth Duff in New York Times Book Review wrote, "Captivating account…skillfully interwoven the glamour and despair." Jean Fritz in the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune: "The heart of this book lies in her conflict as she tried to feel at home in two cultures…that is her triumph." In 1989, Daughter of Shanghai was voted "One of the Ten Best Books of the Year (十本好书)" by Hong Kong TV Cultural Group.
In 1990, Chin played the title role in Henry Ong's one-woman drama, Madame Mao's Memories in London, which was particularly ironic due to the fact that Chin's father was personally purged by Madame Mao and Chin's mother died due to the brutality of the Red Guards. The play, directed by Glen Goei and performed at The Latchmere, was the hottest ticket in town. Sheridan Morley in the Herald Tribune International said: "She brings to this study of Madame Mao in defeat a tremendous dramatic courage and intensity….It is Tsai Chin's triumph to make us do rather more than just hate her." In her autobiography, Chin remarked, "I was determined to be a good deal fairer in my representation of her than she ever was of my father."
In 1993, Tsai Chin took on a role that would energize her acting career and change her life yet again when she played the role of Auntie Lindo in the hugely popular The Joy Luck Club. When Joy Luck Club came out, Chin received rave notices. "Gene Siskel said of her performance, "I hope Academy voters don't overlook her because she's not a household name. I am going to repeat her name." Those words were repeated in both Variety and Hollywood Reporter under the title "Memo to the Academy" Janet Maslin of The New York Times: "Despite its huge cast, the film is virtually stolen by Tsai Chin." But the film received not a single award in any category. The day after the award ceremonies, on the front page of The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section, Maslin again wrote, "Did Disney back too many actresses?" Chin relocated to Los Angeles at the age of 62.
After moving to Hollywood, Chin was immediately given the lead in a one-hour television pilot Crowfoot (1994) by Magnum, P.I. Producer Donald P. Bellisario. The series did not get picked up. In 1995, Chin played Brave Orchid in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, directed by Sharon Ott, for which she received the Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Award.
Next, Chin played the role of Eng Sui-Yong in David Henry Hwang's Tony-nominated Golden Child, directed by James Lapine, which ultimately went to Broadway, Longacre Theatre (1995–1998), and for which she won an Obie Award and was nominated for The Helen Hayes Award. Laurie Winer, Los Angeles Times, commented on her performance as first wife: "Her descent into opium addiction is quite harrowing." Ben Brantley, New York Times: "[Chin] suggests an Asian version of Bette Davis."
Other work at this time included: the voice of Popo in the daytime Emmy-award-winning Popo and The Magic Pearl (1996); an eccentric Madame Wu in the TV drama The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003); and Grandmother Wu in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006), starring Brenda Song as Wendy Wu.
Chin made numerous indie films and many features, notably appearing as Chairman Xu in Red Corner (1997), Auntie in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and Madame Wu in the James Bond thriller Casino Royale (2006). In 2008, Chin was offered a role of the Dowager Jia (贾母) in a lavish adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), China's most beloved classic novel from the eighteenth century. This was Chin's first time back working as an Actress in China, and she spent more than one year completing the 50 episodes (2010).
In 2003 and 2004, Tsai Chin performed at the Hollywood Bowl, in China Night, reciting poetry backed by a hundred-piece orchestra, conducted by John Mauceri, the founder of Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She was guest in numerous television series, most notably the recurring role as Helen, Sandra Oh's frivolous mother, in Grey's Anatomy, and recently Royal Pains.
Her career spans more than six decades and three continents. She starred onstage in London's West End in The World of Suzie Wong, and on Broadway in Golden Child. Chin appeared in two James Bond films: as a Bond girl in You Only Live Twice; and Casino Royale. Her single, "The Ding Dong Song," recorded for Decca, hit the top of the music charts in Asia. She was the first acting instructor to be invited to teach acting in China after the Cultural Revolution, when China's universities re-opened. In China she is best known for her portrayal of Grandmother Jia in the 2010 TV drama series The Dream of Red Mansions.
Back in Los Angeles, Chin accepted the title role of a woman suffering from Alzheimer's in Nani, an AFI thesis film directed by Justin Tipping, which won the Student Academy Award and DGA Student Film Award (2012).
In 2014, she appeared in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, reuniting with her Joy Luck Club co-star, Ming Na, to play Melinda May's mother.