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Chinn was born on 7th July, 1948 in Seattle, Washington, USA, where she grew up teaching herself to dance and to play violin. Her family could not afford dancing lessons, so she taught herself the basic steps from a library book. She lived in Seattle until she graduated high school, and states that she initially didn't have any interest in acting; "[her] thing was dancing".
She auditioned for Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (1970) on Broadway, where she was soon plucked from the chorus and awarded the comedic lead role of Miss Higa Jiga. Since then, Chinn has done work in several Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions. Some of her credits include: The Lottery (1968) and Moon on a Rainbow Street (1969) at Urban Arts Corps, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1973) at the Equity Library Theatre, House Party (1973) at the AMAS Repertory Theatre, Brisburial (1974) at the New Federal Theatre, The Mikado Amas (1975) at the AMAS Repertory Theatre, The Primary English Class (1976) by Israel Horovitz at Circle in the Square, G. R. Point (1977) at the Phoenix Repertory Theatre, North Atlantic (1977) at the Gene Frankel Theatre, Bayou Legend (1977) at the AMAS Repertory Theatre, Take It From the Top (1979), and Popov's Miracle at the New Federal Theatre and Peking Man (1980) at the Horace Mann Theatre, productions at La MaMa E.T.C., Children at the Henry Street Settlement and The Ballad of Soapy Smith (1984) at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
In addition to her Broadway debut as Miss Higa Jiga, she has originated roles in G.R. Point (1979), M. Butterfly (1988), and the late Marvin Hamlisch’s final project, Half Time, heading to Broadway at a future date. Chinn also appeared on Broadway playing Mae in Gotta Dance, a musical.
Regarding her television career, although most well-known for her role as Mei Chang in Orange is the New Black, she has also appeared on television in Roseanne, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (ABC television movie), Spin City and Law & Order. Some of Chinn’s film credits include: She-Devil (1989), What About Bob? (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and Mickey Blue Eyes (1999).
Not much is known publicly about Lori Tan Chinn; she appears to keep her personal life separate from her career and the media. She is of Hoisan, Chinese descent.