Lydia Chen was born in Hong Kong, lived in Brazil as a toddler, and immigrated to the United States at age five. She received her B.A. in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College and her master’s degrees in journalism and Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
She first traveled to in China in the 1980s. She then worked in Beijing, where she met young artists eager to learn about Western modernity and individualism. In 1991, as a graduate student, she produced her first documentary, Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. She wanted to find out how childhood during the Cultural Revolution, Western ideas in the 1980s, and the shock of the Tiananmen suppression in 1989 affected emerging artists in Beijing.
Lydia was again in Beijing in the early 2000s, working at the American Chamber of Commerce in China as communications director, when China joined the WTO. She later became associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University and executive director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.
In 2014, she left university administration in order to pursue her dream project: resuming the story of Chinese artists in a fast-changing society. She received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant in 2015-16, which greatly supported her research for Art in Smog.