Young was born with the name Nonie Tan (Chinese: 陳金娘; Tan Kiem Nio) in Sungai Liput, Aceh, on 12 January 1914 to a French father and peranakan Chinese mother; her father may have been a serviceman during World War I. After her father died when she was a child, Young and her mother moved to Batavia (modern day Jakarta), where Young completed four years of elementary school at a Dutch-run school for Chinese.
Young first joined the Dewi Dja' troupe as a dancer, using the pseudonym Dewi Maria. She later switched to Miss Riboet's Orion troup, where she married the playwright Njoo Cheong Seng when she was 14. The elder man coached her in acting and convinced her to take the stage name Fifi Young; Young was the Cantonese equivalent of Njoo's Hokkien surname, while Fifi was meant to be reminiscent of the French actress Fifi D'Orsay. With Miss Riboet, Young travelled throughout South East Asia, including in British Malaya.
In 1930 the couple established the Moonlight Crystal Follies in Penang, where Young had her first acting job. By the mid-1930s Young and Njoo had switched to the Dardanella troupe. Young was one of the group's stars, and after most of the group went abroad Young and Njoo established their own troupe, Fifi Young's Pagoda, in 1937.
After the success of Albert Balink's Terang Boelan in 1937 and The Teng Chun's Alang-Alang in 1939, four new film studios were started. One of these, Oriental Film, signed Njoo and Young; Njoo was taken as a writer, while Young was meant to be an actress. Young was hoped to be the studio's bankable star, and starred in the studio's first three films: Kris Mataram (Kris of Mataram; 1940), Zoebaida (1940), and Pantjawarna (Five Colours; 1941). When Njoo left the studio to join Majestic Pictures upon the invitation of Fred Young (no relation), Fifi Young went with him. With Majestic she starred in Air Mata Iboe (Mother's Tears; 1941).
During the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, Young and Njoo were members of the Bintang Soerabaia troupe; their fellow member Dhalia had also been a film star before the occupation. The Japanese had closed all but one film studio, essentially killing the industry. During the four-year revolution that followed World War II, Young and her husband led the Pantjawarna troupe.
After the revolution, Young returned to film. During the following two decades she often played mother figures. The American visual anthropologist Karl G. Heider writes that Young performed especially well when acting as an older village woman and that she was well known for chewing betel on-screen.
Young acted in her last film, Teguh Karya's Ranjang Pengantin (Wedding Dress) in 1974. She died on 5 March 1975 after spending several months in the hospital. She was cremated at Muara Karang, North Jakarta, four days after her death, until which she had actively spoke out against the sexually-themed stories that had begun dominating the nation's cinema. Her daughter Sally, one of five children Young had with Njoo before they divorced, went into acting.
Young received several acting awards during her career. At the inaugural Indonesian Film Festival in 1955, Young was chosen for the best actress award for her role in Tarmina. She received several nominations from the PWI, including Best Actress for Wajah Seorang Pembunuh in 1973 and Best Actress for Jembatan Merah in 1974. In November 2003 Young was posthumously awarded a Budaya Parama Dharma Award by President Megawati Sukarnoputri for her contributions to the development of Indonesian culture. Other awardees included the comedian Bing Slamet and the director D. Djajakusuma.
Young acted in at least 86 films over her 34-year career, saying in 1972 that she had forgotten just how many. Those recorded are as follows: