Chen had six birdies and two bogeys on a day of warm and sunny conditions at Orient (Xiamen) Golf and Country Club.
Australian Nikki Garrett, England’s Liz Young, Beth Allen of the United States and Noora Tamminen from Finland are a stroke behind on three under par.
Chen, the recent Tenerife Open de Espana champion, was born and raised in South Africa but feels at home in Xiamen.
With Chinese parents, she speaks fluent Cantonese and Mandarin and moved to China in February, where she is now based at Imperial Springs, one hour from Guangzhou, in Guangdong.
She said the experience of playing the venue twice as an amateur in the China Ladies Open in 2007 and 2009 was an advantage: “Knowing the greens better than most of the other girls helped me.”
With her father Hong as her caddie, Chen birdied her last two holes, the par-5 eighth and the ninth, to edge ahead on the leader board.
She said: “I was hitting it great. I hit it quite long on the eighth hole so I had a short second shot in on the par five and a chip and a putt. Then on nine, I hit a brilliant tee shot and then a great shot in and a chip and a putt.”
While Chen recorded her first professional win in Spain two months ago, Young, Allen and Tamminen are all looking for their first wins on the Ladies European Tour.
Garrett claimed both of her LET victories in Spain in 2007 and is looking to end her season on a high note. She said: “It’s my last tournament of the year so I’m just out to enjoy myself.”
Young was pleased with her putting on the fast and undulating greens and said: “I didn’t have a three putt, so that was good on these greens because they are very quick downhill. I had two bogeys and five birdies and I only holed one long putt so four tap in birdies. I was striking the ball better last week but I putted well which is crucial on this course.”
Tamminen said the turning point in her round was when she saw her friend Minea Blomqvist’s name on the leader board after seven holes, which gave her an energy boost. “After that I made a lot of birdies. Then I had a birdie on eight and nine and added three more on 12, 13 and 16,” she added.
The highest ranked player in the field, Charley Hull, had a nightmare start when she snap hooked her tee shot off the 10th resulting in a double bogey and she didn’t hit a fairway on her first nine. But after two more bogeys on the second and third holes and at four over with six holes to play, she fought back with birdies on six, eight and nine for an opening 73.
Hull goes into the weekend five strokes off the lead in a share of 40th place, but regardless of her position in the Xiamen Open, she can still win the LET order of merit with a win in Dubai.
Collated scores after round 1:
68 – Connie Chen (RSA)
69 – Noora Tamminen (FIN) , Nikki Garrett (AUS) , Beth Allen (USA) , Liz Young (ENG)
70 – Chloe Leurquin (BEL) , Li Qing Chen (CHN) , Ssu-Chia Cheng (TPE) , Alexandra Vilatte (FRA) , Minea Blomqvist (FIN) , Caroline Martens (NOR)
71 – Kylie Walker (SCO) , Maria Hernandez (ESP) , Wichanee Meechai (THA) , Stephanie Na (AUS) , Ashleigh Simon (RSA) , Becky Morgan (WAL) , Rebecca Artis (AUS) , Yu Ting Shi (CHN) , Xi Yu Lin (CHN) , Meng-Chu Chen (TPE) , Jade Schaeffer (FRA)
72 – Joanna Klatten (FRA) , Titiya Plucksataporn (THA) , Cassandra Kirkland (FRA) , Gwladys Nocera (FRA) , Pimpadsorn Sangkagaro (THA) , Sarah Kemp (AUS) , Klara Spilkova (CZE) , Pan Pan Yan (CHN) , Malene Jorgensen (DEN) , Becky Brewerton (WAL) , Pamela Pretswell (SCO) , Marion Ricordeau (FRA) , Narisara Kerdrit (THA) , Vikki Laing (SCO) , Hannah Burke (ENG) , Sahra Hassan (WAL) , Tiranan Yoopan (THA)
73 – Mireia Prat (ESP) , Ann-Kathrin Lindner (GER) , Charley Hull (ENG) , Qi Feng Xiao (CHN) , Florentyna Parker (ENG) , Aretha Pan (MYS)
74 – Saraporn Chamchoi (THA) , Louise Larsson (SWE) , Whitney Hillier (AUS) , Leigh Whittaker (GER) , Tzu Chi Lin (TPE) , Hong Tian (CHN) , Ursula Wikstrom (FIN) , Eleanor Givens (ENG) , Pennapa Pulsawath (THA) , Juanjuan Tao (CHN) , Rungthiwa Pangjan (THA)
75 – Supakchaya Pattaranakrueang (THA) , Stacy Lee Bregman (RSA) , Victoria Lovelady (BRA) , XiaoHong Chen (CHN) , Jienalin Zhang (CHN) , Nikki Campbell (AUS) , Valentine Derrey (FRA) , Lydia Hall (WAL) , Caroline Afonso (FRA) , Sally Watson (SCO) , Yue Xia Lu (CHN) , Aunchisa Utama (THA) , Cai Zhu Guo (CHN) , Michelle Koh (MYS) , Ai-Chen Kuo (TPE)
76 – Holly Aitchison (ENG) , Ying Yu (CHN) , Pei-Yun Chien (TPE) , Jaruporn Palakawong Na Ayutthaya (THA) , Ziqi Ye (CHN) , Xing’e Wang (CHN) , Tanaporn Kongkiatkrai (THA) , Maha Haddioui (MAR) , Wannasiri Sirisampant (THA) , Stacey Keating (AUS) , Kusuma Meechai (THA)
77 – Mohan Du (CHN) , Cuixia Chen (CHN) , Alison Whitaker (AUS) , Georgina Simpson (ENG) , Hsuan-Ping Chang (TPE) , Fabienne In-albon (SUI) , Felicity Johnson (ENG)
78 – Xiaolian Tong (CHN) , Ying Hua Wang (CHN) , Bree Arthur (AUS) , Patricia Sanz Barrio (ESP) , JiaYi Zhou (CHN) , Lucy Williams (ENG) , Ling Ling Tan (CHN) , Lanlan Sun (CHN)
79 – Dan Li (CHN) , Ajira Nualraksa (THA) , Xiangli Li (CHN) , YanJiao Jiang (CHN) , Piyathida Ployumsri (THA)
80 – Chang Yu Qiao (CHN) , Amolkan Phalajivin (THA)
81 – Qin He (CHN)