Santa Rosa native Susan Lieu's one-woman show tells of mom's plastic surgery death

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If You Go

What: “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” a solo show by Susan Lieu

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, May 15-17; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18; 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19

Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco

Admission: $25-$100

Tickets, information: 415-282-3055, themarsh.org

The Marsh theater company in San Francisco’s Mission District enjoys a well-known reputation for presenting solo performances by famed performers including Robin Williams, Marga Gomez, Josh Kornbluth, Brian Copeland, Will Durst and others.

Santa Rosa native Susan Lieu has now joined that list with a solo show now midway through its current run at The Marsh, but unlike so many past shows, hers is not a comedy or satire.

Titled “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” Lieu’s solo piece is a true and very personal story about cosmetic surgery gone horribly wrong.

“This show is the true story of how my mother died from plastic surgery malpractice in San Francisco in 1996 when I was 11 years old,” said Lieu, now 34. “Two hours into the surgery she lost oxygen to the brain. After four minutes, that causes permanent brain injury. It was 14 minutes, before anyone called 911. Every minute matters.”

The doctor who performed the surgery on Lieu’s mother was the subject of multiple complaints, was charged with negligence and poor recordkeeping and ultimately lost his license to practice medicine before his death five years ago but for Lieu, the case is not closed.

“I wanted to avenge my mother’s death,” Lieu said, “but after my enemy dies, what am I supposed to do?”

As Lieu started to write her mother’s story, the range of the one-woman show began to broaden to include a wider range of topics: “the multi-generational Vietnamese immigrant experience; body insecurity and shame; repression and subsequent examination of personal loss; lack of accountability in the medical system.”

Lieu was born in the United States to a Vietnamese immigrant family that came to the United States in 1983 and settled in Santa Rosa in 1993 to open the Today’s Nails salon on Fourth Street downtown. The business still continues today under the same name but different ownership.

“The story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath has always been told from an American perspective, but we’re owning that narrative now,” Lieu said.

Along with the perspective of the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants come some interesting insights. “Vietnamese people in the nail care industry are among the top customers for plastic surgery,” Lieu explained.

Lieu’s mother — born Ha Thuy Phuong, and later adopting the American name Jennifer Ha — was a strong woman who worked hard for her family, including her husband and four children.

“My mom was all about engineering what she wanted, but I had never framed her that way,” Lieu said.

The elder Ha’s pursuit of ideal physical beauty led to her to undergo three simultaneous surgeries: a tummy tuck, the narrowing of her nostrils and some work on her chin.

“It’s all about perfection,” Lieu said. “I used to frame it that my mom was victim of the media imagery.”

The family work ethic has served Lieu well. She and her sister started Socola Chocolatier, an artisan chococlate concession, as teenagers at downtown Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Market, which grew into a business that has had its own storefront operation in San Francisco for the past five years.

“My sister runs the day-to-day and I am now a passive partner,” Lieu said, who went on to pursue goals of her own. “I was the first graduate from Maria Carrillo High School to attend Harvard.”

If You Go

What: “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” a solo show by Susan Lieu

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, May 15-17; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18; 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19

Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco

Admission: $25-$100

Tickets, information: 415-282-3055, themarsh.org

While still at Maria Carrillo, she won the 2003 Youth Service Award in the citizenship category, presented by The Press Democrat, for collecting books for literacy programs and raising money for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, as well as collecting food for low-income farmworkers and shoes for the needy in Congo.

She went on study social studies, public health and international development at Harvard, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social studies in 2008. After Harvard, Lieu moved to Vietnam to pursue international development work with cacao farmers and USAID.

Then she returned to the Bay Area to fully focus on Socola Chocolatier. For the next few years, she and her sister helped build the company. During that time she was also a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and started to dabble in stand-up comedy in San Francisco, including work at The Purple Onion.

In 2011, she left Socola to go to Yale, where she received her master’s of business administration degree in 2014. From Yale, she moved to Seattle, where she spent the next few years in management consulting. She developed her new solo show in Seattle, where it recently had its sold-out world premiere, before bringing it to San Francisco.

The intensely personal story of her mother’s death — told in 70 minutes with Lieu playing 11 different characters — has grown into a combination of personal tribute, exposé, cultural exploration and healing.

“After my mom’s death, the family moved on. There was no hugging or grief counseling. As Asians, that’s how we dealt with grief,” Lieu said. “I wanted closure.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts

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