A Career Transformed by Tragedy

Photo courtesy of Susan Lieu

Susan Lieu performs in her autobiographical one-woman show "140 LBS.: How Beauty Killed My Mother."

‘140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother’

WHEN: 7 p.m. Dec. 21 (with a talk-back); and 2 p.m. Dec. 22

WHERE: Nguoi Viet Community Room, 14771 Moran St., Westminster

TICKETS: Start at $15

eventbrite.com

Susan Lieu lost her mom almost a quarter of a century ago, but when she describes that tragic time the years melt away and you can see an 11-year-old kid, consumed by grief but unsure how to process it.

“I sat at home for a week, reading books and getting bored; nobody in my family wanted to talk about it. So I went back to school. There was no mental health counselor. Nobody said anything to me. I thought I was fine. Then Mother’s Day came around and the teacher made a big deal out of it. Suddenly, I was sobbing uncontrollably in class.”

Her mother’s untimely death, and the confusion and anguish that surrounded it, ultimately led Lieu down a new career path. Her one-woman play, “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” comes to Orange County this weekend for two performances. It’s just one stop on a national tour for the hit show, which Lieu wrote, performs in, and paid for entirely on her own.

Finding Her Voice as a Performer

Lieu wasn’t born into a showbiz family, nor did she originally aim for a career on the stage.

“My parents were Vietnamese refugees who came over in 1983. My siblings were born over there; I was born here. My mom opened a nail salon that she ran with my dad. It was the family business.”

Lieu and her older sister Wendy started their own business while still in high school, selling homemade chocolate from a stand in front of their parents’ Santa Rosa store. The girls’ business prospered, and it’s now an award-winning San Francisco-based company called Socola Chocolatier. Lieu pursued her interests academically, earning an MBA from Yale University.

But Lieu was also discovering another love: performing. “In high school I was always doing things informally at rallies, and I was on the PA system all the time. I was a natural performer. But I never thought about having someone pay tickets to see me on stage.”

Her passion was further kindled at Yale, which has a world-famous theater program. “Paul Giamatti was an artist in residence while I was there. I was so fascinated.”

A few years ago, married and busy with her career, Lieu finally decided to explore performing. “I just didn’t want to regret not trying it. I didn’t want to live vicariously through my kids and be a tiger mom and project myself through them.”

She began performing comedy in 2011 at San Francisco’s famous Purple Onion, New York’s Carolines on Broadway and Jet City Improv in Seattle. She tried standup comedy seriously for two years.

“I wasn’t sure if I had real chops to entertain people. I started doing some open mics and within seven months I was headlining at the Purple Onion. That was my formal foray into performance.”

A “Trusted” Doctor

The idea to create a show about her mother came to Lieu when she was deciding to start a family. “For decades we didn’t talk about my mom, who she was. Finally I got to the point where I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a mom, I want to know more about my mom.’”

Hà Thúy Phường, Lieu’s mother, was a hero to her family. Arriving penniless in the U.S. as a refugee, she worked her way up in the competitive nail salon business, building a devoted clientele, earning enough money to buy a home and even sponsoring five of her relatives and bringing them to the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Susan Lieu

Susan Lieu, left, and her mother, Hà Thúy Phường, celebrate the grand opening of their first nail salon in the Bay Area, named Susan’s Nails.

Her mother’s death was the sad result of her decision to finally do something for herself, Lieu says.

“She was 38. She went in to have a tummy tuck and some other beauty procedures. There is a typical Vietnamese body archetype. You have to be very petite. It’s one of the traditional expectations of our culture. There’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way.”

Lieu’s mother chose a doctor who advertised in the local Vietnamese weekly magazine. “He had done a lot of free surgery in Vietnam through the American Medical Association,” Lieu said. “He got a lot of goodwill from the Vietnamese community through that. More than 30 percent of his clientele were Vietnamese.”

But the trust was undeserved. The doctor was a quack. “He had 24 lawsuits filed against him at the time my mother went in for her surgery,” Lieu said. “He had no malpractice insurance. Yet he was still practicing.”

Two hours into her operation, disaster struck. Somehow, the oxygen supply to Lieu’s mother was cut off. The doctor tried unsuccessfully to fix the problem and revive her. He waited 14 minutes before finally calling for help, but by then it was too late. She slipped into a coma; the family pulled the plug five days later.

The doctor lost his license for four years, but he continued to practice on and off for the rest of his life. Since he had no insurance, Lieu’s family couldn’t sue him.

Rewriting From Scratch

Gleaning information from her family was the hardest part of creating the show, Lieu said.

I was 11 at the time so I don’t have many memories of my mom. My dad said, ‘You’ve got to let it go.’ I did interviews with my dad and auntie. He could only talk about coming to America; he can never talk about her death. Nobody in the family wanted to talk about it. To be frank, we never processed it, and still can’t to this day.”

Lieu was able to see medical records, depositions and other trial evidence, all of which had been meticulously preserved by the family’s lawyer. She even tried to contact the disgraced doctor. “He died one month before I reached out to him. He has five kids in the Bay area. I got a phone call from his daughter, a nurse. She said she wanted to talk to me, she was so glad I had reached out. That was the first and last time I heard from her. She never picked up the phone again.”

The show went through three iterations before reaching its present form. Lieu even threw out everything she had written after performing it at Bumbershoot, a prestigious annual music and arts festival held in Seattle, Washington.

“I was the headlining theater act there last August. I decided to find another director and completely rethink everything. It took only two months to rewrite. One of my strengths is that I have a lot of energy.”

Lieu debuted the new version in February. “Now I play 12 characters and do a lot of time travel, and I also switch (locations) a lot between Vietnam and America.”

The show is deeper now and funnier, Lieu said – and that’s crucial to its success.

“The subject doesn’t sound fun. But the fact that I layer it with humor allows people to stay with me and go deep with me to a very vulnerable place — not just for me, but for them. What I’ve discovered is we don’t teach each other how to grieve or how to talk about things like beauty standards. But being honest with my story creates a space for people to open up about their own experiences.”

Hearing people’s stories has been the most gratifying part of the experience for Lieu, who is still performing “140 LBS” even though she’s now six months pregnant with her first child.

“After the performance I often stand by the merch table. People line up, and they want to tell me their stories. And they come from all over! Someone flew all the way from Dallas to see me in L.A. She lost her mom when she was a kid. Someone else drove from Colorado to Santa Fe to see the show.

Ultimately, her show transcends race or gender, Lieu believes. “Who hasn’t experienced loss or trauma? Who hasn’t struggled with issues of body image? We all suffer. That’s a fundamental life experience.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.