Her parents were illiterate farmers, but Su-Man Hsu escaped poverty in Taiwan to become London’s facialist to the stars.
“Three things I remember about growing up in a mud hut,” the elegant woman sitting opposite tells me. “First, when it’s raining outside, it’s raining inside. You have to put pots and pans all over the floor to stop the whole thing sliding away. Second, in the summer, little baby mice fall down from the roof on to you when you’re lying on the cool mud floor.” Nice, I retort. “Nice? It’s gross — gross!”
“Third, there are snakes all over the walls. You cover the old matting in paper, but then you see a shape protruding and you know it’s a snake. My mother was really good at knowing where the head was and grabbing them. I sometimes think, ‘Come on, who cares about your life?’ But then, when I think about it, I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to you.” My companion and I glance around at the gleaming luxury of the spa at the W Hotel in London, where snakes remain a happy rarity.
Born 53 years ago in the aforementioned mud hut in rural Taiwan, the youngest of ten children belonging to two illiterate farmers, Hsu has risen to become a facialist to the stars, operating out of A-list haunts and with an award-winning beauty range sold at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.
These days she tends Sienna Miller, Juliette Binoche, Joely Richardson, Naomi Campbell and Kylie Minogue and their like — women with a professional interest in looking good — plus a staggeringly famous male rock star who prefers to remain anonymous, at £250 an hour. There are also rumours about a certain royal client, a subject she is necessarily keeping schtum about. Gossip has it that this is a young royal whom she sees in Fulham — which for my money means Kate at Pippa’s gaff in Chelsea — but our heroine will not be drawn.
The contrast between this rarefied world and the hardship of her upbringing could not be more extreme. As she puts it, her English momentarily slipping: “We were really poverty.” Several memories move her to tears.
One that haunts her is of the neighbours’ children pleading with their teacher to stop caning her oldest sister for being late because she had to sell vegetables before school; another is of her brother walking for 40 minutes to find seawater during a drought; also her mother trying to commit suicide after her father acted as signatory for a friend’s loan but the friend then disappeared.
When things were bad, the family, plus their pigs and chickens, subsisted on a great pot of oats. When the government took over the local land, they were forced to sell their ox, an old friend. “Thinking about it still gives me tears,” says Hsu, weeping. “It was five in the morning, there was a mist. My father and my third brother were trying to get the ox to move, but the ox didn’t want to move. I saw that he had big tears rolling out of his eyes — big tears. That image has stayed in my mind for ever.” Then the incongruity of her new life crashes in: “Juliette Binoche’s drama coach said it should be a scene in a film!”
No books, then, I ask. “Books?” she exclaims, like an eastern version of Monty Python’s “four Yorkshiremen” sketch. “Not even toys. I used to have fun by digging a hole in the ground, riding my dad’s old bicycle with both legs pedalling one side because the bar was too high, climbing trees and hitting swallows with a catapult then making a barbecue. I’d think: ‘I’m so lucky. The world’s really beautiful.’ I’m so lucky I grew up in a mud hut.”
It is a refrain she repeats often with absolute sincerity. And her background obviously gave her drive: “I had no fear because I knew so little.” Despite being poorly educated themselves, her older brothers and sisters helped to support her through university in Taipei, where she fell in love with ballet, something neither she nor her family had heard of.
Worried about her daughter’s future, her mother didn’t speak to Hsu for a week when she later got into dance college, but again her siblings rallied round. “I was really, really lucky. They never questioned me. They said: ‘You’re like a bird, flying around.’ They were so proud.”
On graduating, Hsu travelled to Germany, drawn there by the choreographer Pina Bausch, despite picking the wrong city to arrive in and ending up in a perilous red-light district without speaking any German. “That was the first time I had a fear,” she recalls, “but I was brave.” There are more tears. By now I’m shedding them too.
While dancing, she met her husband and business partner, Farooq Chaudhry, a producer first at the Akram Khan Company, then at the English National Ballet. The pair are now amicably divorced. She has two daughters: an 18-year-old with Chaudhry, and an adopted 12-year-old from China.
While she was performing, Hsu applied the knowledge of beauty and nutrition she had learnt as a child. And certainly the food she grew up on sounds healthy, when there was enough of it. “Totally organic,” she chuckles, costly pesticides not being an option. “We only ate meat when we had guests, so we lived off vegetables, fruit, raw mushrooms — everything we could grow ourselves and sell.”
Su-Man, her mother and five older sisters would put the leftovers to use as beauty products, be it fruit face potions or a nail polish substitute from a tree. “Everything we used was derived from nature and based on tips passed down from generations. We used items such as vegetables, watermelons and green tea on our skins. Farm girls wanted to look beautiful too.”
After a back injury, Hsu trained as a shiatsu therapist and Pilates instructor and learnt the art of facial massage. “So I discovered my second love, working on this deep connection between emotional and physical wellbeing. Everything was about strengthening myself as a dancer, but of course I gave other people massages and they loved me for it.”
At the age of 42, she retired from dance and took her massage technique from backstage to ritzy spas, naming it the Su-Man Skin Reborn Sculpting Facial, based on descriptions from her clients.
I can understand the talk of devotion among the fortunate few whom she massages. This is the second time that Hsu has given me the benefit of her artistry and the second time I have subsequently considered stalking her. Her treatment is as far away from the bog standard, beautician-style, one-size-fits-all facial as it is possible to be: vigorous, robust yet strangely soothing, and entirely tailored to each and every one of the 10,000 faces she has worked on.
My own recently rather pained countenance requires some chest pressing (to activate the lymph), neck grappling, shoulder pounding, ear rubbing, cheek knuckling, and foot massaging — all to stimulate the circulation, “bring energy and remove stagnation”. I am left with a smaller, brighter, profoundly younger face — everything going up, up, up! — even skin and a fabulously warm glow.
Fans rave that Hsu’s work constitutes a “facelift in an hour” and “a natural alternative to Botox”. Our heroine advises against actual Botox and filler: “People often look older — and their eyes show the fear. The body is designed to be moved, not stagnated. You might as well be talking to a wall.” Her product line is bursting with the natural knowledge she picked up in her childhood and features wares from her kitchen such as coffee, oils, spirulina and hibiscus flowers. Her own complexion is her best advertisement.
Needless to say, it’s all a long way from the mud hut, yet in many ways that life feels more appealing. “My daughters sometimes ask, ‘If you had a lot of money, where would you go?’ And I say, ‘I’d return to my childhood — but with the money.’ It was the most memorable part of my life and it shaped me. My parents may have been illiterate, but they lived in a philosophical way. My father knew who he was and he knew how to live.” No less his daughter.
article by Hannah Betts