How the Vietnamese Came to Dominate the Nail Salon Industry

Even with a bright, yellow sign, Joy’s Spa blends in with the other colorful storefronts that line D.C.’s popular 18th street. Inside, there are several beige chairs seated next to each other across from a row of manicure tables. There are two small rooms in the back for facials and waxing. This is a typical set up of a nail salon in the U.S. Also typical, the owner of Joy’s Spa is Vietnamese. Her name is The Nguyen, but she calls herself Joy.

Joy is part of the 20 percent of Vietnamese workers in the U.S. who are employed in nail salons and other beauty occupations, according to a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics report (pdf). According to Nails magazine, almost half, 48 percent, of  all nail salon workers in the U.S. are Vietnamese.

“I don’t know why most Vietnamese own the nail salon,” Joy said.

The Vietnamese grip of this multi-billion dollar industry can be traced to a prominent, American movie star, Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, “The Birds.”

“The Tippi Hedren Factor”

The end of the war in 1975 prompted the U.S. to evacuate 125,000 Vietnamese refugees to America, according to the AmericanImmigration Law Foundation.

Hedren lived in California at the time and volunteered with an organization called Food for the Hungry. She helped set up a temporary relocation center for Vietnamese refugees called Hope Village, near Sacramento, Calif.

“We tried to find jobs for them, we’d help them get their driver’s licenses,” Hedren said. “Just kind of give them an entrée into our American way of life.”

The women Hedren worked with couldn’t help but notice Hedren’s long, manicured nails, she said.

“They loved my fingernails,” Hedren said. “So I thought, ‘Oh—OK, this is fun. I’ll bring my manicurist up.”

When Hedren proposed training the women to become manicurists, “their eyes lit up and they started chattering about the fun it would be,” she said.

“They were just very excited about the thought of being taught how to do this beautiful manicure.”

Hedren said the women didn’t seem to know much about manicures or nail salons.

“I told them about the manicuring shops, and they became excited about that. And they wanted to know more about the whole set up that it would be; you know, the tables and the different colors of polishes, and the way the whole business would be arranged.”

Hedren’s personal manicurist came to Hope Village once a week for about two months and taught a group of 50 Vietnamese women how to do a Juliet manicure, a popular manicure at the time. By the end of the two months, 20 women were set on pursuing manicuring as a career.

Food for the Hungry sponsored those 20 women through a nearby beauty school, Citrus Heights Beauty College, in Sacramento, where they obtained their cosmetology licenses

“Off into the world they went,” Hedren said.

Becoming a Nail Technician

Hannah Lee, the editor and associate publisher of NAILS magazine, said the reason for the prevalence of the Vietnamese in the nail salon industry is two-fold. While the Vietnamese were first introduced to the nail salon industry because of what Lee calls “the Tippi Hedren factor,” the industry was, and still is, easy to enter for new immigrants.

Becoming a nail technician requires completing a state-approved cosmetology program. Some programs are even taught in Vietnamese, including one at the Advanced Beauty College in Garden Grove, Calif. Nail technician training programs in the U.S. range from 150 hours to 600 hours.

Joy went to beauty school in Virginia where she completed 150 hours of training. “I learned how to make my customer relaxed, how to do the nail,” Joy said.

After completing a training program, students must pass a state licensing exam. Fourteen states in the U.S. allow the exam to be taken in Vietnamese. Joy took her exam in English.

After Joy got her license, she spent a few months getting experience and then she opened her own salon. Lee said opening a nail salon is not too expensive, also making it easier for immigrants to enter the industry.

“The cost of running a nail salon is very low,” Lee said. “It’s a store front with electricity, basic plumbing and minimal equipment.”

Joy became a manicurist, and later a salon owner, because she needed to support her family. Average weekly income for nail technicians, whether Vietnamese or not, ranges from less than $150 to more than $750, according to the most recent national industry survey in 2008 by NAILS magazine (pdf).

“Whereas a lot of non-Vietnamese salons work on commission, most Vietnamese salons are salaried employees,” Lee said. “They work a lot of hours and make a good living with their tips and their salary.”

Joy’s Spa is open nine hours a day seven days a week, and seven hours on Sundays. Joy said she makes between $70 and $100 per hour as a manicurist.

“The most I ever made before was $8.50 an hour at a hotel,” Joy said. “I make a lot more.”

Cultivating an Ethnic Niche

Vietnamese manicurists are so common that people generally assume all Vietnamese-Americans have some sort of connection with a nail salon, Lee said.

“They say practically every Vietnamese-American probably has somebody in their family who works in a salon.”

This is the case in Joy’s Spa. Joy’s sister, daughter and daughter-in-law work at Joy’s Spa. Joy’s son also used to work at Joy’s Spa until he opened a spa of his own, TuSuva Body & Skin Care, down the street.

Susan Eckstein, a professor of International Relations and Sociology at Boston University and co-author of the article, “The Making and Transnationalization of an ethnic niche: Vietnamese Manicurists,” said networking has transformed the nail salon industry into a Vietnamese industry.

The Vietnamese did not actively seek to keep non-Vietnamese out of the industry, Eckstein said. “But their everyday actions had the effect, not the intent, of keeping others out,” she said.

For example, Vietnamese salons tend to employ friends and relatives. They also tend to advertise in Vietnamese-language newspapers, preventing non-Vietnamese even from knowing about the opportunities, she said.

It’s widely held that the nail salon industry has become so identified with being Vietnamese that new immigrants from Vietnam begin nail technician training before they come to the U.S.

Along with creating an ethnic niche, the Vietnamese also transformed the nail salon industry into what Eckstein calls, “McNails,” which she describes as, “small, walk-in, inexpensive and impersonal.”

Living the American Dream

The Vietnamese “McNails” industry is growing as the children and grandchildren of the first generation join and remain in the trade. There is potential for them to build their own businesses, Lee said.

“It’s really kind of how a lot of Vietnamese live the American dream,” she said.

The third generation, now in their 30s, has studied business and is better positioned to help their families’ salons improve, or start a business of their own, Lee said.

“Most of them have gone to college in America and they’ve just learned about branding, about better customer service, about design and décor, and they’re just kind of expanding on what their parents started but making it better,” she said.

For Joy, her nail salon symbolizes her success story.

“American dream come true,” she said. “I never expect to come in here with no education, and today I [am] able to have my own business—all my kids have their own business.”

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