Even before Hoa Thi Le left Vietnam, she heard about California’s booming nail business from her brothers and sisters. All six became manicurists after arriving in America.
So when Le came to Orange County in December, she went straight to beauty school.
“My family told me, ‘Do nails. It’s easy,’ ” said Le, 49, as she practiced brushing hot-pink polish on a woman’s toenails at Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove. “So I just followed them.”
These days, it’s hard to meet a manicurist who isn’t Vietnamese. In California, Vietnamese Americans make up an estimated 80% of nail technicians, according to the industry’s trade publication. Nationwide, it’s 43%.
“The Vietnamese have taken over the nail industry,” said Tam Nguyen, who operates the beauty school his refugee parents started.
“They began serving a niche that wasn’t served by Americans. And boom!”
They’ve also transformed a business that once was an indulgence for the pampered and wealthy, and turned it into an affordable American routine.
In the 1970s, manicures cost up to $60. But waves of Vietnamese manicurists, mostly refugees who happily settled for low wages, slashed prices. Now, manicures and pedicures go for as little as $15.
The nail industry has become an easy path to success for Vietnamese Americans, who discovered they needed little training and could get by with limited English. Even before they know how to apply a top coat or scrape off calluses, Vietnamese newcomers have jobs lined up at relatives’ salons. Some arrive with plans to open their own shops.
Salons across the Midwest and East Coast advertise for workers in Orange County’s Vietnamese-language newspapers. Cosmetology licensing tests in California and Texas are given in Vietnamese. And the industry’s trade magazine has a glossy Vietnamese-language version, VietSalon.
And whether a slur or proof of acceptance, Vietnamese Americans have earned a classic American distinction: becoming a stereotype. In stand-up comedy or prime-time TV, the spoof of a manicurist trying to tack on extra services in broken English is nearly universal.
Unlike the boutiques selling ao dai tunics or the pho restaurants that line Vietnamese enclaves, nail salons didn’t spring from centuries-old customs. There are no precise words in Vietnamese for “manicurist.” They call it tho nail -- nail worker.
How it began
The story of how the Vietnamese fell into the nail industry is one of pure chance -- of how 20 women who fled their war-torn country happened to meet a Hollywood starlet with beautiful nails.
The women were former teachers, business owners and government officials who came to America in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and landed in a tent city for Vietnamese refugees near Sacramento called Hope Village.
Actress Tippi Hedren, drawn to the plight of Vietnamese refugees, visited every few days. The Vietnamese knew little of Hollywood, so Hedren showed them Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and pointed out her face on the screen.
Hedren was captivated by the refugees’ stories of their homeland. They were, among other things, fascinated by her nails -- long, oval, the color of coral.
“I noticed that these women were very good with their hands,” said Hedren, now 78. “I thought, why couldn’t they learn how to do nails?”
So Hedren flew in her manicurist once a week to teach the women how to trim cuticles, remove calluses and perform nail wraps. She persuaded a nearby beauty school to teach the women and helped them find jobs.
Thuan Le, a high school teacher in Vietnam, passed her nail licensing exam four months after coming to Hope Village.
“Any profession that was taught to us, we would learn it,” Le said. “We had no idea if it was going to be successful or not.”
Hedren helped Le find a job at a salon in Santa Monica. It wasn’t easy work. Le did not have clients, manicures were not yet in vogue, and the tools of the trade were hard to find. She scoured hardware stores for very fine sandpaper to use in place of a buffer.
Seeing Le’s success, one of her high school friends from Vietnam decided to get into the business. Within a few years, Kien Nguyen and her husband, Diem, opened one of the first beauty salons run by Vietnamese Americans.
Diem Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese navy commander, enrolled in beauty school himself and encouraged friends to get into the nail business. By 1987, the Nguyens had opened Advance Beauty College in Little Saigon, translating classes into Vietnamese.
Such success stories spread to thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States, hoping to rebuild their lives. Today, Vietnamese entrepreneurs have found whopping success in the nail business, such as the Happy Nail chain that is a staple in malls across Southern California, with more than 40 stores.
Similar chains run by Vietnamese Americans popped up in the Midwest and East Coast.
But other Vietnamese salons that tried to compete with higher-end shops flopped because of limited English skills and poor business acumen. It led salons to cut prices and offer bare-bones services -- the so-called Vietnamese discount salon, where manicures were as cheap as $10.
The work can be grueling and unpleasant. The pay varies tremendously and is not always good. And for high-aspiring Vietnamese, it is a humble career.
“Of course, it is hard work,” said a 35-year-old manicurist as she filed a woman’s toenails at a posh Costa Mesa salon. The worker, who did not want to be named, left Vietnam 10 years ago and had to find work quickly to support two young children.
“If things were different, I could have gone to school and done something else,” she conceded.
Vietnamese salons also battle the reputation of being unsanitary and offering shoddy services. A handful of Vietnamese salons have been hit with health complaints resulting from clients’ contracting bacterial infections from dirty foot spas, but the numbers are no higher than non-ethnic salons, according to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
The Vietnamese nail shops have also fueled resentment from high-end salons. “Some nail technicians feel they can’t compete with Vietnamese salons,” said Hannah Lee, editor of Nails Magazine. “There is a point where the prices are too low and nail technicians are not making what their services are worth.”
Like the Vietnamese, other immigrant groups have cornered business niches: Cambodians with doughnut shops, Koreans with dry cleaners, Indians with motels.
But some fade as the second generation abandons the industries their parents fought to gain a foothold in.
Nail industry observers see the opposite happening for Vietnamese Americans. Immigrants from Vietnam continue to dribble in, providing a flow of workers for new salons. And there are still unsaturated markets in the country.
“If you want to make money, get out of California,” Tam Nguyen tells his students.
He said there was room for salons to transform into trendier beauty shops -- with facials, massages, leather chairs, fancy decor -- such as those that have popped up across California in recent years. They are run mostly by second-generation Vietnamese Americans.
Vietnamese Americans are also making inroads into the beauty product, manufacturing, design and foot spa business.
“Every spa chair, every nail tip, every color polish, the Vietnamese are starting to dominate,” Nguyen said. “We own it, we use it.”
As for Hoa Thi Le, she passed her licensing exam in Vietnamese and is looking for a manicurist job. She knows the hours will be long, the pay average. But as a newcomer who speaks only a few phrases of English, she smiles at the opportunities the nail industry has given her. And she dreams of starting a salon with her siblings.