Oh honey, let me do your nails for you

02/24/2017 8:41 PM


Hollywood star Tippi Hedren, back right, with 20 Vietnamese female immigrants that she humbly helped to successfully change the nail industry.

By: Kathy Nguyen

Sharing just a large plastic bowl of Cháo, Vietnamese rice porridge, with her two sisters to eat everyday to survive, my mom knew her life was troubled. She would play with stray dogs and chicken to get her mind off of hunger. Desperate to survive and support her family, my mom worked at a garment factory as a dressmaker with a low wage. Her mind was like a mature adult but her body was a teenage girl. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, she fled to United States as a helpless immigrant to seek the American Dream. Now, my mom is a successful nail salon owner that can afford more than just a large plastic bowl of Cháo, thanks to a female Hollywood actress named Tippi Hedren.

Tippi Hedren was not just a Hollywood star for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds. To the Vietnamese American community, Hedren was highly acknowledged for her role of being the spark to ignite the booming market in the nail-care business for Vietnamese female immigrants. She traveled to a Vietnamese refugee camp called Hope Village near Sacramento, California, to meet with a group of 20 women who fled from South Vietnam because of the fall of Saigon in 1975. South Vietnam was taken over by the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh with armed forces called Việt Cộng.

So how does it feel to start a new life at a different country after losing your family, friends, belongings, and even your home country because of an invasion? Without a doubt, it’s scary and petrifying. Well, that is what those 20 Vietnamese female immigrants had to endure. Helpless, these women spoke no English, lacked marketable skills, and had no source of income or a job. Hedren wanted to help these women learn a skill so they can support themselves in their new “alien country.”

She brought seamstresses and typists but these women showed no interest until when Thuan Le, one of the twenty women pointed out how beautiful Hedren’s manicure was. “They loved my fingernails,” Hedren says. Hedren made ends meet when she flew her own beautician and made a local beauty school to teach the 20 women how to make the perfect manicure and become licensed.

In the 1970s, a manicure at a luxury salon cost about $50, which was expensive so women would go get a manicure only on special occasions. Remember, $50 during 1970s is costly compared to $50 today. Therefore, women who can’t afford the $50 manicures had to do their own nails at home. With an entrepreneur mindset, those 20 skilled women offered manicure services cheaper than their competition. According to a magazine Nails, Vietnamese-American owned salons offered 30 to 50 percent cheaper than those luxury salons. They fixed the niche of expensive manicure to affordable manicure and cater services for these women, which was the key to successfully change the nail industry.

Today, Vietnamese immigrants dominate the Southern California’s nail care industry. Every corner on the street you will see nail salons called “Perfect Nails,” “Q Nails,” or even “Tammi’s Nails” and most likely it is owned and run by Vietnamese Americans.

So why a majority of Vietnamese female immigrants go into the nail industry and not take the route for the prestigious occupations such as doctors, lawyers, or engineer?

Well, Vietnamese immigrants are interested in the nail industry than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer because of the high demand of a nail technician in the job market and the language barrier. They don’t need to speak that much English, but learn a few phrases. All they have to say is “How may I help you,” “do you like manicure or pedicure,” “OK, only $15” and that’s how simple it was. If they can barely speak english, how can they understand “how does the mitochondria works,” “the difference between 27 amendments,” or  “why does E=mc^2. ”

Becoming a nail technician was faster than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. The only education to become a nail technician was a license, not a degree. Vietnamese immigrants don’t have time to learn English and study for 10-12 years to graduate with a degree.Vietnamese immigrants want to make money quick so they can send money to their family back in Vietnam, not fall into debt. Nevertheless, once they get their license, they can get a job at a nail salon soon because of the demand for affordable nail care.

Networking was important for Vietnamese female immigrants to go into the nail industry as well. Vietnamese female immigrants had an easy access into getting a job at a Vietnamese-American owned nail salon because of the owner’s empathy. The owner probably went through the same hardship and knows how it feels to leave your family and life back at home. Also, Vietnamese immigrants would be more comfortable working in an environment with other fellow Vietnamese workers because Vietnamese is the only language they can speak and communicate with one another about their personal life. Working at a nail salon has benefits because the workers at the nail salon who have family members in Vietnam can reference them to the owner and that family member will most likely be welcomed and get the job there quick.

If you go to a nail salon and the Vietnamese workers are speaking in their own language, don’t think they are talking “shit” about you. They just want to communicate to each other in their own language about their personal life because of their lack of English and they don’t want you to laugh at them if they mispronounce words.

So when you walk into the nail salon and you see a lot of Vietnamese women waiting to give you a manicure or pedicure at a cheaper price than $50, you can thank Tippi Hedren and Thuan Le for changing the nail industry.

Helpful statistics and information from this web source:

Hoang, Celeste. “The Fascinating Story Behind Why So Many Nail Technicians Are Vietnamese.” TakePart. TakePart, 05 May 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2017. file://localhost/<http/::www.takepart.com:article:2015:05:05:tippi-hedren-vietnamese-refugees-nail-industry:>.


2 thoughts on “Oh honey, let me do your nails for you

Add yours

  1. I found this post to be so interesting! Personally I have always wondered why there are a lot of Vietnamese-American nail salons across various cities but I never came to figure why that may be true. It is extremely hard to assimilate in a country where one does not know the native language spoken there. It is even harder to be happy when you know that your family back in the Vietnams is relying on you to send them aid in the form of money. The quickest route would be to earn a license and expertise in something. This post was really interesting to read and it provided a lot of clarity for me.


  2. This article was such a interesting topic. I have noticed that most Vietnamese are always talking to each other but I thought they were always talking about my feet. I never knew it was because they could speak English. Crazy to see how popular the nail industry is becoming.


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