The Asian nail salon, they’re everywhere—every city, state, uptown, downtown, even Walmart. So how did this come to be? It seems like there’s always been a nail salon on the corner, and it’s always been Asian. In Brooklyn, where I live, the Asian nail salons are Chinese. In Manhattan, they’re owned by Koreans who now hire Asian manicurists outside their ethnicity, like Nepali women who are part of a more recent immigrant group in America.
In 2015 an incendiary exposé about Asian nail salons in NYC, published by the NY Times, likened Korean salon owners to slavers, and the women trapped inside to human trafficking victims, dying of chemical exposure. The Times series was largely debunked for poor and biased reporting, while real concerns about chronic illness among salon workers remain unanswered. As a Vietnamese American New Yorker by way of the west coast, my biggest question was “where the hell are all the Vietnamese salons?” Luckily I was already working on a documentary film about just that.
NYC is an anomaly in the 8 Billion dollar American nail economy. Anywhere else in the country if an Asian is doing your nails, they’re Vietnamese. In Mekong Delta rich states like California and Texas, the number of Vietnamese salons jumps 135%, defying the laws of nature. Right now all of the nail salons underwater in Houston are Vietnamese.
My forthcoming documentary, “Nailed It,” primarily takes place in Southern California, the Mecca for Vietnamese Americans. Here the genesis of this niche trade began as refugees, who were not particularly wanted by Americans, began to stream in while fleeing communist persecution. My father was one of these people, although he never got into nails. And while I knew that all the Asian salons around me were Vietnamese, I looked down on them because there’s always been the stereotype of the low down dirty salon, and miserly Asians inside. And honestly, touching people’s feet? I was born in America baby, I’m not that Asian here to serve you. Through this documentary, I’ve had to confront my own privilege and prejudices, as most people should when it comes to nails. From the very beginning, the industry is more than its surface parts.
Through a network of Vietnamese people, who share the same last name as me, in the South Bay of Los Angeles, an indelible multicultural hero story was revealed. It was started by women stemming from a Hollywood tale of post-war philanthropy. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, actress Tippi Hedren introduced manicuring to a group of 20 Vietnamese refugee women and helped them secure their place as the first licensed Vietnamese manicurists.
As thousands of Vietnamese boat people sought refuge in the US, word spread, and doing nails became the de facto means of survival, for both women and men. Thirty percent of Vietnamese manicurists are men and doing nails isn’t an “Ancient Chinese secret” we brought over from Orient; although so many Vietnamese I’ve known are casually gifted artists. Before 1975 only American women like Tippi’s manicurist Dusty Cootes—who she flew to Hope Village refugee camp outside Sacramento to teach the first twenty women—did nails. Ironically, this was a decision Dusty would regret as the Vietnamese completely usurped the industry, and changed not only the culture but the expectation that manicurists be Asian.
So how did it go from twenty women to the Vietnamese nail salon domination we see today? The 80’s brought more minds and innovation to the trade as boat people continued to risk it all and come to America, flocking to nails. In this decade Vietnamese language nail schools were developed, and the state board manicuring test in California was offered in Vietnamese. Then there was Mantrap, the first nail salon chain, co-founded by an unexpected Black and Asian female duo, creating an overnight economic boom in the hood (Compton and the South Bay of Los Angeles to be exact.) Copying Mantrap’s success, the mom and pop Asian nail salons of affordable luxury spread like wildfire across the country—where Koreans mimicked these operations in NYC. Not only were they Asian, but for the first time, the nails only salon became the norm, which wouldn’t have happened without the Vietnamese influence.
Today the Vietnamese salon is still holding and with nail art becoming a part of our culture, permeating social media and fashion trends on beauty blogs, IG and FB, there’s always a new innovation, as well as the same old problems. The intercultural relationships, women leaders, and underlying refugee saga from which everything hinges on are also as relevant today as 40 years ago. But as immigration from Vietnam slows to a trickle it’s unknown how long salons will be predominantly operated by Vietnamese. And with newfound pride in the history of the Vietnamese salon as a part of our American legacy comes an obligation to address the health risks associated with salon chemicals.
My hope is that through the film I can help promote the idea of Vietnamese nail salon owners and workers caring enough about their health to change the narrative without government intervention, which does not always have our best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, concerns that ingestion of acetone, monomer liquids, gel and acrylic dust are linked to headaches, rashes, and even miscarriage and cancer are degraded to conjecture because there has never been a long-term study on the effects of nail salon work. And why is that? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time American chemical interests poisoned Vietnamese and didn’t apologize. In Vietnam children are still being born with deformities due to Agent Orange dropped on us over 40 years ago. No one ever makes that connection. My hope is that through the film I can help promote the idea of Vietnamese nail salon owners and workers caring enough about their health to change the narrative without government intervention, which does not always have our best interests at heart.
My vision for “Nailed It” changed over the course of production. What I didn’t expect was the effect exploring the history of the traditional Vietnamese salon would have on me. Although politically it feels like America is more fractured by identity than ever before, it’s also never been so culturally and genetically mixed. This new demographic is hungry for thoughtful, humorous articulation of diverse communities and where these underrepresented groups intersect. I consider this transcultural space to be the hallmark of my growing body of work—including this special documentary about Vietnamese in America via nail salons, and how they’ve touched us all.