You may have wondered why so many Vietnamese immigrants work in nail salons across the United States.
While it is a common stereotype that Vietnamese-Americans rule manis and pedis, not many people are aware of the story behind the billion-dollar industry, or of the significance the trade has to many Vietnamese immigrants.
It all began forty years ago after the Fall of Saigon, which left millions of Vietnamese refugees faced with one choice: to flee the country.
Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren, known for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds, visited Hope Village camp near Sacramento, CA as an international relief coordinator with Food for the Hungry.
She met with a group of female war refugees during her visit.
The actress had set a goal to help the women adopt a valuable skill set so they could better support themselves in America. To her surprise, they were instead fascinated with her manicure.
“We were trying to find vocations for them. I brought in seamstresses and typists–any way for them to learn something,” Hedrin told BBC during a recent interview. “And they loved my fingernails.”
A woman named Thuan Le recounted the “lightbulb” moment recently to Take Part.
“A group of us were standing close to her and saw that her nails were so beautiful,” she explained. “We talked to each other and said they looked so pretty. I looked in [Hedren’s] eyes and knew she was thinking something. She said, ‘Ah, maybe you can learn nails.’ And we looked at each other and she said, ‘Yes, manicure!'”
After training with Hedren’s personal beautician, and help from a local beauty school, the 20 women were able to execute the perfect manicure.
Several of these women eventually settled in Southern California, where they set up shop and began offering manicure services 30 to 50 percent lower than their competitors.
The nail Industry is now worth $8 billion.
Eighty percent of nail technicians in Southern California are of Vietnamese ancestry and many are direct descendants of the women Hedren came in contact with four decades ago, according to BBC.
“I loved these women so much that I wanted something good to happen for them after losing literally everything,” said Hedren. “Some of them lost their entire family and everything they had in Vietnam: their homes, their jobs, their friends. Everything was gone. They lost even their own country.”
According to Nails magazine, manicurists made an estimated $645 per week in 2014. Many of these technicians support their families by sending money to Vietnam every month.
Although she was barely making ends meet, Le said she would send $50 to $100 to her family each month when she first started working.
Tam Nguyen, founder and president of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, estimated that most Vietnamese-Americans working in the nail industry today still send a portion of their checks back home.
Reuters reports that eight percent of Vietnam’s $14 billion economy is attributable to overseas remittances. More than half of the capital stems from the United States.
“That’s their motivation,” Nguyen tells TakePart. “I’ve been in conversations where there are Vietnamese manicure graduates who are like, ‘I need to work immediately and get a great job so I can send money back to my mom, dad and brother immediately.”
Nguyen, whose mother is also a close friend of Le’s, attributed the success of Vietnamese refugees in the beauty industry to their attention to detail, entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to work from the perspective of a refugee.
“When you have nothing but the shirt on your back and you come from the circumstances you did, everything is rosy,” he said. “You’re willing to work your way up and earn it. To have grit and the determination to succeed and make a better living for yourself-that’s where the Vietnamese mentality is really descending from.”
Hedren’s advocacy for Vietnamese-Americans was the subject of a documentary, titled Happy Hands, which one best documentary short at the Sonoma international film Festival in 2014.
The CND and Beauty Changes Lives Foundation (BLC) started the BCL CND Tippi Hedren Nail Scholarship Fund which supports professional nail education, and was administered January 1, 2014.
Tippi Hedren with the first Vietnamese manicure class receiving their cosmetology licenses in 1975, compliments of Thuan Le, via Take Part.