The Fall of Saigon brought a wave of Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S. who ultimately helped build today's booming nail industry.
Mississippi nail tech Janice Owens was sick of her career in banking and decided to return to a past passion: nails. After two unsuccessful stints in hair salons (one which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina weeks after Owens left), opportunity knocked. “I went to the dentist for my teeth cleaning, and the dental hygienist asked me what I was doing,” says Owens. “I told her I was getting back into the beauty business, but I wasn’t having much luck. She told me her brother owned a nail salon and was looking for someone.” A couple of his employees had lost their homes in the hurricane and were forced to leave, and he needed to fill vacancies fast.
It seemed that Mother Nature had actually delivered some good cheer to Owens, but she had two concerns: It was a discount salon. And the owner was Vietnamese.
“I was apprehensive about it,” says Owens. “We hear, as nail techs, about Vietnamese-owned salons. We hear so many negative things about them. We also hear so many things about discount salons.”
She needed the work, but there was much she had to contemplate. Facing her own conflicting emotions and pondering whether preconceived notions were getting in her way of making a good business decision, she had much history she could consider; few in the industry will deny that Vietnamese salons and techs had been a dominant force long before Owens ever picked up a nail file.
The young industry veteran who offered the job to Owens was Tan Nguyen. Like more than 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), Tan and his family immigrated to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Only 4,340 Vietnamese immigrants had been admitted to the U.S. in the entire 1960s, according to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics.
Vietnamese Discover the Nail Industry
“There were very few Vietnamese living in the United States before April 30, 1975, when the Vietnam War finally ended with the takeover of Saigon,” says Dr. Sophie Quinn-Judge, associate director at the Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture, and Society at Temple University. “The U.S. Embassy belatedly organized an airlift for Vietnamese and their families who had worked closely with the Americans. Other refugees left by boat and ship as the Saigon Army crumbled.”
Tin Nguyen, director of the Vietnamese Nail Care Professional Association (VNCPA), says, “Upon arrival in the U.S., most Vietnamese found employment in the shrimp industry, restaurants, landscaping and so on.” And after many of the first immigrants came, they arranged for more family members to come later. In all, about 900,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in America. A refugee is considered someone who cannot or will not return to his/her country of nationality because of fear of persecution.
“The Vietnamese who have come to America have included people from all social classes,” says Quinn-Judge. “After 1977, many educated southerners who felt shut out by the new system in Vietnam, who worried that prejudice against their children would prevent them from getting an education, left their homeland. Clearly, many of the Vietnamese who came to the U.S. were enterprising business people and accustomed to making the most out of what little they had.”
A Developing Industry
The influx of enterprising Vietnamese wasn’t the only surge that the U.S. was seeing at the time. Nail care had been in the U.S. since the turn of the century, but new advancements were changing America’s view of nails.
Nail-specific acrylic systems had been around for about a decade and a half before the fall of Saigon, but in the early ’70s, artificial nails began to appear as an overt sign of wealth and luxury. Nail care became a booming industry that was later propelled by shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” whose leading ladies showcased salon-quality nails.
When a few of the enterprising immigrants saw the opportunity, they jumped into the quickly expanding industry. Others soon followed.
Vietnamese and the Nail Industry Find Each Other
“As more and more Vietnamese were entering the U.S. in the mid-1980s, their need to find a decent way of making a living led them to the nail care industry,” says VNCPA’s Tin. “The job did not require a lot of English language skill nor did it require extensive education. Yet, nail technicians were able to earn a middle-class salary. This was unheard of for immigrants.”
And it’s those same motivations today that keep attracting new immigrants to the field. Andy Nguyen, an award-winning student filmmaker, obtained his Florida nail specialist license two years ago so he could do firsthand research in Vietnamese salons. “I live in the Vietnamese community, and everyone at my church is a nail tech,” he says. “It seems to be a dream they had when they came to the United States. They want to be part of a professional industry. They want to have clean hands and drive nice cars.”
Andria Mai of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County adds, “These nail techs work hard, long hours, but compared to all the labor professions, nails is a lighter job for them and enables them to make money.”
Brian Tran is an immigrant who can relate to that. He came to the U.S. in the early ’80s for freedom and opportunities. His first paid work was not unlike that described by Tin; the first jobs he found were delivering newspapers, working in a restaurant, and laboring as a janitor. All were a far cry from his position in Vietnam as co-owner (with his wife) of a motorcycle-seat manufacturing company.
“When he first came here, he didn’t really speak English,” says Brian’s daughter Anh. “He didn’t know what to do. He walked by a salon and saw a Vietnamese woman who could speak his language. He decided almost instantly to become a nail tech.” It was a chain reaction. This stranger showed Brian what kind of job he could have, and he became a licensed tech. His wife became a licensed tech as well.
That same type of chain reaction is what brought Tan Nguyen, the man who would offer Janice Owens a job at his salon, into his career. “I didn’t think about doing nails until I needed a career,” says Tan, who learned about the career through friends. “It was a good investment. The atmosphere is really good, not at all like an office job.”
Changes in the Industry
It certainly isn’t an office job, but when the Vietnamese approached the industry like a business and not just an art form, much changed in professional nail care.
“In the beginning when nails first started, it was mainly Caucasian,” says Anh. “It was a three-ball system, and they used small brushes. When the Vietnamese came, they used the one-ball system and larger brushes. It enabled them to do a set more quickly. They were able to have more clients per hour. That’s how the Vietnamese market grew; it wasn’t hard, and they were able to make money.” Time was also shaved off services, and clients began to expect fewer minutes spent in the salon.
The growth of the Vietnamese market led to lower service prices, according to Tin. “Competition made nail care an affordable luxury. It made nail care popular.”
As popular as the cheap prices were to the consumer, they were under-standably unpopular with nail techs, especially those who had enjoyed the days when a full set was $50 (and gas was less than $1 per gallon).
Researcher and tech Andy Nguyen notes, “The Vietnamese came into the nail industry and lowered prices and wiped others out. Now they’re dominating the industry.”
But the lower prices didn’t hurt only Caucasian nail techs. “The competition has gotten more brutal across the board,” says Tin. “Nail technicians are not making as much as they used to make.”
In fact, it is so competitive that companies who offer employment training often refuse to support training new refugees for careers in nail salons. “The nail profession is one of the ones over-crowded, so CalWORK [a welfare program that services needy families] doesn’t train them in it,” says Megan Gui who works with new refugees and CalWORK at the Southeast Asian Community Center in San Jose, Calif.
Another change has been in the pedicure arena. The pedicure services, along with strict spa sanitation methods at Tan Nguyen’s Creative Nails, were one of the things that impressed Owens about the salon. She describes the 45-minute service as “an incredible pedicure: a mint salt scrub, then a mask, and then the feet are wrapped in hot towels. Most of the places around here, or at least the ones I’ve been to, don’t do that. Most of them aren’t that long. You kind of dip your feet into the water and pull them out, and that’s about it.”
Spa-style pedicures like Tan’s are another thing Vietnamese techs and owners can be credited with helping become dominant in nail salons. Just as they did with acrylic services, Vietnamese techs have streamlined, then mass-marketed, the service.
James Casteel, vice president of Amerispa LLC, a Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based manufacturer of pedicure thrones, estimates that 55% of his company’s sales go to Vietnamese-owned nail salons. The number is significant even when taking into account NAILS’ estimate that 38% of America’s techs are Vietnamese.
And it is because the Vietnamese have led the pedicure boom and because they dominate the nail market in California, where many infectious outbreaks have been reported, that Vietnamese salons took the brunt of blame for poor spa sanitation practices. However, even though incidents like the breakout of infections in salons in Watsonville, Calif., left a red mark on the industry’s report card, they can also be positive.
“The good thing is the state board is more strict, which is good for spas,” says Quy Ton, CEO of Regal Nails. “The board is making everyone do things right. We educate the techs, but they must be enforced to practice it.” Thus, states across the nation are taking nail care and its health concerns more seriously — which is good for all segments of our industry.
Today’s Changed Industry
Clients everywhere are seeing that today there isn’t a “typical” Vietnamese salon; they have as much diversity in price, cleanliness, and services as non-Vietnamese salons. Regal Nails’ Ton says he sees some Vietnamese salon owners spending large amounts of money to create a “total salon experience.” “I saw one salon put in more than half a million dollars,” he says. “They are trying to operate fancier salons, and they are trying to improve the spa-like pedicures.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the discount salons — some that follow strict sanitation practices and others that do not.
One “typical” thing that is happening is both discount and non-discount salons are now being run by second-generation Vietnamese-Americans. Many of these techs and owners are younger, speak English, and are savvier marketers after growing up in the business and learning the nail industry from a young age.
Franchise and Chain Salons Tap into a New Market
Savvy marketing is a business skill that some Vietnamese have mastered with their large-scale chain and franchise businesses. Happy Nails salons number about 45 in Southern California. The Happy Nails salons are found in convenient locations (such as malls) and are showing the industry just how profitable running multiple discount salons can be.
Ton is no stranger to that concept. Regal Nails, is possibly the industry’s most successful chain operation. He graduated from Louisiana State University in 1995 with a degree in chemical engineering and opened Alfalfa Nail Supply when he could not find another job. A trip to the nation’s preeminent discount store changed his life forever.
“I saw a hair salon in a Wal-Mart and thought, ‘Why not put a nail salon in here? Make it really one-stop shopping,’ ” he says. “They turned us down the first time. Then, they gave me a second chance.”
That was in 1997. Since then, Regal Nails have been opening in Wal-Marts across the country at a rate of about 100 per year. There are now about 800 salons, and Ton says they have a success rate [of staying in business] of 99.9%.
The franchises along with his nail supply company (which serves about 10,000 techs — not just his franchisees) have made him one of the wealthiest in the nail industry. Although he won’t disclose his company’s value, Ton will say that just three years after opening his first Regal Nails salon, he made his first million.
More Moving into Manufacturing
Vietnamese entrepreneurs in the nail business aren’t limited to salon owners or beauty dealers. The manufacturing ranks are filled withVietnamese-Americans as well. In 1985, Janine Tran opened a salon; in 1989 she took her knowledge from being a tech and owner and launched Lamoon Beauty Inc.
Brian Tran, his wife Lynn, and daughter Anh are the family behind Misa Cosmetic Products and are celebrating their 10-year anniversary this year. About 10 years after Brian left Vietnam, he and Lynn used their experiences as motorcycle-part manufacturers to evolve their business out of the salon.
Christine Le has been in the nail business since the ’80s. After 17 years of owning and working in salons, Le set out to create products that would make her life and her colleagues’ lives easier. Her company Christrio was born in 1998.
Trang Nguyen was the owner of four upscale salons and had garnered a reputation for his work in competitions; in 1999 he founded Odyssey Nail Systems.
Lamoon, Misa, Christrio, and Odyssey aren’t anomalies, but part of a growing and “mainstream” segment of the beauty industry. Although there were very few, if any, Vietnamese-owned professional nail companies just 20 years ago, there are now many — making everything from polish to acrylic systems to pedicure spas.
Looking Ahead to More Changes
Quy Ton says, “One thing I hate is when Asian salons compete too much on price and not quality. At Regal Nails we try to educate techs about that. We also educate our techs more on regulations and sanitation now.” Education, which was once a benefit only English-speaking techs enjoyed, is now spreading to Vietnamese-speaking techs as well, through corporate programs, Vietnamese-speaking educators, and new Vietnamese-language publications.
Another trend in Vietnamese salons has been the addition of many male tech faces. “The number of Vietnamese males joining the industry has increased drastically,” says Ton. “Although, women still have the upper ratio of about 3:1.” Among the industry in general, it is nearly 10:1.
Back to Owens
This past fall, Owens had all this to consider when Tan offered her the job.
“He was more than willing to work with me,” she says. “I thought it was a tremendous opportunity for someone who has a thriving business to teach me things that he knows. I’m so impressed with everyone at the salon. I have to wonder why Asian salons get such a bad rap.”
Now an employee at Creative Nails, Owens has been taken under Tan’s wing. When her first two fills weren’t very successful, she says, “Tan sat me down and showed me how he did fills, every part of it. One of the other techs in the salon came over, and she worked with me too. I’ve heard so many things about other salons being cutthroat, but everyone there was willing to help and critique my work.”
So, if Tan and Owens are any indication of the industry’s future, signs point to an industry in which all techs — Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese — will be working together. Both Tan and Owens were willing to look past race and stereotypes and take advantage of the best business opportunity. And both are doing just fine.
For more reading on this topic, see results of the NAILS Magazine Vietnamese Salon Industry Survey published in March 2007.