At the offices of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York, Sung Soo Kim’s office is filled with numerous awards for community service, honors from the police department and business certifications in both English and Korean. A leader in the local community, today Kim is holding a meeting with the Korean-American Nail Salon Association of New York (KANSA) to chisel out the interpretation of the state’s new manicurist licensing legislation.

“New York City is so unique, we think the law will be interpreted locally,” says Kim. Looking at the legislation, there’s lots open to interpretation: Educational requirements are yet to be set, a vaguely worded requirement for a physician’s certification stating that the practitioner is free from communicable diseases may not even be legal, and no one knows how technicians will prove they’ve “continuously engaged in the practice of nail specialty” long enough to meet the grandfather requirements.

Since Kim’s office acts as a legislative liaison for Korean business interests and as a lobbying group, he is extremely familiar with the concerns of nail salon owners. The five board members of KANSA are seeking his advice and guidance on how to make certain the new law permits non-English language examinations and allows an employer to certify that an employee has two years of experience – the point upon which grandfathering hinges and an issue of concern to many non-Koreans as well. As the group examines the law and develops a position that will protect the jobs of thousands of working women, it becomes clear that in terms of immigrant power and resources, Korean-Americans are among the better enfranchised.


To understand why certain ethnic groups have a strong presence in specific businesses, Koreans in the nail industry for example, a look at the road to prosperity in a nation of immigrants is in order. There is no generic or constant pattern of which profession certain ethnic groups enter because skills, values, and opportunities all play a part; but there are commonalities in the path traversed by those with a language barrier.

In cities with such immigrant populations, a single mentor was often responsible for helping new immigrants establish themselves. As more immigrants arrived and opened their own businesses in those fields, the labor pool and the number of mentors increased, and each group tended to carve out its own niche.

While Caucasians often concentrate on the stereotypes of the Greek restaurant owner, the Hasidic diamond trader, and the Jamaican nanny, each group follows the network developed in a specific city. According to a January New York Times article, Indians dominate gas stations in New York, but in Los Angeles, gas stations are a Korean quasi-monopoly.

In the past, many of the specific fields were chosen because they related to a trade-perfected in the immigrants’ home country; for example, wig making, tailoring, or watch making. Today, groups that suffer from a language barrier often dominate a niche that Americans have left open, ignored, or even eschewed, such as driving a taxi in midtown Manhattan traffic.


In New York, Koreans are the greengrocers, the dry cleaners, and the nail salon owners. According to the KANSA chairperson of the board of trustees, Youngja Kim Lee, there are almost 1,400 Korean-owned nail salons in the New York metropolitan area, and they employ 10,000 technicians. This represents 80% of the nail salons in that area. While nail salons are not the primary business for Koreans in other cities, many non-Asians have this impression – perhaps because the Asian salon presence is relatively new and rapidly growing.

But how, then, did New York’s Korean-Americans come to make nails their heart and soul?

Prior to the 1970s, nail salons in New York were dominated by Russian immigrants. Why many Russians left nail care is purely a matter of speculation, but their education level suggests that once they mastered English they moved on to other opportunities. As Koreans, who often had a language barrier problem, arrived, nail salons were an attractive and open field.

Lee began mentoring Korean American women in the 1970s and is practically considered the driving force behind their entry into the nail industry. Her attraction to the field was both a personal and professional one.

“In Korea, it is an old custom to give a hand massage, say, to your grandmother,” says Lee. “Korean women have very small hands and excellent dexterity. Also, they enjoy delivering a service. With the opportunity, it made sense in many ways.”

Pyong Gap Min, an associate professor at Queens College and a Korean-American specialist who is writing a book on Korean businesses in New York, provides further insight: “Koreans are at a disadvantage in the labor market because they have a very high educational level but a severe language barrier,” he says. “With this combination, they tend to do best by owning their own businesses – where they can use their education and ability most effectively.

“Immigrants like Philippinos spoke English in their own country, and thus were more successful in maintaining their occupation when they immigrated [to the United States]. But for Koreans who didn’t master English, business ownership was the best way to go. Many Koreans probably wouldn’t do it if they could get a job in the profession for which they were trained in Korea.”

An estimated 100,000 Koreans have come to the New York metropolitan area since the 1970s. With a strong, established network, including a Korean-language newspaper and Korean business directory, entrepreneurship was the natural choice. In fact, Koreans are the most highly self-employed of all immigrants.

According to Min, strong competition among greengrocers, coupled with a recession, spurred the interest in new businesses among Koreans.

“It’s hard to find the answer to why they chose nail salons,” he says. “As a fashion center, New York is unique in its emphasis on beauty services. Also, it’s true that the profession permits women to care for their families and work part-time. It’s very convenient.

“In the past, the custom of hand massage was tied to women’s subservience,” he continues, carefully stressing the word past. “They were familiar with making people comfortable and providing a service, but today, there are more female Korean salon owners than owners of any other business.”

While Mirabella magazine recently implied that most Korean women get their start in business with the help of the kkye, a centuries-old form of mutual lending whereby women meet in groups and each gives a designated person an agreed upon sum. Min says the American media has misunderstood the kkye.

“This is done more for friendship,” he says. “One member of a kkye draws all the money and the next month a different person does. But the one who gets the money pays for the food for all the others. For some, it is a way to save, but it’s not a way to start a business.”

And while the first nail salons were female owned and operated, that’s changing, too. Says Min, “Now men are edging the women out and 30% to 40% of Korean-owned nail salons are owned by men.”


Lee has been actively lobbying for a licensing law since 1987. She is constantly on the go between four salons and her demanding duties as KANSA chairperson. As the woman who was the impetus behind it all, to what does she attribute the success of Korean-Americans in the nail salon business?

“Twelve years ago, only high society women could get a manicure in New York,” she says. “It took a minimal investment to start a nail salon, and many Koreans who did not speak English well found that it was a good way to solve that problem. But in New York, there was a great deal of competition. So, what to do? Drop your prices to attract the customer. In doing so, we expanded these services to the low-income woman. Now, women can get a manicure during their lunch hour for $9. This largely helped the industry grow, and in terms of that, we’re very proud.”

And while owners of full-service salons on the upper east side of the city might not agree, women who once paid $25 for their manicures are delighted.

Says one Manhattan secretary, “I’d never be able to get a manicure if I had to pay over $10. When I want an affordable manicure and polite service, I naturally think of a Korean salon.”

Judging from the number of salons that are jam-packed, often from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., thousands of other women feel the same way. But, despite the “Give the people what they want” attitude, can price dropping go too far and ultimately hurt the value of the service? Most nail technicians say yes.

One clue to where true value of the service lies will be in the reaction to New York’s licensing law. Currently, there are three Korean-run nail schools that cover techniques, product education, attitude, and sanitation. The course takes two weeks and the cost is $20.

According to the Korean owner of Elite Nails, who simply goes by Tommy, if more hours and expensive schooling are required, one possible result could be higher prices in Korean-owned nail salons. “I don’t say that will happen, but it’s possible,” he says.

Many think this is not unlikely, since any profession requiring a higher degree of skill or education commands higher fees.


It might surprise some people to learn that the KANSA holds bi-annual educational seminars, attends National Cosmetology Association (NCA) shows, and publishes its own Korean-language magazine, Nail News. Bilingual members attend manufacturer training as well and pass on the information to the membership.

“Of course we read NAILS, too; why don’t you cover more about what we do?” muses Lee.

“I don’t know how it is in other cities,” she continues, “but here, we pay a lot of attention to education. In our schools, in addition to product knowledge and techniques, we teach and stress sanitation.”

Korean salons have gained an image, perhaps unfairly, that they actually do not employ well trained workers and do not exercise scrupulous sanitation practices. The news media has concentrated its coverage on many of these salons, despite the fact there is not a single reported case of AIDS having been transmitted in a nail salon.

Says Tommy, “This is an overplayed issue. Of course we teach all our technicians sanitation.”

Adds Min, “Many of the manicurists were nurses and teachers back home. Because of changes in the law to eliminate aliens from the medical profession and because of the language barrier, many couldn’t pass the examination to work as RNs. Sanitation is not new to them and it is not the real issue in the reaction to Korean businesses.”

As the sanitation debate goes on, the misunderstanding continues on all sides. In a recent New York Post article, the non-Korean owner of a plush upper east side establishment was quoted as proudly saying all her nail implements were sanitized – at the end of the day.


New York’s licensing law might close or at least tighten the nail salon port-of-entry for immigrants, and its effect on nail salon prices remains to be seen. Regardless, the immigrants’ legacy is now an important part of our industry’s history – and its future.

Whether the Korean Americans entry into the nail salon business has driven prices down too far, opened the door to a whole new market, or both, the effect is a saturated nail salon market in New York and places like southern California. And anywhere there is saturation, it’s difficult to maintain a business or a price structure.

Says Min, “Ten years ago, it took $30,000 to open a nail salon in a good neighborhood. Today, it takes $80,000 to open up and bear the expenses of equipment and operating until you get going – particularly in a white neighborhood.

“Now the Chinese and Vietnamese are entering the field,” he continues. “The Chinese work for very low wages and the Koreans complain they can’t compete with these other Asian groups.”

As metropolitan salons grapple with what comes next, they’re slowly realizing an offshoot of immigrant presence that’s more subtle. In New York, at least the old stereotype of the gum-snapping manicurist is gone forever, with much owed to the Russians and Koreans, and their deep sense of service has forever burned a new image in the minds of many clients.

“I love the way I’m treated in their salons,’ says Joy Templey, a weekly manicure client. “I can’t explain it, but I feel taken care of in a way that isn’t overbearing. I don’t like it when it’s overkill just to get a tip. It’s terrible to say, but they aren’t as loud or pushy as Americans.”

It’s a toss-up whether this is a stereotype of the polite, subservient Asiatic or the loud-mouthed, aggressive American, but clearly, those classes in “attitude” can’t be a bad idea for anybody.


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.

Read more about