How Vietnamese Americans Took Over The Nails Business: A Documentary

May 19, 2019
Originally published on May 20, 2019 4:06 pm

If you've had a manicure lately, chances are you probably had it done at a nail salon run by people of Vietnamese heritage.

The salons are everywhere — in nearly every city, state and strip mall across the United States. So how did Vietnamese entrepreneurs come to dominate the multibillion-dollar nail economy?

Filmmaker Adele Free Pham set out to answer that question in a documentary called Nailed It. Growing up in Portland, Ore., she says, she observed that all the nail salons around her were Vietnamese run.

"So I knew that something was missing in mass media about this thing, this nail thing," Pham said in an interview. "And I also just always wondered why so many Vietnamese people were in the nail industry, to the point where my father, who is a Vietnamese refugee who came in 1975 — he wanted me to get into the nail industry as I was graduating high school as a side hustle, but also probably to retain my Vietnamese-ness.

"But it was just something that I was diametrically opposed to because of my own internal classism, you know? And that's something that I've been reanalyzing since I was 18. I just knew there was a whole other side to this industry, being Vietnamese, that the greater general public did not understand."

Nailed It premiered on PBS last week and is available as a free stream online until July 6 through the World Channel.


Interview Highlights

On the impact of actress Tippi Hedren on the nail industry

In 1975, Tippi Hedren was doing humanitarian work. She was running a program for 20 Vietnamese refugee women to resettle them in the U.S. They admired her nails, the care that she took, and she got the idea to get her personal manicurist, Dusty Cootes, to come to the refugee camp in Northern California and teach these women how to do a manicure as it would be done in Beverly Hills. And they're really the first manicuring licenses out there in the world, because before that time, women always got licensed for both hair and nails.

On representing the Vietnamese community's perspective in her film

In 1975, actress Tippi Hedren (standing, left) brought her personal manicurist, Dusty Cootes, to teach her trade to a group of 20 Vietnamese women in a California refugee camp.
Massimo Butera / Courtesy of 'Nailed It'

I consider myself a person of color, and I feel like a lot of times, our history isn't documented or reported or even seen outside of the white gaze. So there's something very attractive about the Tippi [Hedren] story; I mean, she's this beautiful actress that was in iconic films. But I was pleasantly surprised that the more I researched, the more I really became convinced that this was the original spark for the Vietnamese entering the nail industry. And it was also important to show how they took over this $8 billion industry — or created this $8 billion industry, right? There's so many different facets to the story and how it became a mainstay in our culture.

On the Mantrap salons, which operated in black communities in South Los Angeles

I really believe all fashion comes from black culture. So I always wondered — this was another reason why I made the film — how did these nail salons get to the black neighborhoods, right? ... And that's how I came to know the story of Mantrap. One of the [two co-founding] women is Vietnamese, and the other is African American. And I really believe this was where the Vietnamese found their footing in the nail salon industry, right? Because they brought the price down to a point where working-class women could afford this luxury, and black women just brought an art to it, right? ...

Asian women and black women are never shown in intimate spaces together. So there was something I was observing about the two cultures entwined throughout making this film that I found fascinating, and it goes back to this original Mantrap nail salon. I mean, where on Earth, besides a nail salon, do you see immigrant Asian women and black American women holding hands? I think it's important for people to really understand the nuances of this industry and the people that made it pop.

On the potentially dangerous working conditions of nail salons (regarding exposure to toxic chemicals)

Yeah, and that's where you really have to research these documentaries, because this could be a point of contention for somebody who works inside the nail industry. Not everybody who works in the nail industry views it that way, right? But there's never been a long-term study of health outcomes of men and women who work in the nail salon industry. So for all the reporting and soapboxing on this issue, I would like to see real scientific data collected ... monitoring the air quality within these confined spaces. So when I really started to peel back the layers, I was kind of disappointed at the lack of research and advocacy that's being done to really provide measurable results so we can say, "Yes, this is a problem. This is affecting the health of nail salon workers, their pregnancies, everything." Because I believe these stories, but it's hard to make it hold up in court, right? Because the chemical companies could always point to the fact that there's never been a study on the health of nail salon workers.

On the reaction to the film from the Vietnamese American community

So much support, but from working-class people, people who aren't necessarily in film who just feel that their story is finally being represented. And that's been the most touching part, you know? 'Cause I think sometimes you see yourself on screen, and you don't even realize that lack of representation until you're seeing it. And so I've gotten really emotional emails from people from all over the country. For how unpolitical it seems to me, it's very political. ...

Our identity is actually forged in blood from this Vietnam War that we are all escaping. ... But if we don't have the voice to even document it — the fact that boat people died by the hundreds of thousands to escape Vietnam and they created cultures overseas called the Viet Kieu people — I mean, who else is going to do it besides us, besides their descendants? I doubt that my daughter is going to have the same kind of emotional response to Vietnam than I do. And I'm just a generation removed.

Audrey Nguyen and Cindy Johnston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you've gotten your nails done, chances are you probably had them done at a Vietnamese nail salon. They're everywhere, in virtually every city, state and strip mall across the United States. So how did Vietnamese entrepreneurs come to dominate an $8 billion nail economy?

Filmmaker Adele Free Pham joins us from our studios in New York to talk about her documentary "Nailed It: Vietnamese Americans & The Nail Industry." It premiered on PBS last week, and it's available to stream until July 6 at worldchannel.org. Welcome.

ADELE FREE PHAM: Hi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. So you are half Vietnamese. Tell me why you wanted to tell this story.

A PHAM: Well, I grew up in Portland, Ore. And for one thing, I knew that all the Asian nail salons around me were Vietnamese, so I knew there was something that was missing in mass media about this thing - this nail thing.

And I also just always wondered why so many Vietnamese people were in the nail industry to the point where my father, who is a Vietnamese refugee who came in 1975 - he wanted me to get into the nail industry as I was graduating high school as a side hustle, but also probably to retain my Vietnameseness. But it was something that I was just diametrically opposed to because of my own internal classism.

I just knew that there was a whole other side to this industry being Vietnamese that the greater general public did not understand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this story begins after the Vietnam War. And nails and Vietnamese Americans become intertwined through an actress better known for her Hitchcock films.

A PHAM: Yeah. In 1975, Tippi Hedren was running a program for 20 Vietnamese refugee women to resettle them in the U.S. They admired her nails - the care that she took. And she got the idea to call her personal manicurist, Dusty Cootes, to come to the refugee camp in Northern California and teach these women how to do a manicure as it would be done in Beverly Hills.

The more I researched, the more I really became convinced that this was the original spark for the Vietnamese entering the nail industry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You've previously described the Vietnamese nail industry as the next chapter after the war, calling "Nailed It" something that honors the experience of fleeing Vietnam, coming to the United States and starting anew. Let's listen to one of the women you interview, Yen Nguyen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NAILED IT: VIETNAMESE AMERICANS AND THE NAIL INDUSTRY")

YEN NGUYEN: It was very scary...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

NGUYEN: ...To come to a country, everything new. I got no job, not a lot of money. It's really scary. We didn't know what would happen, how we would live.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the story of a whole community fighting for a new life. It's a quintessentially American story of rebuilding and making something new.

A PHAM: I agree with that 100%. And it gave Vietnamese American people this brand-new group and economic foothold.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. There's something that I did not know, which is after this episode of Tippi Hedren, you say that, you know, Vietnamese salons went into the 'hood. There's this entire thing where all this was created in conjunction with African American women.

A PHAM: Yeah. I really believe all fashion comes from black culture. So I always wondered - this was another reason why I made the film - how did these nail salons get to the black neighborhoods, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NAILED IT: VIETNAMESE AMERICANS AND THE NAIL INDUSTRY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Meet Olivett Robinson and Charlie Vo. In 1983, they grew the first nail salon chain in the 'hood - South LA, to be exact.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How did you decide to open a salon in that neighborhood?

OLIVETT ROBINSON: That first one?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

ROBINSON: Because that's where we lived. That's where our customers were.

CHARLIE VO: And the corner is cheap.

ROBINSON: Yes.

VO: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah, it was.

A PHAM: One of the women is Vietnamese, and the other one is African American. And I really believe this was where the Vietnamese found their footing in the nail salon industry - right? - because they brought the price down to a point where working-class women could afford this luxury. And black women just brought an art to it, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. They were early adopters of sculpture nails. You know, they sort of really kind of pushed the nail art in the 1980s with rhinestones and snakeskin and charms and all the things that we know now. That was all, apparently, something that black women brought to this, in unison with Vietnamese.

A PHAM: Asian women and black women are never shown in intimate spaces together. So there was something I was observing about the two cultures entwined throughout making this film that I found fascinating and goes back to this original Mantrap Nail Salon. I mean, where on Earth, besides a nail salon, do you see immigrant Asian women and black American women holding hands?

I think it's important for people to really understand the nuances of this industry and the people that made it pop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Often when you do a film about your own community, it's a journey, right? You start, maybe, one place with a question, and you're looking for answers. And I'm wondering what answers you might've found along the way.

A PHAM: Yeah. I mean, it's an analysis of a group in American society that is never seen outside of the context of the Vietnam War. So our voices are just starting to emerge because, certainly, my generation wasn't pushed into filmmaking or the arts. You know, we're pushed into the nail salons or the pharmacy or dentistry.

But now I'm really seeing a lot of compelling younger Vietnamese women, and older, who are really expressing what this space is like in America to be a Vietnamese American.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adele Free Pham, director of the documentary "Nailed It: Vietnamese Americans & The Nail Industry." It premiered on PBS last week. And it's available to stream until July 6 at worldchannel.org. Thanks so much.

A PHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAD TO HUSTLE")

CHUCK FREE PHAM: (Singing) The true Vietnamese - we had to hustle, like we sell water to wells. Ripples formed, lives turned into a story to tell. We had to leave hell, but put your faith in me, the next generation of the true Vietnamese. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.