A new start: Vietnamese native finds success with nail salon

By Lynn Monty, Free Press Staff Writer • July 9, 2008

Thu Chau, owner of Perfect Nails by Thu, at her salon at Market Place in Essex Junction.

ESSEX JUNCTION — Thu Chau’s father died in 1984. She found out about his death through the Red Cross. She didn’t know him. He was once a U.S Army cook in Vietnam. Chau was born in 1968, in Binh Thuan, Vietnam. Now she owns her own business in Essex Junction.

“My mom had to change my birth certificate so nobody would know I had an American father,” Chau said. But her tall physique, fair skin and hazel eyes gave her away. “People who are half American are not treated well in Vietnam,” she said. “My mother tried to hide it but at school nobody wanted to be friends with me and they would hit me any time they wanted.”

After what seemed to be a lifetime of struggle, Chau left Vietnam in 1991 to begin a new life in America. She arrived in Burlington with her now ex-husband and 3-year-old daughter. With help from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a program designed to help refugees and immigrants gain independence, she learned to speak English.

Chau’s mother joined her two years later. “My mom lives with me and doesn’t want to go back.” Chau said. “In our culture we take care of our parents. It’s always family first and we are together in the same house. It’s a little bit different here.”

Chau worked for a few years at the Radisson Hotel and York Capacitor, and then she was inspired when she visited friends at the University Mall in a nail salon where they worked. “I saw what they were doing and the process got me very interested,” she said. “A woman would walk in with no nails and have new nails put on. I noticed that it changed the way she looked and felt about herself.”

Chau said she wanted to make people happier and look beautiful. She enrolled at the Vermont School of Cosmetology and earned her license.

“I worked in the mall for three years and then started my own salon,” she said. Perfect Nails by Thu is in Essex Junction and will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this October.

“In my country I didn’t have any opportunity to show how smart or how competent I am,” Chau said. “But I came here and am very happy to be given freedom and opportunities to show off who I am and to be able to have that for my smart and beautiful daughters, too.”

Chau divorced her husband four years ago and has two daughters, Khanh Nguyen, 20, and Mary Nguyen, 12. Khanh will be entering her third year at the University of Vermont this fall and is competed in the Miss Vietnam Global competition in Las Vegas July 5. Miss Vietnam Global is a beauty pageant for Vietnamese women living abroad.

Vermont has a very small Vietnamese community, Chau said. Khanh’s motivation to enter the Miss Vietnam Global Pageant was to gain attention for her Vermont community her mother said. “She wanted to get out there and let them know we are here,” Chau said.

Chau has two employees and one apprentice at her salon and said she hires people who are responsible, hard working and kind.“They have to go to school first and then I teach my workers how much I know,” she said. “If a year later they open their own salon, I am very proud.” But most move to Florida, she said; they find the weather too cold in Vermont.

Chau said she has many loyal customers and doesn’t worry about competition.
Kim Nguyen has been working for Chau for two years and speaks very little English. She said she is happy to stay working with Chau, but giggled adding if she becomes too cold she might move .

I learn from my customers all of the time ,” Chau said. “I work hard and try my best every day to see smiles when they walk out the door.”

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Vietnamese nail down the U.S. manicure business

Thuan LeDon Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Thuan Le with long-time client Robin Bernstein. Le is a manicurist at Brentwood West Salon in Santa Monica. She started doing nails in 1975, just a few months after coming to the U.S. as a political refugee after South Vietnam fell.

Successive waves of immigrants follow family ties into the industry, keeping prices low. It all began with an American actress who wanted to help refugees.
By My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 5, 2008

Even before Hoa Thi Le left Vietnam, she heard about California’s booming nail business from her brothers and sisters. All six became manicurists after arriving in America.

So when Le came to Orange County in December, she went straight to beauty school.

“My family told me, ‘Do nails. It’s easy,’ ” said Le, 49, as she practiced brushing hot-pink polish on a woman’s toenails at Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove. “So I just followed them.”

These days, it’s hard to meet a manicurist who isn’t Vietnamese. In California, Vietnamese Americans make up an estimated 80% of nail technicians, according to the industry’s trade publication. Nationwide, it’s 43%.

“The Vietnamese have taken over the nail industry,” said Tam Nguyen, who operates the beauty school his refugee parents started.

“They began serving a niche that wasn’t served by Americans. And boom!”

They’ve also transformed a business that once was an indulgence for the pampered and wealthy, and turned it into an affordable American routine.

In the 1970s, manicures cost up to $60. But waves of Vietnamese manicurists, mostly refugees who happily settled for low wages, slashed prices. Now, manicures and pedicures go for as little as $15.

The nail industry has become an easy path to success for Vietnamese Americans, who discovered they needed little training and could get by with limited English. Even before they know how to apply a top coat or scrape off calluses, Vietnamese newcomers have jobs lined up at relatives’ salons. Some arrive with plans to open their own shops.

Salons across the Midwest and East Coast advertise for workers in Orange County’s Vietnamese-language newspapers. Cosmetology licensing tests in California and Texas are given in Vietnamese. And the industry’s trade magazine has a glossy Vietnamese-language version, VietSalon.

And whether a slur or proof of acceptance, Vietnamese Americans have earned a classic American distinction: becoming a stereotype. In stand-up comedy or prime-time TV, the spoof of a manicurist trying to tack on extra services in broken English is nearly universal.

Unlike the boutiques selling ao dai tunics or the pho restaurants that line Vietnamese enclaves, nail salons didn’t spring from centuries-old customs. There are no precise words in Vietnamese for “manicurist.” They call it tho nail — nail worker.

How it began

The story of how the Vietnamese fell into the nail industry is one of pure chance — of how 20 women who fled their war-torn country happened to meet a Hollywood starlet with beautiful nails.

The women were former teachers, business owners and government officials who came to America in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and landed in a tent city for Vietnamese refugees near Sacramento called Hope Village.

Actress Tippi Hedren, drawn to the plight of Vietnamese refugees, visited every few days. The Vietnamese knew little of Hollywood, so Hedren showed them Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and pointed out her face on the screen.

Hedren was captivated by the refugees’ stories of their homeland. They were, among other things, fascinated by her nails — long, oval, the color of coral.

“I noticed that these women were very good with their hands,” said Hedren, now 78. “I thought, why couldn’t they learn how to do nails?”

So Hedren flew in her manicurist once a week to teach the women how to trim cuticles, remove calluses and perform nail wraps. She persuaded a nearby beauty school to teach the women and helped them find jobs.

Thuan Le, a high school teacher in Vietnam, passed her nail licensing exam four months after coming to Hope Village.

“Any profession that was taught to us, we would learn it,” Le said. “We had no idea if it was going to be successful or not.”

Hedren helped Le find a job at a salon in Santa Monica. It wasn’t easy work. Le did not have clients, manicures were not yet in vogue, and the tools of the trade were hard to find. She scoured hardware stores for very fine sandpaper to use in place of a buffer.

Seeing Le’s success, one of her high school friends from Vietnam decided to get into the business. Within a few years, Kien Nguyen and her husband, Diem, opened one of the first beauty salons run by Vietnamese Americans.

Diem Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese navy commander, enrolled in beauty school himself and encouraged friends to get into the nail business. By 1987, the Nguyens had opened Advance Beauty College in Little Saigon, translating classes into Vietnamese.

Such success stories spread to thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States, hoping to rebuild their lives. Today, Vietnamese entrepreneurs have found whopping success in the nail business, such as the Happy Nail chain that is a staple in malls across Southern California, with more than 40 stores.

Similar chains run by Vietnamese Americans popped up in the Midwest and East Coast.

But other Vietnamese salons that tried to compete with higher-end shops flopped because of limited English skills and poor business acumen. It led salons to cut prices and offer bare-bones services — the so-called Vietnamese discount salon, where manicures were as cheap as $10.

The work can be grueling and unpleasant. The pay varies tremendously and is not always good. And for high-aspiring Vietnamese, it is a humble career.

“Of course, it is hard work,” said a 35-year-old manicurist as she filed a woman’s toenails at a posh Costa Mesa salon. The worker, who did not want to be named, left Vietnam 10 years ago and had to find work quickly to support two young children.

“If things were different, I could have gone to school and done something else,” she conceded.

Vietnamese salons also battle the reputation of being unsanitary and offering shoddy services. A handful of Vietnamese salons have been hit with health complaints resulting from clients’ contracting bacterial infections from dirty foot spas, but the numbers are no higher than non-ethnic salons, according to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

The Vietnamese nail shops have also fueled resentment from high-end salons. “Some nail technicians feel they can’t compete with Vietnamese salons,” said Hannah Lee, editor of Nails Magazine. “There is a point where the prices are too low and nail technicians are not making what their services are worth.”

Keeping control

Like the Vietnamese, other immigrant groups have cornered business niches: Cambodians with doughnut shops, Koreans with dry cleaners, Indians with motels.

But some fade as the second generation abandons the industries their parents fought to gain a foothold in.

Nail industry observers see the opposite happening for Vietnamese Americans. Immigrants from Vietnam continue to dribble in, providing a flow of workers for new salons. And there are still unsaturated markets in the country.

“If you want to make money, get out of California,” Tam Nguyen tells his students.

He said there was room for salons to transform into trendier beauty shops — with facials, massages, leather chairs, fancy decor — such as those that have popped up across California in recent years. They are run mostly by second-generation Vietnamese Americans.

Vietnamese Americans are also making inroads into the beauty product, manufacturing, design and foot spa business.

“Every spa chair, every nail tip, every color polish, the Vietnamese are starting to dominate,” Nguyen said. “We own it, we use it.”

As for Hoa Thi Le, she passed her licensing exam in Vietnamese and is looking for a manicurist job. She knows the hours will be long, the pay average. But as a newcomer who speaks only a few phrases of English, she smiles at the opportunities the nail industry has given her. And she dreams of starting a salon with her siblings.

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

Vietnamese-owned Nail Salons to Benefit from $100,000 ‘Toxic Beauty’ Grant

As part of its Environmental Justice Program, EPA has awarded a $100,000 Collaborative Problem-Solving Grant to the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, which says the money will be used specifically to help clear the air, reduce exposure to toxic chemicals, and educate the staff and patrons of more than 70 Vietnamese-owned and operated nail salons in King County, Washington. It is one of 10 grants awarded to community-based, nonprofit organizations across the country.

Called the “Toxic Beauty” Project, the coalition is focusing efforts to improve human health and the environment in the nail salons located in low-income communities and communities of color in the Seattle and South Seattle areas, showing salon owners how to achieve healthier air inside their establishments through behavior changes of workers and increased awareness of safer alternatives for the owners themselves.

“We are grateful that the EPA has funded this project, which will address a key environmental justice issue in our community,” said Charlie Cunniff, ECOSS executive director. “ECOSS and our partner, the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, will use multilingual outreach to educate nail salon owners, technicians, and clients. We hope that through this collaboration, we can help businesses make changes that will result in a healthier environment for all.”

Elin Miller, EPA’s NW Regional Administrator in Seattle, said, “This project is about protecting people where they live. It will help South Seattle salon owners, technicians, and neighbors make changes to reduce their exposure to nail salon toxics.”


Nearly 45% of nail salons in the U.S. are either Vietnamese- owned or employ Vietnamese technicians, according to bimonthly magazine VietSALON.

Publisher Cyndy Drummey attributes the growth of the industry for Vietnamese Americans to two main factors: accessibility and community.

“Fifteen years ago, the nail business was still new to Vietnamese Americans. But it made sense. The educational requirements were reasonable. You didn’t have to speak English. There wasn’t a lot of start-up money required, and so you could have a quick start and be able to make a small living,” explained Drummey.

,
Friday, September 1,2006

PARIS – After surviving the privations of a refugee camp and a precarious escape from his home country on rough seas, Andy Tran can now sink back in a leather chair to assess the polished gleam of his nail salon and several women whiling away a few relaxed moments getting manicures.

Tran opened his salon, Perfect Nail, on Route 117 this summer. A 34-year-old from Vietnam who is single, he is not exactly the kind of entrepreneur one typically expects in rural Maine.

“During the time I was in Portland, I see this location is nice and the people are very nice,” Tran said, speaking in his salon recently. “I’m coming here, I like it, that’s why I come up here.”

Drawn to the area after driving through on weekends to fish, he began scouting a location for a salon here two years ago.

Tran still lives in Portland, where he owned a nail salon for two years called Nail Cafe on Brighton Avenue. But he said he soon plans to buy a home in Paris or Norway. His staff of two, both Vietnamese, also commute to the salon from Portland.

Tran left Vietnam 10 years ago, first settling in California. There, he enrolled in a one-year beautification school called Hayward Beauty College after a friend in the business introduced him to the trade. To help pay for school, he worked for a flea market.

The United States wasn’t the first country Tran fled to. He and his brother left South Vietnam and its communist regime in 1989 for a refugee camp in Malaysia.

After spending a week at sea with 29 others on a 30-foot-long boat with no roof, they arrived at Malaysia dazed but intact.

“We don’t think we are still alive,” Tran said, describing the sea journey. “We looked like an ant on the sea.”

Conditions didn’t get much easier at the refugee camp, where he lived for seven years. “I am so skinny, you would not believe,” he said. “I sit down and I stand up and I am so dizzy.”

In 1996, he returned to Vietnam where he acquired a visa to come to the United States.

After receiving his beauty certificate, Tran worked in a mall in Pennsylvania then moved to Maine three years ago after a friend told him he should come. The rest of his family – a brother, sister and mother – live in California.

During a recent morning, several women seeking manicures and pedicures stopped into his salon, a bright, sparkling space sharp with the smell of nail polish.

Candace Rogers of Woodstock works as a nursing assistant at Stephens Memorial Hospital. “All of the girls from the hospital come here,” she said, draping her arm across a small table to get her nails filed.

“Business so far is so good,” Tran said. “I’m very happy.”

 

–>

Nguoi Viet, Youth Commentary, Nadia Nguyen, Aug 09, 2006

More than 51,000 nail salons, mostly owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants, vie for customers in California, according to Nails magazine. The following is a story of one young woman whose family owns a nail salon.

When I was 9, I painted my nails blue. The polish was a shiny hue that my older sister bought at the drugstore, a little tempting container that I found in the bathroom drawer.

Ba, my father, noticed my nail color at dinner one evening and told me to wash it off. I did. Ironically, almost 10 years later, Ba would lend his fingertips to Bubble Bath pink, Apricotcha Cheatin’ orange, and I’m Really Not A Waitress red as my mother, Má, prepared for her manicurist license examination.

Our story begins like countless others: with my parents, on a boat in 1975, headed toward an American refugee camp. The United States, the land of opportunity, perhaps fully uncovered itself in 2003 with an open space behind In-N-Out Burger in a strip mall in Southern California’s posh Sherman Oaks.

Ba and Má certainly had forces working against them. Sherman Oaks already was teeming with nail salons. My mom had another full-time job. But it was their ambition that drove them.

Choosing a name for their nail venture was almost as difficult as naming their four daughters. When ideas came to us at random hours of the night, we browsed the Internet to make sure what we picked wasn’t taken. We played with words (shop or shoppe?) and concepts. In the end, we settled on Pink ‘N White Nails & Spa, a cute euphemism for a type of acrylic nails made with two different powders, something that I knew nothing about and for which my parents were still learning.

Paving Pink ‘N White’s image of “a pathway to serenity” was anything but serene. The months preceding the shop’s grand opening were a whirlwind of anticipation, anxiety and nonstop chaos. My sisters and I had school and work, so we couldn’t help out much. My father, the optimist, spent a lot of time sketching logos and imagining a peaceful haven where satisfied customers relaxed on Cloud Nine or lazy massage spa chairs. My mother, the realist, researched supplies and equipment and where to get the best deals. Dozens of trips to Ikea would be made.

I tagged along when I could. Arguments ensued over which chair would be the most comfortable to sit in while waiting for another more comfortable chair, which faucet handle would be easiest to use, and what should be worried about now or later, were highlights. Ba had appearance on the brain. Má had value on the brain. I was looking madly for the exit.

My father spent hours at the shop, driving all over town on errands, overseeing the assembly of spa chairs and tile flooring, and painting — a lot. The fluffy white clouds on baby blue backdrop would receive tons of compliments and only later would I learn Ba had designed them himself. My mother, who also works as a civil engineering drafting technician for the city of Van Nuys, would be at her office post until the afternoon. Ba would pick her up and drive her to the shop, where they toiled well into the evening. I hardly saw my parents anymore except for Ikea and dinner. We rarely talked “nail shop” at the dinner table. I liked it that way. Pink ‘N White Nails & Spa had its grand opening in June 2003, just in time for a slew of graduations, proms and the sandal season.

The months following the big day were nonstop chaos, too.

My sisters and I cleaned every time we visited the shop on the weekends, shaking our heads and laughing at the busy (and very corny) decor. Wild plants stood at every corner. American flags adorned the front door, magazine stand and reception desk. My sister burned CDs with songs Ba requested; the customers did enjoy the tunes, as they stirred to the Latin pulse in their freshly scrubbed skin.

One day, the pipes broke and started spewing dirty water into the hair salon next door. Needless to say, the owner was not very happy with his new neighbors.

Another day, not too long ago, the water heater broke and we resorted to heating water in the microwave. It was a slow process but necessary so that customers would have a basin with warm liquid to soak their feet in. This has happened twice.

Business was sluggish after our grand opening promotion ended. My parents continued to adapt to their new investment. They tried to hire tho, or nail technicians, that they felt had good work ethics and would be assets to Pink ‘N White. My aunt, who came to this country about a year ago, immediately found a place at the shop. She had to go to school to obtain her license again, even though she was a nail technician in Viet Nam. Mom heard from a relative that adding two tablets of aspirin when washing a load of towels would keep them whiter longer. They decided to move the lunch room to make space for another waxing room and painted it baby pink.

Holidays are big at Pink ‘N White. For religious observances, we try to be culturally sensitive as we decorate the shop. In winter months, a little Christmas tree stands in the front and silver Hershey’s kisses are offered. Halloween sees a superfluous amount of sweets and sours. For Mother’s Day, my mom likes to give roses to all women. We can’t forget about the men in our lives, either; fathers enjoy a special discount on their special day. Flowers are arranged almost daily, bringing coziness and charm to the salon.

We learn by trial and error, by ear. We often have different views about where things should go and how things should be done, but we compromise, and eventually, things fall into place.

And now, more than three years later, I’m proud to say that Pink N’ White Nails & Spa has found its niche on Ventura Boulevard., and in the nail salon world. In a sense, I’ve always been proud.

My parents have made cleanliness and customer service a top priority. Competition is fierce in this industry, especially with strict sanitation laws and new nail salons popping up everywhere. Just across the street, a luxurious, higher-priced salon has been there for years. In the other direction, yet another new salon just opened. At Pink ‘N White, a manicure is $10, a spa pedicure is $18. Many customers opt for a mani and pedi combination, costing $26.

It’s not just the nail gurus who are weary about sanitation standards. There is always fear of infection, and some customers even bring their own tools. When everything is said and done, it’s the comfort the client feels at the hands of the technician and how well they do their craft.

Debbie Mink of Pacific Palisades, Calif., is a first-time customer who decided to “stop and give it a try.”

“This might be a new place for me,” she says, admiring her freshly manicured fingers.

She adds, referring to her technician, “He was a true gentleman.”

Though we tried advertising and special promotions for a while, much of our business has been through first time walk-ins (who notice the salon after going to In-N-Out for a bite) and through word of mouth. Luckily, many are now loyal.

“My daughter came and she loved what you did,” says Anne Cohen, also a first-timer, popping in in July.

Though some of our customers from three years ago have now drifted, my parents continue to push forward and find ways to improve the salon. Ba has gotten used to his managerial role at Pink ‘N White, a role that at first seems non-traditional for a man. The staff is a diverse crowd, though they are all Vietnamese. Another one of my aunts, who used to have her own shop, works at ours now. A woman who my mom used to work for when she first got her manicurist license also joined our team. Then there’s a younger woman in her mid-20s, who speaks little English, and three male technicians as well. In all, we employ about 10.

Má jumps into her nail technician role when we get busy, usually on weekends. There’s a chart hanging in the back of the shop that divides the duties, like refilling supplies and folding towels, among the workers and my parents. My mom has found her staple supply store close to home, but still travels more than 100 miles round trip to Westminster once in a while for cooler deals in Little Saigon. I guess she doesn’t mind much. Th? come and go. We’re still learning.

For now, all we can do is keep adding to what we’ve built, keep updating our ever-changing nail polish collection. My sisters and I try to help out where we can: answering phones, assisting customers, scrubbing spa chair tubs. It’s hard to predict what will happen when Ba and Má retire.

All of us siblings have grown up with a strong sense of education, and it’s always been understood that the more schooling we receive, the better off we will be. We’ve done just that. My eldest sister just received her pharmacy degree and is gaining more experience at a hospital in San Diego. The second eldest finished her master’s degree in public policy from UCLA and is now living in Los Angeles. Tamara, who is two years my senior, is in her last year as an undergraduate, studying economics. As for me, I’ve just declared psychology as my major at the University of California, Irvine, though I’m trying my hand at marketing and journalism.

It’s nice when we can all gather at Pink ‘N White and catch up with each other and with our parents, which isn’t often. It is poignant though liberating that our elders do not expect us to take over the salon as we pursue our own niches in the professional world. I think it shows how far my family has come.

Pink ‘N White is more than just a family-run business, and more than what some call the American Dream. It is the epitome of progress with struggle and the fulfillment along the way.

To say that it is the end result, a destination fulfilled, would not do the American Dream, or perhaps the Vietnamese American Dream, justice. The truth is, this venture was an opportunity, a risk, and we took it. At the end of the day, business is business. It hasn’t been easy, and it may never be, but that’s the beauty, I suppose. My parents have taught me to work hard for the things that matter, and to always remember the things that matter, like family. And for that, I owe them so much.

News Report, Cynthia Anh Furey,
Nguoi Viet, Aug 01, 2004

TORRANCE, Calif. — Among Sunrise Nails and Spa’s walls of glittering nail polish, seated foot spas and all things aesthetically feminine, there is James Phan, a lone, masculine face that unknowingly represents a growing number of Vietnamese males getting involved in the nail business.

Phan and his wife, Linda, started their nail salon last year in hopes of bringing more income into their family. “Being at the nail salon is only a part time job. I am doing this to support my wife and family and help her out with her work,” James said.

Looking further into the local Vietnamese community’s exploding fascination with the nail business, it seems that James is not alone. In fact, he said there are many Vietnamese men who have joined the ranks of becoming nail aestheticians. According to Industryweek.com and GQ magazine, there also are more businessmen who admit to being on the receiving end of a manicure or a pedicure.

“There are a lot of Vietnamese men who have a nail certificate as well. It is not an uncommon thing,” James said. “The training is quick, short and easy, the money is pretty good, too. It is also not expensive to get a nail certificate. Also, every two years we have to send a check to renew our nail license.”

It was Linda’s idea to start her own business and with the support of James they were able to plan and open their salon in Torrance, Calif., within a few years. Linda works at the salon full-time, while James comes in to help with clients after he finishes his shift at his own jobs as a Fed Ex deliveryman and an auto mechanic.

“I wanted to get the nail certificate as a back-up job. My whole family is in the business, so we do not have to rent our nail stations out to anyone,” James said. “It is a strictly family-owned (and operated) business.”

When the husband-and-wife team opened the salon on Jan. 2, 2003, only a few nail stations existed in the area. Now that business has picked up, the Phans have transformed their space inside a small strip mall into an inviting and calming atmosphere, complete with massage chairs and waxing facilities. The ambiance of the salon is highlighted with soft, delicate music, set for the client’s relaxation.

But among the clients who like to sit back and relax, there are some who also enjoy lively conversation.

“I like to chit-chat with customers, I like to see them smile,” James said. “I love to socialize.”

For a man who works alongside his wife part-time and for the Vietnamese men who will follow in his footsteps, life is good in the nail business, and it is no wonder that the Vietnamese community has somewhat of an obsession over it.

“When business is slow, I don’t like it, but I pretty much like everything about the job otherwise,” James said. “Business is good, I can’t complain about it.”

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