Vietnam's other legacy: the rise of the corner nail salon

It is one of the entrepreneurial marvels of the past 30 years: the rise of the corner nail salon largely at the instigation of female refugees from Vietnam. You may be surprised to know it had a Hollywood beginning

When Hollywood met the boat people in the mid-1970s, an entire industry was born

Once upon a time there was a Hollywood princess named Tippi Hedren.

She was an actress made famous by a film magician, Alfred Hitchcock, the then-reigning king of horror movies.

One day, Hedren decided she wanted to create some magic of her own. Not Hitchcock's magic of malevolent mischief but the compassionate conjuring of doing good.

This was California in the mid-1970s. So she went to a tent city for refugees to try to change the lives of a group of women stranded there from war-torn Vietnam.

With a wave of a wand, in this case her scarlet-tipped nails, she helped teach them the mysteries of the ancient art of turning the stubbiest of fingernails into objects of beauty.

In so doing, she not only helped get these women back on their feet but unknowingly set off an entrepreneurial revolution.

That one single act of good intentions, dear reader, is why there is now, likely somewhere near you, at least one nail salon run by Vietnamese immigrants.

Transforming an industry

What started out with a group of 20 women trained by Hedren's personal manicurist has mushroomed across the U.S. and Canada.

That initial group would be joined by another wave, the so-called boat people, those opponents of the Communist regime who risked their lives by fleeing in rickety boats after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Not speaking the language or having any marketable skills, they tended to cluster together once they arrived in North America, not unlike other ethnic groups in similar circumstances. Italians in construction, for instance. Koreans in convenience stores. Filipinas in nursing and child care.

Actress Tippi Hedren with Vietnamese actress Kieu Ching when Hedren was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January 2003. Hedren aided Ching when she fled Vietnam, by providing her with living space in her home for over a year. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

But none of these groups have transformed a single industry as radically as the Vietnamese boat people did with nail salons.

Before these Vietnamese women came into the business, a manicure was a costly affair. If a woman did go to a manicurist it was usually only for a special occasion.

Now, what was once a swank industry for the well-to-do caters to the masses of women who used to do their own nails at home.

Prices are down, way down. A manicure today can cost anywhere from $7 to as much as $50 in a traditional upscale spa. But around $20 seems to be the norm.

That, by the way, is what it cost decades ago before the Vietnamese came along. But a dollar then was worth a lot more than it is today.

Return of the spas

Much of the success of the Vietnamese parlours, besides hard work and long hours, is due to the fact that many of the salons are family affairs.

In one popular parlour in Toronto, the manicurists are three sisters, their aunt and a cousin. The husband of one of the sisters does much of the odd work around the place, from manning the cash register to what is surely a reversal of gender roles, doing the cleanup.

At first, the Vietnamese-run salons were a threat to the more traditional upscale establishments. In fact, in the nineties quite a few of them went under.

Since then, though, the higher-priced spas have made a comeback, perhaps because customers from the Vietnamese parlours, having gotten used to regular manicures and pedicures, are opting for fancier surroundings and more elaborate service. 

In a way, that may also be a manifestation of the age-old urge to show that you can afford something better than your peers.

There was also another factor at play here: the increased emphasis in recent years on sanitation and health issues, whether in hospitals, the food industry or nail parlours.

Unlike other industries, the nail business is unregulated in most parts of the country. So enforcement of health standards has been more difficult.

Still, the industry is responding to customer concerns by turning to newer, safer chemicals and better sterilization.

An inspiration

In this respect and everything else, the nail business is in constant flux both in how nails are done and particularly in who does them.

Thirty years after the influx of Vietnamese-run parlours, the pioneering wave of boat people has all but dried up. More and more new recruits are no longer Vietnamese.

One day, the Vietnamese may all be gone from the nail business. They will, like so many immigrant groups before them, merge into the mainstream and wander off to other greater opportunities.

Still, the story of how tens of thousands of Vietnamese women, with a little encouragement, an idea and a lot of hard work and imagination, built their own ladder of success is surely worth celebrating and remembering.

Here was a group of people with all the disadvantages that immigrants have, plus the ones that women in general face in trying to enter the workforce.

Yet they managed against all odds, with no skills and, imagine, no subsidies whatsoever to create something unique that changed the habits of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

Their saga should be an inspiration to all of us.