At Our Fingertips

How Vietnamese refugees used the art of the manicure to paint a new life

From Monday to Friday after school, when my friends would head home, I’d go to my parents’ nail salon. During many of these afternoons I’d sit next to my parents in their white face masks, keenly watching as they transformed ladies’ nails from dreary to dazzling, gluing on glittery nail extensions in every colour of the rainbow. I watched my mom draw little flowers using a tiny bristle and a quick wrist flick. I watched my dad drill a small hole in one customer’s nail tip and loop a gold ring through.

Sometimes I’d be allowed to help out too. Nothing big, just things like fetching cotton balls or organizing the wheel of rhinestones by shade. When I got older, my mom would let me paint the nails on the mannequin hand display, any colour I wanted.

My parents became nail technicians when I was eight. That was when we moved to Halifax and I became the new kid in a school that was primarily white, where everyone’s parents worked 9-to-5 jobs in offices or hospitals. Explaining to those kids what my parents did for a living was an ongoing ordeal. They thought it seemed strange to spend every day touching people’s hands and feet, but really it was more than that: my parents made women feel beautiful.

And it was even more than that. I didn’t know it then, but I might have told those kids that our “strange” salon could connect my parents to French kings and American inventors, Hollywood starlets and Duran Duran. If I’d only known where to look I’d have found a story right at my fingertips.

Building the digital empire

Having your nails professionally tended in exchange for money is a notion born in the 19th century. The first documented manicurist was Monsieur Sitts. He was tasked with removing the hangnails of one King Louis-Philippe of France. It was considered a service not of aesthetics, but of health and cleanliness. When Sitts’s niece took over his job, she helped make grooming the royal digits a thing of beauty – and a service available to non-aristocrats like performers and prostitutes. Madame Sitts taught the first wave of female manicurists, including Harriet Hubbard Ayer, who would in turn become the first American woman to build a cosmetics empire, setting the stage for beauty bosses like Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Estée Lauder.

In her book on the history of the manicure, Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, Suzanne E. Shapiro writes that patrons of either sex were more comfortable placing their hands in the hands of women, who were considered “less indecent” than men during this intimate business transaction. With that caveat, and with customers ready and willing to pay, it wasn’t long before the first women-run manicure parlours appeared.

In 1877, Harper’s Bazaar writer Olive Logan described the Parisian manicure and pedicure parlours (they were often separate) as something not unlike what we might see today. A basin of rose water was set at each manicure table, along with the necessary tools like files, scissors, and towels. Women crowded around the room, as did children and gentlemen. Logan’s pedicurist observed that being a manicurist was “a nice and suitable trade for a woman who has a sufficiently steady hand,” and because the manicurist had expensive-looking furniture and fashions, Logan declared it a lucrative profession.

A year later, Mary E. Cobb opened the first nail parlour in New York in 1878. Cobb was something of a nail ninja, with an entrepreneurial prowess hard to match. She wrote a booklet, How to Be Your Own Manicure, wherein she offered information on how to obtain the perfect hand and how to identify different types of nail diseases.

She soon took her manicuring-and-disease-identifying profits and opened second and third locations in Chicago and Saratoga Springs, New York. She then produced her own line of products, including Zantic (for stains), Bran-u Nail Powder (for colour), and Cosmetic Cherri-Lip (for tint). But her most lasting contribution to the industry was the invention of the emery board, which she produced with her husband. With its thin, elongated strip, rough surfaces, and rounded edges, the emery board remains a standard in nail salons, vanity drawers, and messy purses to this day.

With more manicure shops appearing, and with capable women like Cobb at their helms, women began to covet and seek professional care for their nails, just as they did for their hair and skin. Finger fads varied from patron to patron. The most prudent ones opted for trimmed pearly pinks. The attention-seekers went for the stiletto-like French point. The American actresses went extreme by piercing their tips with dangling diamonds. Manicurists themselves liked to keep their nails at “birds’ claw” lengths. Another trend that continued to shine, much to beauty editors’ dismay, was nails so buffed and polished “they looked as though they had been buttered.” For the most part, no matter the preference, everyone had something on their nails. As Anne Helme of Harper’s Bazaar wrote, “There is no reason, provided there is no disease of the nails to combat, or no deformity of the fingers, why every woman should not be able to keep her hands and nails in proper condition.”

Once this ritual was established, it could only bode well for beauticians who could turn this small-canvas art into income.

The hands that feed

My parents never knew about Sitts or Ayer or Cobb. They opened their nail salon during the late ’90s when French tips were the rage, stencilled air-brushed designs were cutting edge, and squoval (nail speak for squarish oval) was the shape to beat. And they lucked out: competition in Halifax was less than cutthroat. In those early days I could probably count the total number of local nail salons on my little, unpainted fingers.

When we arrived, my parents quickly found and rented a vacant space on a busy road. After a couple weeks of setting up, Lee’s Nails opened to become one of the first stand-alone nail salons in Halifax. (To this day, I don’t know why they named it Lee’s, which is not the name of my mom or my dad, or any famous nail artist. It remains a family mystery.)

The salon didn’t have the chandeliers and carpets of its Parisian parlour forebears. It was, let’s say, no frills. There were four manicure tables on one side of the salon and a pedicure massage chair on the other. The waiting area was made up of a green floral sofa, of the kind you’d find in unfrequented basements. The upstairs tenants were students who played loud rock music. Decals on the storefront windows featured ’80s Art Deco–revival vixens with snowy skin and immoveable hair, inspired by the designs of Patrick Nagel, the artist who designed the Rio cover for Duran Duran. You know the ones.

No matter how my parents updated and remodelled their salon, they never changed those decals. Neither, it seems, did hundreds of other Vietnamese nail salon owners who still use those images in their storefronts. Akin to the striped poles of barbershops, they have become a ubiquitous marker of the Vietnamese-owned salon.

My parents’ story is a typical one. Pick any place in North America and you’ll find any number of nail salons run by Vietnamese owners and staffed mostly by family. Sources estimate that Vietnamese make up over 40 percent of the nail technicians in the United States, and though I couldn’t find any Canadian statistics, my experience tells me we’re probably on par. My best friend’s parents own a nail salon. So do my aunts, uncles, and every first, second, and loosely related cousin I know. When I moved to Toronto, it went without saying that each one of the Vietnamese Canadians I met had a nail connection of some sort: they either knew someone who worked at a salon, or they were that someone.

The Harper’s Bazaar writer was right. Prettifying people’s nails was a lucrative profession. Perhaps not in the sense that it provided swaths of luxurious fashions and furniture (far from it), but salon ownership did offer some of the more important things in life. Manicurists were independent; they could control when and how they worked. They could allot time with their children and attend family events and graduation ceremonies, and there was enough money to set some aside to pay a mortgage and university educations for the next generation. It also gave them positive social interaction and the camaraderie that comes with spending upwards of an hour with each client, easing the isolation that can accompany a new resident’s life.

Once, I asked my parents why, of all professions, they wanted to be nail technicians. My mom rarely sports any polish, and I think my dad sees his nails as backscratchers more than anything else. But in asking, “why them,” I never thought to ask, “why us?” What sort of social factors would influence a single ethnic group to dominate such a specific entrepreneurial niche? The answer came as a complete surprise.

From Hanoi to Hollywood

There was no ancient tradition of pampering in the Mekong Delta. No French beautician travelled to Hanoi to introduce village women to nail art. And there isn’t some natural source of shellac resin in the forests of the Annamite mountain range (if you must know, shellac is sourced from a lac bug in India and Southeast Asia). Although nail salons peppered the alleys of Vietnam, the boom in Vietnamese-owned salons I’m talking about never existed there. It originated in the United States in 1975.

The year the Vietnam War ended, a flood of refugees arrived in the United States. Humanitarians and volunteers went into overdrive trying to help people find what they needed to settle and settle happily, including visas, houses, and work. One of the more well-known volunteers was Tippi Hedren – of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds fame – who was a coordinator for international relief organization Food for the Hungry. She went to a temporary housing facility known as Hope Village in Sacramento, California, to work with 20 female Vietnamese refugees.

The first thing these women noticed was Hedren’s long, brightly coloured fingernails, and it gave Hedren the idea to teach them the art of the North American manicure. It was a perfect time for it. Sartorial ostentation would soon be going primetime in TV series like Dynasty and Dallas, and carrying a set of artificial acrylics was the kind of luxury that held increasing appeal. A Harper’s Bazaar editorial around that time encouraged women to adorn their nails any way they liked, proclaiming, “Your whole body is your playground.”

Hedren had her own manicurist give lessons once a week and eventually persuaded Citrus Heights Beauty College to enrol the 20 women as students. Soon after, the newly licensed businesswomen became the first batch of Vietnamese to enter the nail industry, earning middle-class salaries and telling all their friends about it, who would then go on to tell their friends. Vietnamese nail salons began to appear all over the country, eventually moving north to Canada.

Ultimately, Hedren helped nearly 2,000 Vietnamese refugees settle in the United States, and they called her the “mother of the Vietnamese-American nail profession.” The Vietnamese nail salon not only provided work for thousands of first-wave immigrants, it also allowed relatives still living in Vietnam to join their families in North America, opening up new opportunities for the second wave of refugees.

Placed as they were at the forefront of the manicure industry, Vietnamese salons didn’t just do nails – they also updated practices. They introduced the one-ball method for acrylic nails, in which a big brush was dipped into the powder and pressed onto the nail bed once, rather than a small brush that required three dips each. This sped things up, allowing manicurists to take more clients in a day. Nail salons also popularized the pedicure, a luxury most women didn’t even know they wanted until they spent 45 minutes having their feet soaked, scrubbed, and scented, all while getting a head-to-heel mechanical massage.

And despite earlier assertions that patrons preferred women to work on their hands, Vietnamese-owned salons now employ lots of men. Miliann Kang, a sociologist who’s extensively explored the manicure milieu, looked at the interactions of male manicurists and customers in New York City and found them to be mostly positive, and sometimes even preferable for treatments that require a bit of extra muscle. Vietnamese salons gave “an opportunity for Asian men to work in a niche that is otherwise nearly exclusively female dominated.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the Vietnamese changed the face of the nail industry for better and for worse. As salons multiplied, competition drove prices down. A full set of artificial nails cost $50 in the ’80s; now it’s closer to $25. It was bad news for manicurists who had to work twice as hard, but when it came to the bigger picture of affordable luxuries, this was a very good thing. According to Shapiro, it meant manicures were no longer just for the well-to-do: “By the ’90s, many women could identify with the setting and ritual of the Asian nail salon, which was no longer reserved for junior execs and ladies who lunch.”

Hands Down Success

One afternoon when I was at the salon after school, a Vietnamese couple and their daughter walked in. They said they were looking to open a new salon in a town an hour north of Halifax and had decided to pop into our nail salon to say hello. It turned out my father and the woman had both lived in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang and stayed at a refugee camp in Hong Kong before coming to Canada.

Moments like this illustrate just how intimate the Vietnamese nail salon community can be. Like so many immigrant groups who have concentrated their professional focus in occupational clusters, the Vietnamese have created a very special and inimitable sense of community rooted in history, support, and friendships.

Now that the children of the first-wave immigrants have all grown up, some have fallen in love with the community and become manicurists themselves, either taking it on part-time or becoming owners of their own salons. It wasn’t the path I chose, but the nail salon played a pivotal role in my upbringing. It wasn’t just an after-school hangout spot, or the reason why I always had the coolest nails in school. The salon was what gave my family a better life. Looking back, it was the part of the story that meant the most – and not just to me.

Because it is a luxury so affordable and accessible, many of us take the manicure for granted; but, in Nails, Shapiro perfectly encapsulated its significance: “The modern manicure has been tied to the movement of people: out of their homes, toward cities, into another class, and sometimes away again.” She couldn’t have been more on point.

This essay originally appeared in the last issue of WORN Fashion Journal in December 2014.