How Vietnamese Refugees Nailed The American Nail Salon Industry

by . November 14th, 2014

If you’ve ever had your nails done anywhere between California and Maine, chances are you had a Vietnamese manicurist. And you can probably thank Alfred Hitchcock for that.

According to Nails, a nail salon industry magazine, Vietnamese and Americans of Vietnamese descent now make up 80 percent of California’s licensed manicurists, and about 45 percent of manicurists nationwide. The data chart below came up on Reddit’s r/dataisbeautiful sub a few days ago.

Manicurist Surnames

That’s a whole lot of Nguyens, in a state where Hispanics are the largest minority. In the 2010 US census, there were only 210,913 Vietnamese in Texas, vs 24,145,561 Hispanics, the largest minority in the state. The chart needs you to go through a whole lot of Truongs, Trans, Les, and Phams, before you finally see a Garcia or a Smith. Similar patterns are found all over the United States.

Minorities have historically dominated small business niches the majority find difficult, distasteful, or socially undesirable compared to other options. But the success of Vietnamese immigrants in the nail salon industry is in itself a special story that involves not just the enterprising immigrant spirit, but also a little Hollywood magic as well.

Before they nailed it.


Hubert van Es / UPI

Vietnamese immigration accelerated immensely shortly after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and millions of refugees left Vietnam by any means possible. A significant number were allowed into the United States where many found themselves faced with the daunting prospect of building their lives from the ground up.

Manicuring had existed for at least as long as the Ancient Chinese and Egyptians, and what could be recognized as modern manicuring from at least as far back as the 17th Century French and Austrian aristocrats.

While Vietnam was a French colony for a pretty long time, Vietnamese nail salons as we know them were not even a thing up until the mid-late 1970s . And they started across the Pacific, in California, no less.

La Times - Pedicure
Via The LA Times
A few factors made this wave of immigrants and nail salons a perfect match:

  • Few beauty schools had advanced manicuring programs at the time. Even today, few private colleges offer these programs due to the comparatively low profits vs. cosmetology and massage programs.
  • Affordable nail care was not yet identified as a niche.
  • English proficiency isn’t a strict requirement for effective customer care.
  • Less capital is required compared to other service industry businesses. 
  • Strong familial and community ties helped build and staff businesses at a reduced risk and cost.
  • Lastly, there was a crucial influx of needed technical knowledge thanks to Hollywood actress…

…Tippi Hedren

Tippi Hedren Birds
Alfred Hitchcock discovery and star of several classic films including The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) Tippi Hedren was instrumental in the proliferation of Vietnamese nail salons in the United States.

In 1975, Hedren was using her celebrity status to help the plight of Vietnamese refugees. As an international coordinator for Food for The Hungry and developed a close bond with a group of twenty Vietnamese refugees at Hope Village, outside Sacramento.

In a 2011 interview with CNN, Hedren said of the refugees:

“They loved my fingernails…So I thought, ‘I’m going to bring my manicurist [later identified as “Dusty”].’ She came up once a week and gave them a lesson. They’d all practice on each other; they’d practice on me.”

After she set the ball rolling, she then convinced the admins at the nearby Citrus Heights Beauty School to take on the refugees as students. This core group of refugees then helped other immigrants get a leg up in the soon-to-explode affordable nail care industry, and the rest is history.

Fun Vietnamese-American nail salon facts:

  • The nail salon industry is expected to pull well over $7.5 billion this year.
  • According to Nails magazine, YouTube use for salons increased by 151% this year.
  • Nails magazine has a Vietnamese language version available in the United States.
  • 94% of nail techs use a smart phone for work.
  • Gel polish is apparently a HUGE thing right now.
  • The growth of the industry in the US has been beneficial for Vietnam as well. Vietnamese suppliers and manufacturers play a major role in the global manicure supplies market.
  • The largest global manufacturer of cuticle nippers is based in Vietnam.
  • Tax evasion and money laundering has been a constant problem in immigrant-run nail salons.
  • Tippi Hedren’s role in the nail salon industry was the subject of the documentary “Happy Hands“, which won Best Documentary (Short Films) at the Sonoma International Film Festival in 2014.

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Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.