A Historical Look at Vietnamese Nail Salons

After reading the excerpt from Miliann Kang’s book “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work” and the New York Times articles about the exploitation and abuse of manicurists in New York, I started to think about the stereotypes surrounding Asian-owned salons. While I usually frequent Vietnamese-owned salons in California, I go to a nail salon in Northfield called L.A. Nails, which is also completely run by Vietnamese people. Every time I open the door, the clients in the store (all white females, ranging from children to the elderly) stare at me (a young, able-bodied, Asian female). They stare at me again when I sit down for my acrylic fill appointment; there seems to be a sort of surprise that I am in fact the client, not the manicurist.

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In Northfield, which boasts a whopping 83.5% white population and a 4.5% total “Asian” population[1], the manicurists at this salon are all Asian, specifically all Vietnamese. In this salon, and many others like it, everyday business and service relations therefore pose “certain women as the ‘natural’ providers of manicures and other women as the entitled recipients of these services”[2].

As Kang says, “controlling images of Asian manicurists…illuminate one-dimensional representations of Asian immigrant women”.[2] In the U.S., there is rarely a distinction between the different countries that fall under the umbrella of “Asian”; the image that comes to mind is usually of a light-skinned, East Asian person. In addition, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are also lumped together. Therefore, I wanted to look specifically at the history behind why so many nail salons are run by Vietnamese people, both first-generation and second-generation immigrants.

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In 2013, Nails Magazine posted its 2012-2013 industry statistics[3], detailing numbers on popular nail services, information about manicurists and salons, and the economics of doing nails through graphics. This information was pulled from surveys, polls, and focus groups at their headquarters in California. As the graphic says, Vietnamese salons are starting to make up the majority of nail professionals. So why are most nail salons Vietnamese-owned, especially in California?

Around 40 years ago, actress Tippi Hedren visited a Vietnamese refugee camp called Hope Village, in Northern California. Her manicured nails drew the attention of the women there, mostly wives of high-ranking military officers. Hedren, who said that she was “trying to find vocations” for the refugee women, flew in her personal manicurist to teach a group of 20 refugees the industry skills[4].

“I brought in seamstresses and typists – any way for them to learn something. And they loved my fingernails.”[5]

Today, around half of the nail technicians in the U.S., and around 80% in California, are of Vietnamese descent. Many are direct descendants of that first class of women inspired by Hedren.

While the history and direct effects of Hedren’s influence on the nail industry is obvious, what’s less obvious is the way the stereotype of the Vietnamese immigrant manicurist has made its way into mainstream society. In “Legally Blonde”, the main character speaks “fluent” Vietnamese, surprising her Vietnamese manicurists and saying “that’s just how they speak at my nail salon”. Even though “Legally Blonde” is often purported as “uplifting” and “feminist” because of the “sisterhood” developed between the two main white, female characters, the only Asian characters in the movie are typecast as those with broken English and in service roles. As Kang says, “race, as well as class, are lived in nail salons, and other body-service sites, through differences in the gendered performances of body labor….the simplistic framework of “sisterhood is global” does not hold in women’s relations across the manicuring table.”[2] 

The interactions of emotional and physical body labor are commercialized, gendered, and raced through a simple nail service.  Inequalities in power and structural hierarchical status (class, race, etc.) therefore allow some women more choices in shaping these relationships.

References

1. City Data: Northfield, http://www.city-data.com/city/Northfield-Minnesota.html.
2. Kang, Miliann. “Introduction”. The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work: University of California Press, 2010. Print.
3. Nails Magazine. 2012-2013. http://files.nailsmag.com/Market-Research/NAILSbb12-13stats.pdf.
4. Morris, Regan. “How Tippi Hedren made Vietnamese refugees into nail salon magnates”, BBC News, Los Angeles, (blog), May 3, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32544343.
5. Bates, Karen Grigsby. “Nailing The American Dream, With Polish”, NPR, (blog), June 4, 2012,
http://www.npr.org/2012/06/14/154852394/with-polish-vietnamese-immigrant-community-thrives.

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