American Dreams: Then And Now
4:51 pm
Thu June 14, 2012

Nailing The American Dream, With Polish

Originally published on Thu June 14, 2012 7:25 pm

If you've had a manicure in California, odds are the person at the other end of the emery board was of Vietnamese heritage.

Vietnamese immigrants now dominate California's nail-care industry — and make up a significant percentage of all manicurists nationwide.

The story began with a hurried immigration after the fall of Saigon almost four decades ago.

Sparked by the interest of a group of refugees and the help of a Hollywood star, the demand for affordable manicures quickly became the foundation of the American dream for many Vietnamese newcomers.

On The Job Market, Fast

It's graduation day at the Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove, Calif., and staff are quickly bundling piles of flowers into small bouquets for each graduate.

About an hour's drive south of Los Angeles, Garden Grove is part of what's known as "Little Saigon" — a segment of Orange County that has one of the country's largest Vietnamese populations.

Tam Nguyen, the school's co-owner, proudly gives visitors a tour of the training floor. It's filled with dozens of young women chattering away in Vietnamese as they work on clients' hair and nails.

Those customers come in for discounted services, enabling students to pile up the hours of practice required to receive their licenses.

ABC also teaches cosmetology and massage, but Nguyen says most of ABC's students are studying manicuring.

Filling A Niche

According to the industry magazine Nails, Vietnamese now make up 80 percent of the California's licensed manicurists, and about 45 percent of manicurists nationwide.

"Our school is unique in that we offer a large manicuring program," Nguyen says. "Most private beauty colleges don't have one, just because, from an owner's perspective, the margins don't make sense."

Instead, Nguyen says, most schools prefer to fill their slots with cosmetology students, whose tuition is significantly higher.

Nguyen says his school, one of the biggest in the state, has become well-known among Vietnamese immigrants because it is designed to get them into the job market as quickly as possible — no English required.

"We're one of the few schools in the country that actually teaches this in-language," Nguyen says. "All of our manicuring instructors actually are bilingual, with Vietnamese as well as English."

Nguyen is the second generation in his family to run ABC. His parents, Diem and Kien, fled Vietnam, where Diem had been a navy commander, after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

When the family immigrated to the U.S., Diem reconnected with friends who had begun to make money as manicurists. He saw they were able to work for themselves with little capital outlay.

Alfred Osborne, senior associate dean at the University of California, Los Angeles' Anderson School of Business, says the Nguyens are typical of ambitious new immigrants.

Affordable nail care, Osborne said, was a niche just waiting to be identified — and captured.

The Help Of A Hollywood Star

"The Vietnamese just happened to be the immigrant group that was willing to do anything, that was new to this country," Osborne says.

"And the suggestion for them to see this niche actually came from a Hollywood actress."

That actress was Tippi Hedren, an elegant blond who starred in several of Alfred Hitchcock's movies in the 1960s.

When she wasn't onscreen, Hedren was an international relief coordinator with the organization Food for the Hungry. After Saigon fell, she was working with Vietnamese women in a refugee camp near Sacramento when several admired her long, glossy nails.

Hedren had a manicurist named Dusty at the time and asked her if she would come to the camp to meet with the women. Dusty agreed, and Hedren flew her up to Camp Hope every weekend to teach nail technology to 20 eager women.

One of Dusty's students, Thuan Le, remains an in-demand manicurist at a posh salon in Los Angeles' wealthy Brentwood neighborhood.

Le remembers Hedren insisting the new students learn the then-cutting-edge technique of silk nail wrapping, which created long, natural-looking artificial nails.

"[Hedren] said, 'I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just plain manicurist ... because you make more money,' " Le recalls.

A Mother's Dream ...

Thanks to Hedren's sponsorship, Le became licensed and immediately employable. Fortunately, she landed a job at a critical time, when her husband, a former fighter pilot, was looking for work and the family desperately needed money.

Today, the family is financially secure.

"I feel comfortable with my job, with the money I bring in to help my husband raise the children and the family," Le says.

Le and her sister manicurists have transformed the nail business, which is projected to pull in some $7.3 billion this year. Today, affordable manicures have become so synonymous with the Vietnamese that Nails magazine offers a Vietnamese-language version.

Le says the constant demand for affordable manicures has given a steady stream of Vietnamese nail technicians work across the country — and the globe.

Even, ironically, back in Vietnam. "If you look around, you see they go everywhere — and they start from California!" Le says, laughing.

And it's not just manicuring: Vietnamese merchants now supply a significant amount of materials and equipment for the industry. For instance, the largest global manufacturer of cuticle nippers is — you guessed it — Vietnamese.

... And A Son's

Le was a close friend of ABC founders Diem and Kien Nguyen, and the three reconnected in California. The Nguyens were inspired to get their own nail licenses after seeing how Le was able to support herself. Their successful school is the culmination of their dream.

But Tam Nguyen says his mother's dreams went beyond economic self-sufficiency. "Their American dream was for their son to be a physician and to bring honor, prestige and a great living," Tam says.

Being a dutiful child, Tam went to medical school. But on graduation day, Nguyen handed his diploma to his parents and told them being a M.D. was their dream — and running their beauty college was his.

Looking back on that moment, Kien Nguyen winces.

"Well, yeah, of course most Vietnamese families, they want their kid to be a doctor, a lawyer, you know?" she says. "So, we are the same, we have only one son."

But that son made his parents proud a different way, by training thousands of women to earn their own living. He also added an M.B.A. to his resume, a degree he puts to use running the business.

Back at the graduation ceremony, Tam is addressing the ABC graduates.

"As you know, my sister Linh and I are second-generation owners at the beauty college," Tam tells the group. "We've graduated over 25,000 over the years, and it always makes us very happy to see our graduates go on and become successful."

Names are called, one by one, and finally, when all the diplomas are conferred, the students gather for the traditional hat toss.

Their journey to their individual American dreams has started.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with a manicure. Yep, that's right, a manicure. Whatever you think - necessity, indulgence, get them weekly, never had one - for thousands here in the U.S., the manicure has made the American dream a reality.

Now, if you've gotten a manicure, particularly in California, it's very possible the person at the other end of the emery board was someone of Vietnamese heritage.As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, the story of that dominance begins almost 40 years ago with the end of the Vietnam War, and a hurried escape from communism. For the latest entry in our "American Dream" series, Karen takes us now to Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's graduation day at the Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove. This city is part of what's known as Little Saigon, a part of Orange County that has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country. As staff quickly bundle piles of flowers into small bouquets for each graduate, Tam Nguyen, the school's co-owner, proudly gives visitors a tour of the training floor. It's filled with dozens of young women, chattering away in Vietnamese as they work on clients' hair and nails.

TAM NGUYEN: This area is dedicated to getting hair services.

BATES: Those customers come in for discounted services that allow students to pile up the necessary hours they'll need to receive their license. Nguyen says most of his students are studying manicuring.

TAM NGUYEN: Our school is unique in that we offer a large manicuring program. Most private beauty colleges in the country don't have one - just because from an owner's perspective, a lot of times the margins don't make sense. They'd rather fill their spots with cosmetology students, whose tuition is a lot more significant.

BATES: ABC teaches cosmetology and massage as well, but its largest student body is aspiring manicurists. Tam Nguyen says his school, one of the biggest in the state, has become well-known among Vietnamese immigrants because it's designed to get them into the job market as quickly as possible, no English required.

TAM NGUYEN: We're one of the few schools in the country that actually teach this in-language. All of our manicuring instructors actually are bilingual, with Vietnamese as well as English.

BATES: And the demand is constant. According to Nails magazine - the industry bible - in California, Vietnamese make up 80 percent of the state's licensed manicurists, and about 45 percent of manicurists nationwide. Nguyen is actually the second generation to run ABC. His parents, Diem and Kien, fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, where Diem had been a navy commander.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: They held the bridge a few more hours, but everyone knew this was the end. Saigon was about to fall.

BATES: When the family immigrated to the U.S., Diem Nguyen reconnected with friends who'd begun to make money as manicurists. He saw they were able to work for themselves, with little capital outlay. Alfred Osborne, of UCLA's Anderson School of Business, says the Nguyens were typical of ambitious new immigrants. Affordable nail care, Osborne said, was a niche just waiting to be identified and captured.

ALFRED OSBORNE: The Vietnamese just happened to be the immigrant group that was willing to do anything, that were new to this country. And the suggestion for them to see this niche actually came from a Hollywood actress.

BATES: That actress was Tippi Hedren, an elegant blonde who'd starred in several of Alfred Hitchcock's movies in the 1960s. When she wasn't onscreen, Hedren was an international relief coordinator with the organization Food For The Hungry. After Saigon fell, she was working with Vietnamese women in a Northern California refugee camp when several admired her long, glossy nails.

Here, Hedren talks to filmmaker Jody Hammond, in Hammond's documentary on the Vietnamese nail industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

TIPPI HEDREN: At that time, I had a really wonderful manicurist, whose name was Dusty. And I asked if she would like to come up, to help these women.

BATES: Dusty agreed, and Hedren flew her up to Camp Hope - near Sacramento - every weekend, to teach nail technology to 20 eager women. One of her students, Thuan Le, remains an in-demand manicurist at a posh salon in L.A.'s well-off Brentwood neighborhood. Le remembers Hedren insisting the new students learn the then-cutting-edge technique called silk nail wrapping, which allowed for long, natural-looking nails.

THUAN LE: She said, Le, I trained you to become a very special manicurist - not just plain manicurist - but this manicure because you make more money.

BATES: Thanks to Hedren's sponsorship, Le became licensed and immediately employable. She got a job at a critical point - when her former-fighter-pilot husband was looking for work, and the family desperately needed money. Today, they're financially secure.

LE: I feel comfortable with my job, with the money I bring in to help my husband, to raise the children and the family.

BATES: Le and her sister manicurists have transformed the nail business, which is projected to pull in some $7.3 billion this year. Today, affordable manicures have become synonymous with the Vietnamese, so much so that Nails magazine has a Vietnamese-language version. And it's not just manicuring. Viet merchants are now suppliers in the business as well. For instance, the largest global manufacturer of cuticle nippers is - yep - Vietnamese.

Thuan Le says the constant demand for affordable manicures has given a steady stream of Vietnamese nail technicians work across the country and the globe - even, ironically, back to Vietnam.

LE: If you look around, you see they go everywhere. And they start from California.

BATES: It was in California that ABC's founders, the Nguyens, reconnected with Thuan Le, a close friend from home. They were inspired to get their own nail licenses after they saw Le could support herself. Their successful school is their dream. But besides being economically self-sufficient, Tam Nguyen says his mother had another dream.

TAM NGUYEN: I do have a medical degree, and that was my parents' ultimate dream as immigrants. Their American dream was for their son to be a physician and to bring honor, prestige and a great living.

BATES: Being a dutiful child, he went to medical school. But on graduation day, Nguyen handed his diploma over to his parents, and told them being an M.D. was their dream; running their beauty college was his. Kien Nguyen remembers back on that moment, and winces.

Look at your face! (Laughing) So you were not thrilled, in the beginning.

KIEN NGUYEN: Yeah. Most Vietnamese families, they want their kid to be a doctor, a lawyer, you know? So we are the same. We have only one son.

BATES: That son made his parents proud a different way - by training thousands of women to earn their own living. He also added an MBA to his resume, and he actually uses that. Today, CEO Tam Nguyen is addressing the graduates.

TAM NGUYEN: As you know, my sister Linh and I are second-generation owners at the beauty college. We've graduated over 25,000 over the years. And again, it always makes us very happy to see very happy graduates continue to go on and become very successful.

BATES: Then, it's time.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BATES: Names are called, one by one. And finally, all diplomas conferred, the students gather for the traditional cap toss.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

BATES: Their journey, to their individual American dreams, has started. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.