'Nailed It': A Documentary On How Vietnamese Workers Took Over U.S. Nail Salons If you've had a manicure lately, chances are your nail salon was run by Vietnamese entrepreneurs. In Nailed It, director Adele Free Pham investigates how refugees built a multibillion-dollar industry.

How Vietnamese Americans Took Over The Nails Business: A Documentary

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/724452398/724747978" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you've gotten your nails done, chances are you probably had them done at a Vietnamese nail salon. They're everywhere, in virtually every city, state and strip mall across the United States. So how did Vietnamese entrepreneurs come to dominate an $8 billion nail economy?

Filmmaker Adele Free Pham joins us from our studios in New York to talk about her documentary "Nailed It: Vietnamese Americans & The Nail Industry." It premiered on PBS last week, and it's available to stream until July 6 at worldchannel.org. Welcome.

ADELE FREE PHAM: Hi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. So you are half Vietnamese. Tell me why you wanted to tell this story.

A PHAM: Well, I grew up in Portland, Ore. And for one thing, I knew that all the Asian nail salons around me were Vietnamese, so I knew there was something that was missing in mass media about this thing - this nail thing.

And I also just always wondered why so many Vietnamese people were in the nail industry to the point where my father, who is a Vietnamese refugee who came in 1975 - he wanted me to get into the nail industry as I was graduating high school as a side hustle, but also probably to retain my Vietnameseness. But it was something that I was just diametrically opposed to because of my own internal classism.

I just knew that there was a whole other side to this industry being Vietnamese that the greater general public did not understand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this story begins after the Vietnam War. And nails and Vietnamese Americans become intertwined through an actress better known for her Hitchcock films.

A PHAM: Yeah. In 1975, Tippi Hedren was running a program for 20 Vietnamese refugee women to resettle them in the U.S. They admired her nails - the care that she took. And she got the idea to call her personal manicurist, Dusty Coots, to come to the refugee camp in Northern California and teach these women how to do a manicure as it would be done in Beverly Hills.

The more I researched, the more I really became convinced that this was the original spark for the Vietnamese entering the nail industry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You've previously described the Vietnamese nail industry as the next chapter after the war, calling "Nailed It" something that honors the experience of fleeing Vietnam, coming to the United States and starting anew. Let's listen to one of the women you interview, Yen Nguyen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NAILED IT: VIETNAMESE AMERICANS AND THE NAIL INDUSTRY")

YEN NGUYEN: It was very scary...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

NGUYEN: ...To come to a country, everything new. I got no job, not a lot of money. It's really scary. We didn't know what would happen, how we would live.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the story of a whole community fighting for a new life. It's a quintessentially American story of rebuilding and making something new.

A PHAM: I agree with that 100%. And it gave Vietnamese American people this brand-new group and economic foothold.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. There's something that I did not know, which is after this episode of Tippi Hedren, you say that, you know, Vietnamese salons went into the 'hood. There's this entire thing where all this was created in conjunction with African American women.

A PHAM: Yeah. I really believe all fashion comes from black culture. So I always wondered - this was another reason why I made the film - how did these nail salons get to the black neighborhoods, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NAILED IT: VIETNAMESE AMERICANS AND THE NAIL INDUSTRY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Meet Olivett Robinson and Charlie Vo. In 1983, they grew the first nail salon chain in the 'hood - South LA, to be exact.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How did you decide to open a salon in that neighborhood?

OLIVETT ROBINSON: That first one?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

ROBINSON: Because that's where we lived. That's where our customers were.

CHARLIE VO: And the corner is cheap.

ROBINSON: Yes.

VO: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah, it was.

A PHAM: One of the women is Vietnamese, and the other one is African American. And I really believe this was where the Vietnamese found their footing in the nail salon industry - right? - because they brought the price down to a point where working-class women could afford this luxury. And black women just brought an art to it, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. They were early adopters of sculpture nails. You know, they sort of really kind of pushed the nail art in the 1980s with rhinestones and snakeskin and charms and all the things that we know now. That was all, apparently, something that black women brought to this, in unison with Vietnamese.

A PHAM: Asian women and black women are never shown in intimate spaces together. So there was something I was observing about the two cultures entwined throughout making this film that I found fascinating and goes back to this original Mantrap Nail Salon. I mean, where on Earth, besides a nail salon, do you see immigrant Asian women and black American women holding hands?

I think it's important for people to really understand the nuances of this industry and the people that made it pop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Often when you do a film about your own community, it's a journey, right? You start, maybe, one place with a question, and you're looking for answers. And I'm wondering what answers you might've found along the way.

A PHAM: Yeah. I mean, it's an analysis of a group in American society that is never seen outside of the context of the Vietnam War. So our voices are just starting to emerge because, certainly, my generation wasn't pushed into filmmaking or the arts. You know, we're pushed into the nail salons or the pharmacy or dentistry.

But now I'm really seeing a lot of compelling younger Vietnamese women, and older, who are really expressing what this space is like in America to be a Vietnamese American.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adele Free Pham, director of the documentary "Nailed It: Vietnamese Americans & The Nail Industry." It premiered on PBS last week. And it's available to stream until July 6 at worldchannel.org. Thanks so much.

A PHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAD TO HUSTLE")

CHUCK FREE PHAM: (Singing) The true Vietnamese - we had to hustle, like we sell water to wells. Ripples formed, lives turned into a story to tell. We had to leave hell, but put your faith in me, the next generation of the true Vietnamese.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.