Vietnamese American Nail Salons

Everyone wants to look good and pamper themselves but for the workers and owners of these nails salons- it’s long hours, low pay, and fierce competition.

The Vietnamese American community is highly concentrated in the nail salon industry, one of the fastest growing categories of Asian American businesses. Nails magazine estimates that Vietnamese hold 40% of the licenses nationally. Our intern, Diu Hoang, whose family owns a nail salon, offered to describe life in a salon – ed.

The holidays are here. Everyone wants to look good and pamper themselves. Customers come in and out of nail salons to get their nails manicured or buy gift certificates for their loved ones.

But what is the price of beauty? For customers, it’s $10 for a standard manicure and $25 a spa chair pedicure. Customers are impatient and often complain about the long wait during holiday season, when everyone is already short of time and temper.

But for the workers and owners of these nails salons- it’s long hours, low hourly pay, fierce competition from literally every corner of the block, and health problems from inhaling toxic chemicals such as acetone and acrylic on a daily basis. Let’s take a look at what the holidays mean for nail salon workers and owners by looking at my own family’s salon. Summer is the busiest season of the year; for the remainder of the year we get by, depending largely on business influx on key holidays and occasions- Thanksgiving, Christmas (where we sell more gift certificates than doing actual nails), New Year, Valentines Day, prom season and small celebrations in between. My family opens seven days a week from 9am-7pm (except Sundays from 10am-5pm). My mother takes no vacations and closes the salon not more than 3 days a year on Christmas, New Year, and Thanksgiving only because she knows business is poor on these days.

As an owner, my mom considers herself lucky that the business is doing pretty well. The market is already oversaturated with Vietnamese nail salons. Her position is more stable than that of an employee, without salary guarantees and benefits. She is lucky for someone of her age (54), who can no longer keep up with the younger workers. Younger workers do a manicure so fast, she says, they don’t even look at their customer’s hands. Their eyes are glued to the door, calculating how fast they can finish a manicure to take in the next customer. The competition is fierce outside and inside the salon.

Our nails salon is in a white suburban area, an upscale location to all the places my mom used to work at, low income urban neighborhoods where the predominant cliental is black). Her customers here are more affluent and tip better.

The nail salon business is tenuous. While worrying about keeping up with competition and 'building our customer base,' she also needs to make sure to meet our employees' needs. My mom has to keep employees' salary at a level that would keep them at our salon. In a profession where employees' salaries are based on the number of customers they serve (their earnings is split 6:4 (employee: employer)), it means that she can't hire too many workers even if they are stretched too thin during the busy seasons. It means that sometimes they would work straight from 9-7 no break, no lunch. This all evens out during slow periods when we sit around the entire day waiting for customers. My mom also has to worry about building up the skills of her employees as some come in with not much experience; at the same time she has to be careful not to share too much in fear that, when they have a good customer base of their own, they would leave to open up a nearby salon and take away her customers. This has happened in the past. Although this profession is demanding and my mom is always stressed out and has little time to see her family much, it's more than she can make with any other job, given her limited skill set and English ability.

For a nail technician who is younger in her mid 30's, who also has limited English and skills set; doing nails is also an opportunity. She is still young and fast, and has a lot of room to grow and get better in the profession, with hopes of someday owning her own salon. Nails salons, especially bigger ones, like any other workplace, can be a dog eat dog place. You have to join cliques in order to help each other learn and survive; at the same time you can't get too close to anyone because they can and will turn on you at any moment. Their livelihood is dependent on the same hands as your.

For an older nail technician in her mid to late 40's or 50's, all she can hope for is keeping their position in the current salon where they are working because no one hires someone past their prime. There is always fresher meat in the market.

My sister grew up in America and has a college degree, but she does nails out of family obligations. She's embarrassed to tell her friends with corporate jobs that she is doing nails. She hates scrubbing other people's hands and feet for the couple of bucks in tips that she gets. The white customers talk down on her, constantly surprised that she can speak English so well or at all. They don't believe that she has a college degree. Why in the world would she being doing nails? She is frustrated that 'vacations' and 'free time' is almost unheard of and not something important. After all what are we working so hard for if we can't enjoy it (an American mindset my mom says)? But, being the oldest 1.5 generation child in the family, she swallows all this personal shame and helps her family out in this business that definitely can't survive without her. There's all the paperwork and legal matters involved.

There are not many options. In America, it is not a shame for Vietnamese to do nails. But in Vietnam, only the lower group on the ladder would go into any profession that involves touching other people's hands and feet.

In all this, health hazards are always an issue but seem to be the last thing anyone takes into consideration unless he or she gets to the point of physically being unable to continue in the profession. With the sudden influx and saturation of Vietnamese nail salons, how crucial is the profession to the survival of the Vietnamese community/population in the U.S.? What role do nail salons play in shaping the demographics of the Vietnamese community? With such fierce competition, are we driving each other's business and salaries down? These are all food for thought every time you walk into a Vietnamese-run nail salon.

By Diu Hoang

This article first appeared in the Asian American Resource Workshop Oct.-Dec. 2006 Newsletter in Boston.