The following is excerpted from this Los Angeles Times article published May 5, 2008:
The story of how the Vietnamese fell into the nail industry is one of pure chance — of how 20 women who fled their war-torn country happened to meet a Hollywood starlet with beautiful nails.
The women were former teachers, business owners and government officials who came to America in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and landed in a tent city for Vietnamese refugees near Sacramento called Hope Village.
Actress Tippi Hedren, drawn to the plight of Vietnamese refugees, visited every few days. The Vietnamese knew little of Hollywood, so Hedren showed them Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and pointed out her face on the screen.
Hedren was captivated by the refugees’ stories of their homeland. They were, among other things, fascinated by her nails — long, oval, the color of coral.
“I noticed that these women were very good with their hands,” said Hedren, now 78. “I thought, why couldn’t they learn how to do nails?”
So Hedren flew in her manicurist once a week to teach the women how to trim cuticles, remove calluses and perform nail wraps. She persuaded a nearby beauty school to teach the women and helped them find jobs.
Thuan Le, a high school teacher in Vietnam, passed her nail licensing exam four months after coming to Hope Village.
“Any profession that was taught to us, we would learn it,” Le said. “We had no idea if it was going to be successful or not.”
Hedren helped Le find a job at a salon in Santa Monica. It wasn’t easy work. Le did not have clients, manicures were not yet in vogue, and the tools of the trade were hard to find. She scoured hardware stores for very fine sandpaper to use in place of a buffer.
Seeing Le’s success, one of her high school friends from Vietnam decided to get into the business. Within a few years, Kien Nguyen and her husband, Diem, opened one of the first beauty salons run by Vietnamese Americans.
Diem Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese navy commander, enrolled in beauty school himself and encouraged friends to get into the nail business. By 1987, the Nguyens had opened Advance Beauty College in Little Saigon, translating classes into Vietnamese.
Such success stories spread to thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States, hoping to rebuild their lives. Today, Vietnamese entrepreneurs have found whopping success in the nail business, such as the Happy Nail chain that is a staple in malls across Southern California, with more than 40 stores.