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Nail Care / July 27, 2023

Tam Nguyen (center right) and his sister Linh run the Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove, Calif. Courtesy of Advance Beauty College hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Advance Beauty College

Tam Nguyen (center right) and his sister Linh run the Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove, Calif.

Courtesy of Advance Beauty College

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.

A model shows off an ABC student's work. Most of the students are studying manicuring. Courtesy of Advance Beauty College hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Advance Beauty College

A model shows off an ABC student's work. Most of the students are studying manicuring.

Courtesy of Advance Beauty College

"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.

Actress Tippi Hedren was instrumental in helping Vietnamese immigrants to California get started in the nail industry. Kent Gavin/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Actress Tippi Hedren was instrumental in helping Vietnamese immigrants to California get started in the nail industry.

Kent Gavin/Getty Images

"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.

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