I had always wondered why– of all industries that a group of people could get into– it was the manicure business which Vietnamese Americans seemed to dominate, at least in California. In 2008, I read an article by L.A. Times reporter My-Thuan Tran entitled “A mix of luck, polish: Vietnamese dominance of the manicure trade started with the help of a U.S. star,” attributing the Vietnamese nail trade to actress Tippi Hedren, otherwise known as “that lady from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.”
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. [full story]
Three years after the story appeared in the L.A. Times, CNN produces a package on this phenomenon, which includes interviews with Tippi Hedren and Thuan Le, both of whom were mentioned in the original article. (Cheers to original journalist My-Thuan Tran for doing all the heavy lifting on this one.)