As I entered Houston’s Star Nail Bar* in July of 2020 for my first post-shutdown manicure, I was greeted by a masked nail technician who, without a word, held a thermal scanner up to my forehead before handing me a sanitized clipboard and pen to fill out my contact information for COVID-tracing purposes. The shelves of colorful nail polishes that adorned the walls of the salon now boasted additional signs, handwritten in bright orange Sharpie: “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. TELL NAIL TECH COLOR # YOU LIKE.”
The owner, a Vietnamese-American woman in her late 50s, enthusiastically ushered me to a cubicle stationed six feet away from another station. Plastic screens had been erected to serve as precautionary barriers between nail technician and client. My nail technician, Van, clucked his tongue in disapproval as he examined the dry and brittle state of my cuticles. “Last time I told you no biting, but you bite,” he observed. “Covid stress you? You need manicure bad—welcome back.” I laughed at his candor and readily agreed.
When Gov. Greg Abbott declared that nail salons could reopen alongside barbershops and hair and tanning salons following recommended guidelines on May 18, 2020, I was interested to see for myself how the pandemic had shaped and affected local nail salons across Houston, especially as it impacted the Vietnamese-Houston community. In Nail Files, a report published by the UCLA Labor Center in 2018, researchers found that the nail industry in the U.S. consists of a predominantly immigrant (79%) and female (81%) workforce of largely Vietnamese workers. In Texas, one of the top five states with the most salon workers, 76% of nail salon workers are estimated to be of Vietnamese descent, with Harris County ranking among the top 10 counties in the nation with the largest percentage of nail salon workers.
The history of the contemporary nail salon industry as an entrepreneurial niche for Vietnamese women can be traced back to complex flows of migration, colonization, and humanitarian efforts. In 1975, following the Fall of Saigon, actress Tippi Hedren was tasked with assisting Vietnamese refugees who had resettled in the U.S. with vocational training, and made a trip to Camp Hope in Sacramento as part of her role as international relief coordinator.
Hedren was struck by the interest that Vietnamese refugee women had in her manicured nails and enlisted the aid of local beauty schools and her personal manicurist to provide 20 Vietnamese refugee women with the training and licensing they needed to work at and eventually open their own salons. This led to what many believe was a ripple effect and the eventual dominance of Vietnamese women in the nail salon industry. Whereas prior to the 1970s, nail services were a luxury offered only full-service salons that catered to elite women in the upper class, technological developments, such as the electric file and acrylic nails in the 1970s, and the emergence of Asian immigrants as manicurists enabled nail services to be affordable and accessible to the working class woman in America, resulting in salons that specialized solely in nails and giving rise to the democratization of contemporary nail salon services.
While countless businesses have been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nail salons were placed under especially intense scrutiny as their operations intersected with racialized concerns of public health and safety. For instance, in May of 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom claimed that the first instance of community spread of COVID-19 could be attributed to a local nail salon, despite being unable to provide evidence to corroborate his claim. Vietnamese-Americans connected to the nail salon industry rallied against this claim, stating that on top of facing mounting financial pressures as a result of state-mandated business closures, they now also had to worry about the reputation of their businesses against the rise of anti-Asian hate and rhetoric.
Lien, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who works at her mother’s nail salon, emphasized the logistics behind reopening in response to the pandemic: “As soon as the governor allowed it, I had people calling. I spent like 4 hours scheduling everybody, making sure everyone was in for an appointment. Everyone was desperate to get their nails done.”
However, the overwhelming demand for nail services from clients, both old and new, was further complicated by inconsistent government and CDC guidelines and how to meet these demands. Nail salon owners and employees stressed the little time they had to prepare for their respective salon’s reopenings. Lien recalled how she and her mother “had to rush … to set everything up, spread everything out so people feel comfortable, and get face masks, shields, plastic dividers, everything like that. We had less than 48 hours’ notice that we were allowed to reopen.” When she and her mother arrived at the manufacturer for plastic screen shields, they were informed that there were only 4 screen shields available for purchase, as other salon owners had also rushed to buy as many as possible in preparation for their own salons’ reopenings: “We took all four screens, didn’t even have time to think about it. They were the very last ones, and we were just very lucky to get them.”
When I asked Van if he had experienced any anti-Asian hate since his salon’s reopening, Van recalled a recent incident in which a client entered the salon with a mask but proceeded to take it off when he was applying a second coat of polish to her nails. The salon owner, noticing this, gently reminded the client of the salon’s mask policy. Van recalled how the client withdrew her hand from his station and shouted, “First your people bring the virus to our country, now I give you money to do my nails and you make me wear a mask?” and abruptly left without paying. Van shrugged when he recounted this incident to me, tugging on the two face masks that he had layered on to indicate how uncomfortable they were. He was less surprised by the incident, he stated, and more so surprised that it was not more common; for the most part, his clients were understanding, supportive, and policy-abiding, which he attributed to the diverse makeup of Houston as a city. Moreover, his clients were, more than ever, eager to make appointments for nail services since the city’s reopening.
Similarly, Stacey, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who now manages the nail salon business that her mother began over 20 years ago, informed me that she and her mother originally worried about the future of their family-run nail salon during the city-wide shutdown.
“We saw how empty Chinese grocery stores were. … HEB, they were always full, but Asian grocery stores were always empty. So, at dinners, we’d ask the same question. Like, how would people ever feel safe enough to come back, to put their hands in the hands of an Asian worker? There’s so much anti-Asian hate as it is, with even Vietnamese people calling it the Kung-Flu virus and all.”
To her surprise, her family’s nail salon business has more than doubled since its reopening, which Stacey attributes to the need for human connection.
“It’s funny, I think it’s something about quarantine itself, it made people sick of staying at home. People craved connection, they craved community. So even if they can’t see their parents, at least they can go treat themselves and get a manicure and talk to their nail tech, right? Clients are coming in, and they’re chattier than ever. … I think people just wanted to treat themselves after lockdown. And once you spend $100 on a manicure and get a fresh and fun design, it’s hard to go back to plain nails.”
For Stacey, the hardest part about reopening her salon was not retaining clients—it was restaffing. Stacey claimed that her cousins, who also owned nail salons across the county, were lamenting how difficult it was to hire employees: “Nobody wants to work anymore unless you’re paying the cash, because they get aid from the government, you know. So it’s not getting clients that’s hard, it’s staffing that is one of the toughest parts to navigate in this pandemic.”
Just as the virus does not affect all areas equally, neither does the pandemic affect all nail salon businesses equally. Both Lien and Stacey attribute the post-lockdown success of their respective salons to the fact that their salons are both located in diverse or predominantly white neighborhoods. For instance, Lien and her mother noted that their salon, which had been in operation for over 30 years, catered to a predominantly white clientele, and that they were fortunate that their clients trusted them and that they were not in close proximity to other Asian-owned businesses such as Chinese grocery stores, so their salon was perceived as “cleaner” than others. Lien and Stacey both surmised that, if their salons were less reputable or located in more Asian-saturated neighborhoods, they would not have been so lucky.
In contrast, Tracey, the owner of a nail salon located in the “Chinatown” of Houston, recalled how, upon reopening, she had to quickly shut her salon down again until reopening guidelines loosened. Her clients seemed weary of getting their nails done in a predominantly Asian-populated neighborhood, and her already small salon could not afford to have spaced-out cubicles as it allowed for less than a handful of clients to be catered to at a time. Her business was only now, over a year later, beginning to see the same kind of traffic that it had seen pre-pandemic, Tracey informed me grimly.
Regardless of whether they experienced an increase or decrease in client demand after reopening, Vietnamese-run and operated nail salons remain central to Vietnamese-American identity, especially in Houston. All nail salon owners and managers whom I spoke to referred to their respective salons with a sense of pride. Salons were referred to as cosmopolitan safe spaces where employees did not have to worry about their accents or the way their lunches smelled. Salons also were referred to as spaces to meet and interact with people from different walks of life, and to learn English skills from other customers.
Many salon owners, managers, and technicians also remembered instances when they were able to engage with and come to the aid of the larger Houston community. For example, Lien’s mother offered free training at her salon to Mexican immigrant mothers who were eager to learn and practice laser services to supplement their income in the wake of the pandemic. Likewise, Trinh’s sister sewed masks that she freely gave to her employees, family members, and clients to ensure that they were adequately protected during the beginning of the state’s lockdown, when face masks were either sold out or difficult to obtain.
As for what nail salons mean to them, Lien told me: “The fact that most nail salons in Houston are owned and run by Vietnamese immigrant women speaks to how women like my mom were able to pave a path for themselves when their skills and English were limited. Their husbands found work, but these women created work for themselves, too. I’m proud of our salon because it represents the American dream of working hard and persevering even when the world tells you ‘No.’ Even now, when things are so unstable and scary and inconsistent … the one thing that’s consistent for us is, if you come to our salon, no matter who you are, Vietnamese or not, for less than $40, you’ll have someone who will listen to you talk about your problems. [And] you will walk out with a beautiful fresh set of nails. We just have to take extra precautions now when providing these services.”
*All names in this blog post have been assigned pseudonyms to respect the confidentiality of participants and their businesses.
Grace Tran is a postdoctoral associate for the Migrations Initiative at Cornell University. She is also a Kinder Scholar.