Nail salons and Vietnamese refugees: Finding sanctuary in an unexpected place

Hann in her work uniform, seated in front of a microscope in a lab

The acrid smell of acetone and nail polish is a familiar scent to anyone who has gotten a manicure. For Catherine Hann, one of many Vietnamese American women who work in this sector of the beauty industry, these are hazardous fumes that permeate their daily work lives. Over half of all nail salons in the United States are owned by Vietnamese Americans. According to research conducted by the UCLA Labor Center, census data shows that more than half of the nail salon workforce is Vietnamese, with women making up the majority. The disproportionate representation of Vietnamese women in this lucrative industry prompts the question: how did these women, most of whom were refugees or descendants of refugees, help build a multi-billion-dollar nail industry? We can begin exploring this question by looking at Catherine Hann’s story. Her journey as a refugee fleeing Vietnam for the United States in the 1980s is similar to many others within the Vietnamese American community.

Catherine Hann, born Huỳnh Bạch Thủy in 1953, was a biology teacher in Vietnam. Her family was from Saigon, which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it came to power in 1975. When the city fell to communist rule, more than 120,000 people were evacuated between April and November of 1975. Hann and her family tried to leave through the U.S. embassy at this time, amidst the chaos of U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam. Unfortunately, the U.S. embassy was shuttered, and Hann and her family lived under communism for the next six years. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, millions of refugees fled the country, including Hann’s family. With the changes happening in Vietnam, Hann was set on leaving the country to ensure a better future for her son. Many others like Hann were forced to leave their homeland without adequate preparation or any control over their final destination. Those who escaped Vietnam by boat cast their fate to the seas , hoping to gain asylum in a neighboring country and to eventually be resettled elsewhere . Ultimately, it was up to the refugee’s sponsors and the governments receiving them to decide where the people fleeing Vietnam would resettle.

Hann (far left) with her parents and her four younger siblings in Saigon in 1961 or 1962
Hann (far left) with her parents and her four younger siblings in Saigon in 1961 or 1962. Catherine Hann Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. (NMAH.AC.0921)

On February 14, 1981, after two previous failed attempts, Hann and her family—her husband and her young son—successfully fled Vietnam by boat. The fishing vessel, measuring 11.5 by 2.1-meters, transported over 90 refugees, far exceeding its maximum capacity of 28. After four days at sea, the boat arrived in Malaysia, and Hann and the passengers were admitted into the refugee camp at Pulau Bidong. In an oral history interview with the National Museum of American History, Hann recalls how there was calm weather for the duration of their trip at sea, and that the captain, who was formerly in the South Vietnamese navy, knew how to navigate the region’s waters. Hann was fortunate. For some fleeing Vietnam, the journey by boat was perilous and sometimes deadly. Pirates would stop the refugees’ boats and thousands of Vietnamese refugees drowned at sea.

Hann and her family spent five months at the refugee camp. Their quarters consisted of only two beds in a tent-like structure, often shared with another family. Hann and her family received food rations every week, but they sometimes volunteered in camp affairs to receive more. After long-awaited interviews, approvals, and health checks, Hann and her family were finally allowed to immigrate to the United States. Hann’s sister-in-law, with the help of the United States Catholic Conference’s Migration and Refugee Services, sponsored the family and brought them to Rockville, Maryland, on September 11, 1981.

The cover and interior pages from Catherine Hann’s diary
Diary kept by Hann in Vietnamese during the year she left Vietnam by boat, describing the voyage, stay in refugee camp, and immigration to the United States. (Catherine Hann Papers)
Hann (third from left); her husband, Gary (third from right with green undershirt); and son, Kinh (little boy in blue jeans) leaving Pulau Bidong for Kuala Lumpur in the summer of 1981
Hann (third from left); her husband, Gary (third from right with green undershirt); and son, Kinh (little boy in blue jeans) leaving Pulau Bidong for Kuala Lumpur in the summer of 1981. (Catherine Hann Papers)

Starting a new life in the United States was not easy. For many refugees, including Hann, it was terrifying to be in a new country with no job, learning a new language. Thankfully, during the electronics boom of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, companies such as Atari, Intel, and IBM needed a manufacturing labor force. Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States during this time found work in these and similar companies’ assembly lines and factory floors. For the Vietnamese refugees, these positions were opportunities for good pay and stable work, where the language barrier did not pose a major problem. Most importantly, these jobs enabled new refugees to establish economic self-sufficiency.

Hann spent 10 years working in the electronic assembly field. She also took intensive English language training at an adult education school, and with help from a center run by Vietnamese volunteers, she was able to become a naturalized citizen. She changed her name from Huỳnh Bạch Thủy to Catherine Hann—and earned a college degree.

Hann in her work uniform, seated in front of a microscope in a lab
Hann at Fairchild Space Co. performing quality assurance work between 1987 and 1992. (Catherine Hann Papers)

In addition to work in the electronics industry, many Vietnamese refugees found work in nail salons. The number of Vietnamese-owned nail salons and Vietnamese women working in nail salons increased dramatically in the mid-1980s. Various forces caused this change.

Prior to the 1970s, manicures and pedicures were leisure and luxury services only available at full-service salons that catered to wealthy women. Then the advent of the electric file in 1974 and the acrylic nail in 1979 made nail work cheaper and faster to perform.

The start of Vietnamese women working in nail salons is often dated to 1975. When the first wave of Vietnamese war refugees came to the United States that year, Tippi Hedren, an actress doing humanitarian work, ran a program for 20 Vietnamese refugee women in Northern California to resettle them in the United States The women she worked with admired her nails, and she got the idea to ask her personal manicurist, Dusty Coots, to come to the camp and teach the women how to do a manicure. Hedren also connected the women to jobs at salons across Southern California. By the end of the 1980s, over 125,000 Vietnamese refugees had settled in the United States, and word had spread among the close-knit community that nail salons were a viable business to earn a stable income and become self-sufficient. The presence of these Vietnamese women, along with the creation of new, efficient tools helped transform the nail salon into a more accessible place for a wider clientele.

One of Hann’s friends took the route to become a manicurist, and she encouraged Hann to do the same. Persuaded, Hann went to a school consisting of other students who were also Vietnamese women during the evening and weekends to learn. Hann finished school in 1992 and proceeded to get her license as a manicurist. Hann also went to school to get an esthetician license as well—all while keeping her day job with Watkins-Johnson Company. In her interview with the museum, Hann recalled being reluctant to switch from working full time in the electronics industry to doing nails because she was afraid of losing the stable income and benefits she relied upon.

Hann’s ID badge from Watkins-Johnson Company
Hann’s ID badge from Watkins-Johnson Company. (2006.0079.09)

However, by 1996, Hann was tired of working overtime at Watkins-Johnson Company and still not earning, in her words, “good money.” After saving up funds and building up her own private clientele, Hann attempted to open her own nail business. She invested about $17,000 of her savings into the shop according to her business ledger. Unfortunately, due to problems with the landlord and the lease as well as a lack of nail technicians, Hann eventually had to close the business.

Hann went on to work for Hughes Network Systems after closing her store, followed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, but she remained interested in working in the nail industry. While commuting to Orbital in Virginia from Maryland, Hann decided to apply for a part-time position at Totally Polished, a salon along her route. Hann started at Totally Polished in 2000, and she gradually shifted to working at the salon full time. At the salon, Hann would work six days a week around eight hours a day, sometimes longer in the summer months. On her days off, she would often go to her private clients’ homes to do their nails. Although her schedule could be flexible, switching to working at the nail salon full time meant that Hann received no benefits besides a paycheck. Her salary was also split 50-50 with the salon owner after the cost of supplies had been subtracted (a common industry practice).

Hann seated at a desk with her tools. Her license is visible in the background.
Hann at Totally Polished, 2006. Photo taken by museum staff.
Hann working on a client’s nails at Totally Polished
Hann working on a client’s nails at Totally Polished, 2006. Photo taken by museum staff.
Manicure tools belonging to Catherine Hann
Manicure tools belonging to Catherine Hann, including: disinfectant jar; nail buffer; nail clipper; cuticle trimmer; nail file; toe separators; nail polish; nail polish and top coat; and fake nails in box. (2005.0302.02—2005.0302.17)

Like many other Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States between the 1970s and 1980s, Hann faced a harsh social and political climate. The nail industry provided these refugees with new opportunities, but it came with its own challenges and risks. In many instances, Vietnamese Americans found themselves perceived as new and unwelcome competitors for scarce jobs and public resources. The influx of Vietnamese-owned nail salons offering services at cheaper rates fueled resentment among those who had been in the business prior. However, to provide these cheaper rates, salon owners would often pay their manicurists and nail technicians low wages.

Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has shown that nail technicians are exposed to harmful chemicals, such as toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate—known as the “toxic trio” in the industry—that can affect their health over time. These chemicals can be found in nail products, which are often unregulated in the United States. Despite these hardships, many Vietnamese immigrants were able to endure, creating community and finding sanctuary in nail salons after losing everything in a war.

The nail industry has become an important part of Vietnamese culture as generations of Vietnamese Americans have worked in a nail salon or have someone in their family who does. Speaking on her work and her decision to leave Vietnam for the United States, Hann stated that she feels like she and her husband have been successful: “I left the country for my son’s future,” she said, adding that she was happy and without regret.

Hann’s story is not unlike those of countless others who fled Vietnam for the United States. It is a story of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and Vietnamese immigration : a story of how the nail industry helped Vietnamese refugees survive and raise their kids, and a story of how Vietnamese people became American.

Thanh Lieu is a museum technician in the Division of Work and Industry.

For further information on Catherine Hann and her story, researchers can visit the museum’s Archives Center, which preserves Hann’s donated papers.  For more resources regarding the history of Vietnamese involvement in the nail industry, the author recommends Nailed It, a documentary by Adele Free Pham, as well as Nail Files, a report created by the UCLA Labor Center.

This post is part of a series, The Politics of Sanctuary. Visit the series’ introduction to learn more and to explore other entries. The series has received funding support from the Smithsonian’s Latino Initiatives Pool and the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool.