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Cash in Hand

The $6 manicure is good news to some--and bad to others. For many Vietnamese immigrants, it offers. . .


Christina Nguyen has learned that some brands of nail polish chip easily while others shine for a long time. And that the spectrum of colors at her fingertips, from coco brown to purple passion, offers more opportunity than either a life in Vietnam or a minimum-wage job in America.

Nguyen learned this at her husband's cousin's salon, a makeshift shop above an apartment on La Cienega Boulevard, where she earned more than $400 a week while saving up for her own salon. She bought Kimberly's Nails, in the Fairfax District, from Kimberly herself nine years ago.

By hunching over a manicure table and inhaling fumes for 10 hours a day, seven days a week, Nguyen and thousands of other Vietnamese immigrants have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of their adopted country. The evidence of their success, the ubiquitous nails-only salon, is as close as the nearest mini-mall, just down the row from the doughnut shop and dry cleaners. Their growing stake in the $5.7-billion nails industry has been a boon for frugal women who enjoy a little pampering. But the trend is also the bane of many manicurists in full-service beauty shops who complain that low prices--as little as $6 for the basics--sometimes mean sloppy or unsanitary work.

No one keeps precise figures, but industry watchers estimate that nearly 25% of the nail businesses nationwide are Vietnamese-owned; in California, it's 80%. In the Los Angeles area, want ads for nail technicians far outnumber any other category in a Vietnamese-language newspaper. From its headquarters in Westminster, the glossy monthly Saigon Nails dispenses product news and details on the latest techniques to thousands of nail technicians and salon owners

Nguyen, 34, speaks for many of her peers when she describes the attraction to nails: "I can make more money doing nails than anything else. Besides, I also get to be my own boss."

Immigrants traditionally carve out a groove in the economy, and Vietnamese women gravitated toward nail salons beginning in the late '70s (just as Cambodians did toward doughnut shops). The beauty business, especially in looks-conscious California, has long been a haven for newcomers: Swedish masseuses, French hairdressers, Russian facialists.

"When we look at how these various ethnic groups fall into the urban economy, we have to remember that when they come to the U.S. they find their niche based on American social needs," says USC sociology professor Edward Park, who specializes in ethnic economies. "The Vietnamese people certainly didn't start doing nails because there were a lot of salons in Vietnam."

The nail trade is relatively easy to learn, requiring only 400 hours of training plus a passing grade on written and practical state licensing exams. Both instruction and tests are offered in several languages. And many schools help find jobs for the graduates who don't go to work for friends or family. Or, for as little as $1,500, a manicurist can rent space and purchase the manicuring tables and instruments to start their own shop.

"There are lots of jobs, and you don't have to speak a lot of English," says Dan Hoang, a spokesman for Saigon Nails. "And after you do nails for about one year, you can save enough money to open your own salon and be your own boss."

At Kim Anh Academy of Beauty, sandwiched between a dry cleaners and supermarket in a Westminster shopping center, people of all ages learn how to polish a nail, trim a cuticle and cement an acrylic (fake nail). Those who can't afford to quit their jobs for the full-time, 10-week program, a $400 investment, may take night classes for five months.

On a recent Saturday, 100 students from both groups go over lessons in their textbook, "Milady's Art & Science of Nail Technology," then spend the rest of the afternoon perfecting their manicures and pedicures. Unless they have put in at least 100 hours of practice time, the trainees must work on plastic dummies.

With two weeks left till graduation and a job offer from a friend with a Huntington Beach salon, Kathy Pham has already completed the requisite 80 acrylics, 60 tips (plastic extensions) and 40 wraps (reinforcement of existing nails), plus 20 manicures and pedicures. So she invited some friends to come by for free pampering. Lien Nguyen selects sunset orange polish to match her dress for an upcoming wedding.

"I figure the more I practice, the better I will get," says Pham, 29, who was laid off from a job assembling computer keyboards. "I want to do nails because I want to make lots of money."

Meanwhile, classmates Nhan Cochran and Vu Luong are practicing on each other. Luong, 26, one of the small but growing number of men entering the profession, sits patiently as Cochran paints his nails bright purple. She earns a 93 for her work, a big improvement over the 78 she had scored earlier. "I put too much polish on the cuticle," she explains.

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