AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with a manicure. Yep, that's right, a manicure. Whatever you think, necessity, indulgence, get them weekly, never had one - for thousands here in the U.S., the manicure has made the American Dream a reality. Now if you've gotten a manicure, particularly in California, it's very possible the person at the other end of the emery board was someone of Vietnamese heritage.
As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, the story of that dominance begins almost 40 years ago with the end of the Vietnam War and a hurried escape from communism. For the latest entry in our American Dream series, Karen takes us now to Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's graduation day at the Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove. This city is part of what's known as Little Saigon, a part of Orange County that has one of the country's largest Vietnamese populations in the country. The staff quickly bundled piles of flowers into small bouquets for each graduate. 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.
TAM NGUYEN: This area is dedicated to getting your hair services.
BATES: Those customers come in for discounted services that allow students to pile up the necessary hours they'll need to receive their license. Nguyen says most of his students are studying manicuring.
NGUYEN: Our school is unique in that we offer a large manicuring program. Most private beauty colleges in the country don't have one, just because, from an owner's perspective, a lot of times, the margins don't make sense. They'd rather fill their spots with cosmetology students whose tuition is a lot more significant.
BATES: AB teaches cosmetology and massage, as well, but its largest student body is aspiring manicurists. Tam 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.
NGUYEN: We're one of the few schools in the country that actually teaches this in-language. All of our manicuring instructors actually are bilingual, with Vietnamese as well as English.
BATES: And the demand is constant. According to Nails magazine, the industry bible, in California, Vietnamese make up 80 percent of the state's licensed manicurists and about 45 percent of manicurists nationwide. Nguyen is actually the second generation to run ABC. His parents, Diem and Kien, fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, where Diem had been a navy commander.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They held the bridge a few more hours, but everyone knew this was the end. Saigon was about to fall.
BATES: When the family immigrated to the U.S., Diem Nguyen reconnected with friends who'd begun to make money as manicurists. He saw they were able to work for themselves with little capital outlay. Alfred Osborne, of UCLA's Anderson School of Business, says the Nguyens were typical of ambitious new immigrants. Affordable nail care, Osborne said, was a niche just waiting to be identified and captured.
ALFRED OSBORNE: The Vietnamese just happened to be the immigrant group that was willing to do anything, that were new to this country. And the suggestion for them to see this niche actually came from a Hollywood actress.
BATES: That actress was Tippi Hedren, an elegant blonde who'd 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 northern California refugee camp when several admired her long, glossy nails.
Here, Hedren talks to filmmaker Jody Hammond in Hammond's documentary on the Vietnamese nail industry.
TIPPI HEDREN: At that time, I had a really wonderful manicurist whose name was Dusty and I asked if she would like to come to up to help these women.
BATES: Dusty agreed, and Hedren flew her up to Camp Hope near Sacramento every weekend to teach nail technology to 20 eager women. One of her students, Thuan Le, remains an in-demand manicurist at a posh salon in L.A.'s well-off Brentwood neighborhood. Le remembers Hedren insisting the new students learn the then-cutting-edge technique called silk nail wrapping, which allowed for long, natural-looking nails.
THUAN LE: She said, Le, I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just plain manicurist, but this manicurist because you make more money.
BATES: Thanks to Hedren's sponsorship, Le became licensed and immediately employable. She got a job at a critical point, when her former fighter pilot husband was looking for work and the family desperately needed money. Today, they're financially secure.
LE: I feel comfortable with my job, with the money I bring in to help my husband raise the children and the family.
BATES: Le and her sister manicurists have transformed the nail business, which is projected to pull in some $7.3 billion this year. Today, affordable manicures have become synonymous with the Vietnamese, so much so that Nails magazine has a Vietnamese-language version. And it's not just manicuring. Viet merchants are now suppliers in the business as well. For instance, the largest global manufacturer of cuticle nippers is, yep, Vietnamese.
Thuan Le says the constant demand for affordable manicures has given a steady stream of Vietnamese nail technicians work across the country and the globe. Even, ironically, back to Vietnam.
LE: If you look around, you see they go everywhere and they start from California.
BATES: It was in California that ABC's founders, the Nguyens, reconnected with Thuan Le, a close friend from home. They were inspired to get their own nail licenses after they saw Le could support herself. Their successful school is their dream. But besides being economically self-sufficient, Tam Nguyen says his mother had another dream.
NGUYEN: I do have a medical degree and that was my parents' ultimate dream, as immigrants. Their American dream was for their son to be a physician and to bring honor, prestige and a great living.
BATES: Being a dutiful child, he went to medical school. But on graduation day, Nguyen handed his diploma over to his parents and told them being an M.D. was their dream, running their beauty college was his. Kien Nguyen remembers back on that moment and winces. Look at your face. You were not thrilled in the beginning.
KIEN NGUYEN: Yeah. Most Vietnamese families, they want their kid to be a doctor, a lawyer, you know? So, we are the same, we have only one son.
BATES: That son made his parents proud a different way, by training thousands of women to earn their own living. He also added an MBA to his resume and he actually uses that. Today, CEO Tam Nguyen is addressing the graduates.
NGUYEN: As you know, my sister Linh and I are second-generation owners at the beauty college. We've graduated over 25,000 over the years, and again, it always makes us very happy to see very happy graduates continue to go on and become very successful.
BATES: Then, it's time. Names are called, one by one, and finally, all diplomas conferred, the students gather for the traditional cap toss. Their journey to their individual American dream has started. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.