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Polishing the American Dream: Happy Hands screening shares the Vietnamese immigrant story

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories


“The nail industry is composed of up to 45 to 50 percent of Vietnamese immigrants,” Honey Lauren estimates, tucking a long strand of her curly hair behind her ear. Taking a pause to reposition her crossed legs, Lauren––the director of “Happy Hands”––proceeds, “and less than one percent of them know this story.”

The story Lauren mentions is the narrative of how Vietnamese Americans and immigrants have found a huge economic niche in the nail industry. According to “Nails” magazine, a publication within the trade, there are more than 8,000 nail salons in California alone—80 percent of them owned and operated by Vietnamese Americans. Nationwide, 45 percent of all licensed manicurists are of Vietnamese heritage.

Not only do the Vietnamese work in the nail industry, they also dominate it. The origin of how they have become so highly represented in the nail industry, however, is not a common story. For precisely this reason, actress and filmmaker Honey Lauren sought to explore the underpinnings that have led to this economic-cultural phenomenon in her short documentary “Happy Hands.”

Presented and hosted by the Brandeis Asian American Student Association (BAASA), the 20-minute documentary was screened in the ICC last Friday night, followed by a special Q&A with Lauren herself. Although initially appearing to be a story about the nail industry, the charm of “Happy Hands” comes from the fact that it’s actually not about the industry at all. Rather, using first-person narrative that is interspersed with interviews, the short film attempts to snapshot the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants transitioning into this country after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The key players in this tale are the Vietnamese immigrants themselves, the idea of the American Dream and perhaps unexpectedly, a young Hollywood starlet, Tippi Hedren.

The documentary opens by introducing Laura, a Vietnamese immigrant who moved to Los Angeles where she works in her aunt’s nail salon. From there, Laura recounts her story
of coming to America and finding work in the industry. Along the way, Laura’s story breaks off with interviews of prominent people who have impacted the development of the Vietnamese nail community, such as Tam Nguyen.

Nguyen, owner and president of American Beauty College in Garden Grove, CA has trained and licensed thousands of Vietnamese manicurists. As a second-generation immigrant, Nguyen’s narrative offers insight on his upbringings and his parents’ determination to provide a better life in America during a time when anti-war opposition was high and the American-held opinions of the Vietnamese people were low. From these other interviews, “Happy Hands” offers the stories of hard work and sacrifices experienced by several generations of Vietnamese-Americans.

The documentary also sheds light on the involvement of Tippi Hedren (star of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film, “The Birds”) in helping the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants gain a footing in the industry. Hedren, through her volunteer efforts with the international relief organization “Food for the Hungry,” worked with many of these immigrant women in a Sacramento refugee camp. There, it was Hedren who suggested that these women should learn a trade—nail technology. From there, Hedren had her personal manicurist teach these women to be manicurists themselves and her Hollywood status was instrumental in helping these women find jobs in nail salons. It was this first crop of women—20 of them—who were the first ambassadors and representatives of Vietnamese immigrants in the nail industry that cemented the road for many others to follow.

In the Q&A session that followed after the documentary, director Lauren took questions from the audience. One audience member raised the theme of white-privilege and the savior complex seen through the presentation of Tippi Hedren’s narrative to the Vietnamese immigrant story. Circumventing the root of the question, Lauren did not succinctly offer a clear opinion on this. Perhaps a silver lining to this lies in Lauren’s description that the nail industry represents “a way to a means,” and that “you can do anything.” After all, through the stories shared by the Vietnamese immigrants in the documentary, it is clear that although Hendren may have provided an opportunity for the immigrants, it was the immigrants who took the opportunity and ran with it. It was their individual hard work and will to succeed in America that transformed not only their lives but also the nail industry into a $7.3 billion business. It wasn’t Hendren that saved the Vietnamese—they saved themselves.

“I believe the Vietnamese immigrant stories presented in the documentary generally reflect the beginning of not only the Asian American but all immigrants’ narrative of attaining a better life in the United States. I know that my parents had come here to give my brothers and me a much more comfortable and privileged life due to the larger amounts of opportunities here, and I think that this is usually the same scenario for other immigrants,” BAASA President Do Dang ’15 said.

Indeed, although not many Vietnamese Americans, myself included, know much about the origin and history of our culture in this industry, “Happy Hands” initiates a deeper conversation that has yet to be fully described. Despite its connotation of savior-privilege, “Happy Hands” offers a valuable lens into the immigrant experience. It is a lens that allows us to examine where we came from and the sacrifices of those before us.