Proud to be a Vietnamese nail technician

Story and multimedia by KENDRA WILMARTH

Tour the Sparkling Spa & Nails salon in Centerville

In a small town on a small corner lies a small nail salon where you will find the Ly family. Tuan, the father, sits across from a younger woman working on a manicure. He sits quietly with his head bowed, humming his favorite melody. Lien, his wife, sits two tables away, facing a new client as the two try to carry on a conversation.

“It’s a family business,” said Tien Ly, a son of the owners and an employee of Sparkling Spa & Nails salon, located at 274 E. Pages Lane in Centerville.

Although patrons of this nail salon know why Tuan hums and why the word “try” is used when speaking of Lien’s communication activities, neither of them speak English well.

“I will usually translate things for them,” Tien said. “Sometimes it can be difficult and frustrating for my parents to speak with clients so they usually just smile.”

Tien characterizes his parents as traditional Vietnamese people, strict. As a child growing up in West Valley City, he had to follow rigid rules. But now, Tien said his parents have become more relaxed.

“They are more Americanized now, like me,” Tien said. “They work in this business every day talking and listening to women who help them learn more about culture here.”

Tien Ly

Tien Ly

Nail salons are commonly known for being Vietnamese-operated. According to vietSalon Magazine, about 24,000 salons are owned and staffed by Vietnamese salon professionals. That number represents about 40 percent of the nationwide total.

Tien says the reason why Vietnamese individuals are seen more often in the beauty world is because of their judgmental history.

“We want everything to be perfect, so if we go into beauty field we can make everyone beautiful,” Tien said.

However, Tien has been negatively stereotyped for being a Vietnamese nail technician. Comedians — as well as some of his friends — have made jabs at Vietnamese-Americans for owning so many nail salons. However, Tien doesn’t take it personally. In fact, he likes to joke back with people.

“People who don’t know me say things like, ‘Well, if you’re Vietnamese then your mom must own a beauty salon,’ and I say, ‘Yes she does, and I work there too,’” Tien said. “Then people usually become embarrassed.”

Tien wasn’t always interested in the beauty industry. In truth, he thought the business was “girly” and wanted nothing to do with it. He said when the salon first opened he wouldn’t even come into the shop because he was uncomfortable. But when he was laid off from his last job, Tien asked to join the family business in 2008. His mother paid for him to attend a Vietnamese nail technician school, the same school she attended when getting her license. Now, Tien says he doesn’t mind working in the beauty realm.

“My dad works here too, so why should I be embarrassed?” Tien said. “We work hard, do a good job, and I’ve learned a lot about business.”

Life before the salon

Tien Ly, now 22, immigrated to America with his family when he was 4 years old. He was born in Vietnam; his extended family remains there.

“Back then houses were like shacks,” Tien said. “You get those banana leaves and put them together and if the wind blows, well there goes your house …. My parents were very poor.”

His mother, Lien, was born into poverty. She was one of eight children in her family. Her nights consisted of a hungry stomach and tears running down her face as she wished for a larger dinner.

“No money, no food, no nothing,” Lien said.

She married Tuan when, as a teenager, she became pregnant with their first child. After Tien, their second child, was born, the couple decided to look for better job opportunities in the United States. A Catholic charity sponsored the young family and helped them leave Vietnam and move to Utah. The program helped Tuan learn to speak some English and assisted him with finding a job.

Tuan worked for a corporation that sold ATMs to banks around the world, but he was let go when the recession hit. He joined Lien at the salon in 2007, but says he wants to get out.

“You know America we pay a lot of bills right, make money that’s why I do nails right now,” Tuan said.

He says the nail business isn’t for him, but rather a way to provide for his family. Tuan doesn’t like the feeling of being ordered around by women. He says clients can be demanding, even rude in some cases.

Lien had worked in the nail business for five years before she opened Sparkling Spa & Nails salon in 2005. She joined the beauty world because finding work elsewhere was too difficult. Lien had struggled at many different salons due to bosses who took advantage of their employees or work environments that weren’t right for her. Lien finally decided it was time to start her own business.

“Nail salon open because of opportunity,” Lien said. “Everyone want beauty and I’m my own boss now, no one tell me what to do.”

The beauty business hasn’t been easy, however. During their first year, Lien debated closing the salon because customers were few. But business picked up during the second year. Three to four customers stopped in daily, and Lien soon learned that the key to owning a successful salon was keeping customers happy so they keep coming back.

Now, the Ly family barely has enough time to sleep. The salon is open eight hours a day, six days a week and closed very few holidays. Tien says that most days they put in about 10 hours of work. Tuan jokes about not keeping track of his hours anymore.

“Most people don’t think this work hard, but we have trouble every day,” Tuan said. “We work hard because we want to be successful here in America.”