The poster for “Nailed It,” now screening across the U.S.

“Nailed It” Is The Salon Documentary That Dug Up My Feelings About Black And Asian Relations

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my mother and I ordered Chinese takeout on Fridays. That’s because my mom, frugal as she was, cooked enough food to get us to Thursday. Then we could binge greasy, sweet chicken at a cut-rate price on the weekend.

I had to make the phone call and choose what we ate. I’d always limit the conversation to food items or menu numbers to narrow the language gap.

On the weekend, we’d search for groceries at the Korean market. That was the only place we could find certain Jamaican goods. Canned red-label ackee lined the shelves. “Grace” brand callaloo or its fresh leaves sat in the front rows. The smell of codfish and cow feet rose from white, saline buckets. I didn’t understand why the markets had our food, but thought it was nice they noticed us.

As we walked in, my mother said things in patois like, “Is wha smell so?” Or “You see dem fish? Me nuh business with it. It don’t look fresh at all, at all.”

She wanted to separate us from whatever we saw around us, even though we bought the goods anyway. The bucket of pig snouts and feet were always good enough for the pressured pot of stew peas we ate later. We left with red bags full of guinep, and enjoyed cracking the thin green skins and sucking the pulp from the seeds inside.

But every trip we took into Asian businesses had an us-and-them feeling. I could feel eyes on me when I lingered too long in the aisles. Later on in Bushwick, I was so broke I ordered Chinese food daily, so I’d see young men yell at the short order cooks often.

“Yea, fry my wings hard, God, I’m not playing wit’ y’all. Last time, you ain’t give me no duck sauce, no Mambo sauce nothing, b, y’all think y’all slick.”

I could see their breath and spit nudge the bulletproof divider. The cashiers would slide stapled bags through the clear tunnel, wordless and sterile.

In the hood, we seemed like natural enemies. Asian people, whether Korean or Chinese, ran the restaurants and markets. Black people bought from them. Their prices were affordable, even if the transaction was uneasy.

Recently, I heard a story about Asian nail techs who harassed three black customers at their salon. They accused the women of not paying, and then attacked them with brooms. Internet video gave a raw view of tangled history. Soon, more stories bubbled up about the cultural cold war between Blacks and Asians.

Although our groups get cramped in the same areas, we’re not kindred. That reality is neither shameful nor surprising. The morals and journeys we represent are different. The destination is a hard-fought success. I thought maybe we were chasing an American dream unfit to hold both of us up at the same time.

Adele Pham changed that view for me. Her documentary Nailed It reveals the history of Vietnamese women owning nail salons. Pham first explores her family history, born of a Vietnamese dad and a white American mom. From there, she travels to Los Angeles to interview families who earned fortunes in nail care. She profiles one Hollywood starlet in particular whose generosity plays an unexpected but integral role in the 1980s salon trend. Tippi Hedren invited her personal manicurist to teach the first 20 Vietnamese women at a refugee camp, and then helped enroll them in a local nail school where they got licensed and started their careers. The women of Hope Village then used those skills to plant seeds for a future on unknown soil. One of the most renowned spots in her film, Mantrap, was co-founded by a black woman and an Asian woman. Their partnership, without doubt, ignited nail salons as viable businesses in the hood. Pham met with me to talk about Black-Asian relations, and what it meant to retell one piece of that history.

Adele Pham, “Nailed It” filmmaker

Andrew Ricketts: What’s your favorite Vietnamese spot (can be food, a salon, a landmark etc) and how do you know about it?

Adele Pham: That’s a hard one because I live in NYC, and if you’re down with the Vietnamese culture, you know that OG Vietnamese don’t live or do business in Manhattan (or Brooklyn outside of Sunset Park), for economic reasons. Once you get to the South Bronx and moving upstate, you have a significant Vietnamese population again who represent the Asian salons. Long story short, my favorite Vietnamese spots are always going to be restaurants where old Vietnamese guys hang out, and NYC isn’t known for them. I’m not going to front like I’m “Epicurious” enough to travel an hour and a half subway ride to The Bronx or Sunset Park to eat right. In which case, my favorite spot has to be the Sau Voi banh mi deli/lottery/Vietnamese karaoke type spot on Lafayette in Chinatown. Strong Cafe Sua Da. Come, buy, go.

AR: Your Cambodian friend, Solida, works long hours in a nail salon, and you talk in the film about her being exposed to chemicals. What do you feel about your friend taking on that health risk and what does she do to guard against this heavy intoxication from nail cosmetic materials?

AP: That’s an important question because a lot of people soapbox on the health issues with no knowledge of the real long-term effects of salon work — like Andrew Cuomo. There’s never been a long-term study on the health of nail salon workers, which is what I’m advocating for. I hooked up Solida’s salon with a researcher from CUNY who’s trying to fund a study of air quality in Bronx nail salons. Comparing Solida’s air to air he’s captured in non-acrylic salons in Manhattan, for example, Solida’s salon was only slightly worse, which is compelling and needs to be followed up! The acrylic fumes are very strong so it seems like that has to be awful day in, day out, but what’s scary is that products that don’t smell can also be a danger. Lots of nail techs have respiratory and skin problems, and some even lose the ability to smell. And the cheaper the prices, the less likely it is that the salon is buying safer, more expensive products. There’s also no study that links nail work to birth defects and miscarriage, and I’ve come to know plenty of nail salon babies whose moms worked up until they went into labor, like Solida’s kids. Do I advocate for that? No, but on the other hand, Solida owns her own business, and supports two young children as a single mom by doing nails. What other comparable jobs are on the table for immigrant women? Solida has even encouraged me to get into the nail industry since this film business is so fickle, so go figure. Anyway, there’s a tendency to view Asian women who do nails as victims without even acknowledging that a lot of men do nails too and that [these women] have agency. I would prefer to empower them to make the best decisions for their health and to put pressure on the government to regulate chemicals that go into these products. It’s not uncommon for ingredients to go unlisted without any repercussions, except what it could be doing to nail techs’ health.

AR: When was the first time you felt “at home” in a Vietnamese space? When did you first feel like an outsider in a Vietnamese space?

AP: The first time I really felt at home in Vietnamese spaces was through making this film! That’s the subconscious ulterior motive for making it. I think one time some Vietnamese uncle was drunk and started calling me a banana, that made me feel like an “outsider” ha. I should have tried harder to learn the language; that’s the real plug to the culture. I’ll always be an outsider but the film is a nice calling card and a way to express love for my people, even if they don’t know to love me, yet.

AR: What are your thoughts about some people confusing the types of Asians who run different nail salons? What do people miss when they generalize salons as other nationalities/ethnic groups (like Chinese, Korean, etc.)?

AP: It’s really annoying. At the very least, Wikipedia the difference between Chinese, Korean, Japanese (East Asians), and Vietnamese, Cambodian etc., (Southeast Asians). We know how to tell each other apart, and what the people who can’t tell are missing is that we don’t even like each other! I love New York’s Chinatown, and it’s where my favorite food is, and even [where] my doctors are, but I don’t appreciate the way some of these mainland Chinese regard me with my black boyfriend and our child. We’ve literally been pointed to and laughed at, real backward, village behavior. These woke Asian-Americans need to come get their country cousins. I try to do my part because I care.

The first class of nail techs at Hope Village.

AR: Why do you think cross-racial relationships and friendships like the one that created Mantrap are more the exception than the rule?

AP: I think Olivett [the black co-founder of Mantrap] summed it up when she said in the film “people like to pretend racism is over, but it’s not.” America’s so tribalistic and racist we don’t even see each other as human beings sometimes, let alone develop businesses together. Mantrap would’ve never happened unless Olivett had taken the time to really communicate with Charlie, a Vietnamese refugee in America, with just a couple of words of English. From this gesture, a real friendship developed that turned into a lucrative business which potentially changed the culture of the nail salon and the Vietnamese-American economy.

The co-founders of Mantrap, Charlie Vo (seated left) and Olivett Robinson (standing right).

AR: As you filmed Nailed It, what were some of the ways you saw nail salons (and spaces like them) bridge the worlds of black women and Asian women?

AP: What I witnessed more of [was] Kelvin’s close relationship with his clients, some of whom happen to be black, and almost all of them women of color. Kelvin will be the first to tell you that he was touched by Black culture at a young age and it affected his humor, personality, and how he interacts with all people. I’ve met a lot of Vietnamese-Americans who are influenced by black culture, and of course, this often happens in the salon. When clients and manicurists have real relationships with each other, they open up in ways that would surprise you. A lot of nail techs are also therapists for their clients. A salon is a place you can go not only to forget about your problems but also to get them off your chest and walk out with a hot set of nails and a better outlook on life. It’s an intriguing part of women’s culture I don’t quite understand but am totally fascinated by.

AR: What did the interviews with the women from Hope Village show you about Tippi Hedren? How do you want people to remember Hope Village?

Tippi Hedren (standing center) with students at Hope Village, a school for nail techs.

AP: What I appreciate most about Tippi is that she maneuvered as if the first 20 [women] were her family, and opened up a pathway to getting their nail licenses that would not have happened without her intervention. She used her privilege and allowed these women to borrow it when hooking them up with work opportunities after they left the camp. When you think about how many Vietnamese nail salons sprouted all over the world because of this act of kindness, it boggles the mind. I would like Hope Village to be an example of the amazing things that can happen when women — when people come together to help one another out of inherent compassion for fellow human beings. I have no doubt that the economic and emotional sadism Tippi endured at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock influenced her philanthropy and the unique way she helped the first 20 find a profession in America. A great way to repay her is for the community to support Shambala, her sanctuary for discarded wild cats: http://www.shambala.org.

AR: How often do you get your nails done? Where should I go to get a manicure/pedicure that’s non-toxic?

AP: I say in the film I’d gotten my nails done once before I started making Nailed It. Right now, I’m rocking a gel manicure that’s going on its second month. I probably won’t get another manicure until October when Nailed It screens at the New Orleans Film Festival. Since people have started to associate me with the film it’s embarrassing when my nails look crazy, so I get it together for events. And when I’m filming I meet so many awesome nail artists and end up getting my nails done by them, which switches up my whole hippie vibe. I love it, but can’t keep it up unless I’m being “seen” ha. Where you go get your nails done depends on what you want! I’m hesitant to label salons toxic and non-toxic. Truth is none of this stuff has been tested, so how do you know? It’s interesting that the Times can put out a style piece on the Cardi B nail trend and then label the rest of Asian salons trash. Like, what the hell do you want from life? But I know what you mean. For that “slow beauty” vibe, I like Isabella Nail Bar, which I profile in Nailed It. On the East coast, I like Karma Organic Spa in New Jersey. They manufacture their own line of vegan, cruelty-free polish and soy nail polish remover. Lavender is the bomb and strengthens your nails. But it can’t replace acetone because it doesn’t work on gel or acrylic. My lexicon of nail products is deep so I can’t talk in extremes.

AR: We talked about what happened a few weeks ago at the Happy Red Apple Nail Salon in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Three black women were recorded during a violent incident where they were accused of not paying their nail techs and then assaulted by workers there. In the aftermath, Teyana Taylor offered the black women free lifetime nail care at her salon in Harlem, Junie Bee Nails. Taylor co-owns this salon with an Asian woman named Coca Michelle, who’s a popular, skilled nail artist, but during the press conference, Taylor mentioned that customers might do better giving their money to businesses with owners who “looked like them.” What did you make of this statement and how do you think that affects the overall relationship between black consumers and Asian proprietors?

AP: Yeah, that was fucked up and embarrassing. That salon is Chinese but anti-blackness is alive and well in the Vietnamese community. From what I gather the grandmother refused to pay for her granddaughter’s five-dollar eyebrow wax because they fucked those eyebrows up. While everyone’s stuck on the fight, I’m like how, in this day of gentrified Brooklyn, is this salon charging five dollars for any service? It’s indicative of a larger problem I get into in the film about race-to-the-bottom prices. Salons put themselves out of business by undercutting the market. It makes for a charged, hostile environment where a sign of disrespect can explode into physical assault. I’ve also witnessed Asian nail techs inside these discount salons being treated like garbage. Meanwhile, the Man is scheming on the whole establishment to tear it down and put up a condo. People of color better get it together. I didn’t hear what Teyana Taylor said, but her business partner is an Asian woman named Coca Michelle who does dope ass nails. Her message would have been powerful if she said ‘hey, come to a salon where black and Asian women have figured out how to thrive in this crazy world.’ Pretty sure they don’t have any five-dollar service on the menu though, which perhaps prices out a huge demographic of women who patronize discount salons. But these prices gotta come up by five dollars at least. That is a toxic environment and the fumes of cheap products probably make these women crazy too.

AR: Tell me about Kelvin Pham’s relationship with his clients. What did you learn about him when he spoke on his long-term clients and got choked up speaking about a woman who passed away after meeting him weekly for close to 20 years?

AP: Kelvin is an anomaly, but one of the most relatable people I’ve met. I think the gods put him in my path to dispel all of the stereotypes I had about the Asian salon before making the film. Because Kelvin owned his own salon and controlled the space, there’s an interesting kind of curating that occurred. Of course, it’s based on who could pay for his service, but like repeated over and over in the film, it’s about relationships. People are coming back for you even more than the manicure. I think it’s a testament to Kelvin’s character that he takes every aspect of the work seriously, especially his relationship with clients. And when you think about how much a woman who gets her nails done twice a week spends with her manicurist, that’s a real relationship! More time than most people dedicate to their individual friends or therapist, and you leave with a hot set of nails.