Open Letter: Let's Hold Hands

An open letter to all those working in the nail salon industry.

I grew up in the nail industry just like so many Vietnamese Americans here in the United States. It was part of our culture and everyday lives growing up. If you didn’t have a family member who owned a nail salon or was a manicurist, you 100% knew someone close to you who did. Like so many second generation Vietnamese kids, the known stereotypes like cleanliness, controversy and racism (anti-blackness), being generated from within the nail industry scared me away. We were immigrants and refugees ourselves, and I just couldn't wrap my head around this. After many failed attempts to distance myself from this profession, it eventually came around full circle when I was pregnant with my youngest child. Today I find myself the owner of 16 nail salons locations nationwide. I knew upon opening my first nail salon that I would run and operate my business differently, that I would change what I ran away from and create a safe space for all. My goal wasn’t to only do this inside of Base Coat salons, but to help transform the entire nail industry. Today, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I know this is what I was truly meant to do, but at the end of the day who do I owe this privilege to? Who are the people that paved the way for me and so many others in the billion dollar nail industry that we have come to know in America today?  

First and foremost the rights and privileges Asian Americans have today are a direct result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which was enacted during the Civil Rights Movement. In fighting for their own rights, Black activists led the movement and opened up opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black men and women were beaten, jailed, and killed fighting for us. This Federal law made it possible for many Vietnamese immigrants like my parents to rebuild their lives here in America after the Vietnam War. 

In the mid-70’s, actress and philanthropist Tippi Hedren introduced the art of the modern manicures to 20 Vietnamese refugee women after the Fall of Saigon. Prior to 1975 the nail salons as we know it today, did not exist. Hedren flew in her personal manicurist Dusty Coots Butera to Hope Village, a Vietnamese refugee camp in Northern California to teach women there how to polish nails so they had a vocational skill to support their children and families. This was also the very first known manicurist only licenses, before this time a license for both hair and nails was required. Hedren then helped these students find jobs in salons across Southern California, unknowingly sparking a cultural phenomenon and a multibillion dollar industry that supports their communities to this day BUT there is an equally important unknown part of this story that shaped what we have come to know as American nail salons. A story of a seemingly unlikely, but beautiful friendship between Olivett Robinson, a Black American woman, and Charlie Hieu Vo, a Vietnamese Refugee woman, two cultures forever bonded that all started when these two women crossed paths in 1983.

After Charlie escaped from Vietnam, she sought refuge here in America with her husband and two young babies. When they eventually landed in Van Nuys, LA,  she enrolled in vocational training at a nail school. After graduating, she immediately began working as a manicurist at her aunt's salon. It was here on her first job that she would meet her future business partner, Olivett Robinson, a hairstylist at another salon, who was a frequent nail client of the salon at which Charlie worked. After forming a friendship, they decided to go into business together and opened MANTRAP, the very first chain of nail salons in South Los Angeles. MANTRAP's success would go on to eventually change the trajectory of Vietnamese nail salons in the years to come, collectively helping both their communities by providing a desired service to Black women, at a time where Black women were ignored entirely in the nail salon industry but also providing immediate employment opportunities for Vietnamese refugee women to take care of themselves and their families financially in a new country. The Vietnamese priced their services so professional and working class women could afford this once luxury service and it was Black women who brought their influence that truly shaped the diverse nail culture and drove the growth of mom and pop nail salons across the country, creating the billion dollar industry we know today. 

By sharing this history, I want everyone working in the nail industry, and especially our followers who frequent nail salons all over America, to acknowledge this history and to understand that the nail salons you know and love today WOULD NOT exist without the support and influence of Black women like Olivett Robinson. It is important that this history continues to be shared and celebrated, as it has slowly been erased not only within the Asian nail salon community, but in the nail and beauty industry as a whole. This is the time for all of us to start the difficult conversations not only with our friends and family, but within the nail industry and Asian community, to confront complacency, systematic racism, micro-aggression, and anti-blackness.

What other industry do you know where people of all colors, races, and backgrounds hold hands with each other, to share their own life experiences, struggles, laugh, cry and have this kind of intimate connection? 

Thank you all for taking time to read this letter, I do not expect a pat on the back for sharing this story. As a small brand we still have a lot of work to do from within. We are not exempt from this work. My goal is to spark conversations that have been ignored for far too long within our industry. I will not tolerate people who say brands and businesses have no say in the issues that hurt our communities and cause suffering to human lives. I will accept criticism, and acknowledge that I may lose followers and guests that do not believe in why we as a company will continue to speak out against racism and injustice. We will continue to amplify Black voices and honor the sacrifices that our Black brothers and sisters have made so that we could be here today. 

Being an ally is messy, uncomfortable, overwhelming, and will trigger big complicated feelings. However, we all need to do better for our Black community. We owe our time, our hearts, our ears, and our humility. Keep educating yourself. Keep others and yourself accountable. Keep focused. Keep donating. Keep growing. Keep offering resources. Keep supporting BlPOC owned-businesses. Keep signing petitions. Keep disrupting. Keep sharing Black stories. Keep protesting. Keep posting. Keep contacting. your public officials. Keep using your voice. Keep fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other. Keep your foot on the gas.

To continue our support to our Black communities, BASE COAT we will be donating 50% of sales of our Let’s Hold Hand” T-shirt to The Loveland Foundation.

The Loveland Foundation is committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls. Their resources and initiatives are collaborative, and they prioritize opportunity, access, validation and healing that will impact generations.

xx Tran Wills

Base Coat Nail Salon Founder 

To learn more about Olivett Robinison and Charlie Hieu Vo please watch NAILED IT a documentary by Adele Free Pham and the memoir MANI/PEDI documenting Charlie's journey to America from Vietnam and meeting Olivett by Krista Beth Driver and THE MANAGED HAND by Miliann Kang. Thank you Adele, Miliann and Krista for sharing this important history of the nail industry. 

Resources: Asians for Black Lives

Asian Americans and the legacy of anti-blackness

Letter for Black Lives

“Model Minority'’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks

Asian Americans need to talk about anti-blackness in our communities

6 Ways Asian Americans Can Tackle Anti-Black Racism in Their Families (Kim Tran 2016) 

(Vietnamese) Người Việt mình có phân biệt chủng tộc

(Vietnamese) Tóm Lại Là: George Floyd - Giọt nước mắt tràn ly của người Mỹ da đen 

Bóc Term: Bạn đã hiểu đúng về systemic racism?

Khốn Khổ Một Màu Da / The Terrible Burden of a Skin Color

(Vietnamese) Người Việt Nam cho Black Lives Matter 

(Vietnamese) Suy Nghĩ của Một Người Mỹ Gốc Việt về Tháng Lịch Sử Người Da Đen (Black History Month)  english version

#shareblackstories #letsholdhands #seeblackwomen #asiansforblacklives #blackbeautyhistory #blacklivesmatter #mantrap #blacknailsalonhistory #blackwomenmatter #beautyhistory