Since the Vietnam War, the nail salon has been the backbone of Vietnamese life in America. There are over 200,000 nail salons in the United States, most of which are owned and operated by Vietnamese refugees, immigrants, and the families they’ve built. Nearly every “successful” Vietnamese-American doctor, lawyer, businessperson, scientist, or writer can trace the path of their careers back to the nail salon—where, through the thick air of acrid chemicals, a manicurist, often a woman, head bowed over the foot or hand of a stranger, meticulously scrapes dead skin away from her client’s cuticles, revealing the tender and supple new growth beneath. From this act of daily regeneration, entire families are fed, clothed, and cared for. What little remains of nail salon workers’ earnings is sent back to Vietnam, where entire families are fed, clothed, and cared for. Children are put through college this way. Medical bills, for which they will not have insurance, are paid, often in cash, this way.
Often hidden behind protective masks, the identities of these workers can appear monolithic and anonymous—even as they touch and hold the hands of their clients, as they massage the knots out of shoulders, cradle calves and ankles. They are seen mostly in the periphery, ghosting from task to task, from client to client, often silent, often kneeling or crouched below eye level.
Having been brought up in a nail salon myself, I hope these photos offer a glimpse into the intricate and intimate lives of these workers. This particular study focuses on an all-woman crew of manicurists during a single day of work at a nail salon in East Hartford, Connecticut. Through these photos, I hope to enact the tenuous and fraught lives of these laborers, but also to evince their presences beyond the limitations of their work. Here, they are seen caring for the beauty of others while simultaneously caring for their children. They are seen doing their own makeup, they are seen laughing and gossiping—as they live and are alive.
Three months after the shooting of this series, the salon, Fancy Nails, closed. The women, Le Kim Sen, Le Kim Hong, and Nguyen Thuy Bui, picked up their bags of tools and sought employment at other salons. Nguyen Thuy Bui would later report finding work at a nail salon inside of a nearby Wal-Mart.
Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, he has received honors from Poets House, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and a 2014 Pushcart Prize. His poems appear in the, Best New Poets, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in New York City.