Canvas at Her Fingertips: The Stories of Asian Female Nail Artists in the San Francisco Bay Area

May 8, 2020 is a Friday Tony Nguyen will never forget. The Thursday before, California Governor Gavin Newsom stated that nail salons were the origin of COVID-19’s community spread in California, as he explained why personal care services such as manicures will not yet enter the reopening phase.

The news hit hard for Nguyen, the Outreach & Digital Organizing Coordinator for the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, as he remembers, “I woke up in the morning, and was shocked.”

Newsom’s statement was perplexing. A San Francisco Chronicle analysis indicated that he might be referring to a Feb. 26 case that was originally identified as California’s first community transmission. However, Bay Area health officials had already identified two COVID-19-related deaths occurring in early February, indicating that the state’s community transmission happened far earlier than previously known — with the governor refusing to elaborate, there was no clear evidence that the spread traces back to a nail salon.

Newsom’s words left lasting wounds in the industry. Tina Bui, the 57-year-old owner of Tina’s Nails in Marin County, experienced the devastating impacts of the pandemic first-hand.

“I lost half of the customers over the pandemic,” she said. “If I knew the situation today, I would do something else.”

Bui came to America from Vietnam at the age of 22, has spent over 35 years as a manicurist. Thinking about Newsom’s announcement that singled out her industry, Bui feels it’s overdue for a retraction.

“He should say something now after three years,” she said. “He should get back on the stage because he was the one to throw the words out to the whole state.”

Bui is one of the more than 53,649 people working in California’s nail industry, according to the US Census American Community Survey. Of these, over 32,000 are Vietnamese, constituting 60% of the total workforce. With over 80% Asian workers, over 80% born outside the US, and almost 90% female,  immigrant women are the backbone of this industry.

“This industry is special because it’s a hub of economic activity for the immigrant and refugee community,” said Lucero Herrera, Senior Research Analyst at the UCLA Labor Center. “Aside from the economic services they perform, they have a very important social role.”

However, despite the category “Industry 8990: Nail Salons And Other Personal Care Services” being already a broad umbrella term that covers more than just the nail industry, the census data still appears to severely undercount the workers — The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology shows 126,610 active licensees with manicurist licenses, suggesting an underestimation by nearly 60%.

“There has been a history of undercounting undocumented workers and minorities,” Herrera pointed out the challenges in data accuracy. “A lot of nail salon workers are being paid under the table, so there’s no documentation of their employment, which contributes to the miscalculation of the numbers.”

Despite the undercounting, data reveals a growing trend in the nail industry, even amidst the pandemic. According to County Business Patterns data, the number of nail salons nationwide has expanded by 35% since 2016. California, the home state for almost 20% of the salons, saw more than 1,740 new shops over five years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the industry’s employment to grow by 22% over the next decade, nearly double the rate for other personal appearance workers and over four times the average for all occupations.

Yet, the increase in salons doesn’t correspond with more employment. In fact, the number of employees decreased by almost 2,000 between 2020 and 2021, while the number of salons increased.

Herrera found the increase surprising. “It contradicts what we expected to see during the pandemic when salons closed down and went out of business,” Herrera said, explaining that this might be a result of more sole proprietorships, more former employees starting their own businesses, and more owners trying to reopen with fewer people.

“Now two people are doing eight people’s work,” Nguyen noted the shrinking of the businesses.

Although historically, the nail industry has been a huge one dominated by mom-and-pop shops instead of big franchises, the sizes of the shops scaled down even more after the pandemic. According to Census Business Patterns data, from 2018 to 2020, the number of salons with fewer than five people grew by only 6.5%. However,  after the pandemic hit, in the one year from 2020 to 2021, the number of these tiny shops grew by 30%, making up more than two-thirds of the businesses. Moreover, all the big shops, with more than 50 employees, disappeared. 

The shrinking size could also be an indication of the industry’s attempt to bounce back from the blows dealt by COVID-19. “The cost of doing business has increased dramatically since the pandemic because owners have to incur additional costs such as personal protection and ventilation equipment,” Herrera said. “They’re still paying back loans that they took during the pandemic. They’re still trying to make ends meet. The rent is still pretty high. All the operating costs are really high.”

“It has not been a smooth recovery,” Herrera said.

What further complicates the recovery is the changing behavior of customers. “They haven’t been to the nail salon since the pandemic, and started to do nails at home. With a lot of products, they can just buy a set and put it on. The products are beautiful, but they hit badly for the industry,” said Vy Tran, the Community Organizer at California Healthy Nail Salon.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to come back as before the pandemic,” Tran doesn’t hold an optimistic view. “Even if it does, it’s going to take a very long time.”

For Bui, who has owned her salon for 28 years now, it saddens her to see the re-shaping of the way customers want to get their nails done. “After not having their nails done for almost two years, they feel it’s not necessary anymore,” she said. “Everybody’s getting lazy now.”

The customers were the most cherished part of Bui’s job, where the interaction and bonding with clients were the highlights of her work. As one among the 89% of the workers who don’t speak English at home, Bui immigrated from Vietnam without knowing English. However, she now speaks fluently due to her “talks and laughs and casual English” interactions with her customers.

“California is a melting pot. Everybody is so different and I love it.” Bui added, “Sometimes I feel like a therapist too.”

This emotional labor, as Herrera categorized it, is an underappreciated aspect of the nail salon industry. “It’s not just the services that they perform related to nail art, but also the emotional labor that they do while providing these services,” she explains. “They make the customers feel cared for and important, but then in terms of wages and the lack of regulation in this industry, you see how little value society places on this type of labor.”< The pandemic has dramatically altered many things for Bui, but above all, it took away the source of joy in doing her job. “The customers who you think have been your friend for 20 years, after the pandemic, when they see you on the street talking, they still keep six feet apart.”


  • Tracy Zhang

    Tracy Zhang graduated from Northwestern University in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Economics with a minor in Film & Media Studies. On campus, she worked on the video desk at The Daily Northwestern, as well as writing and editing for NU Asian Magazine. During the year of remote school, she went back home to Beijing, where she interned on the editorial team of Vogue China while freelancing for Portrait, China's top feature writing magazine. At Stanford, she hopes to hone her skills in investigative journalism and explore her interest in storytelling through innovative digital techniques. After experiencing the snow days in the Midwest, she is ready and excited to be in the sun of California.

Scroll to Top