Korean Nail Salons: An Inside Look

Korean Nail Salons- An Inside Look
A Korean nail salon in Manhattan (Photo by Jiwon Choi for Voices of NY)

New Yorkers, who live in one of the fashion capitals of the world, love not only fancy clothes but also glitter on their hands. Nail salons are seen everywhere in New York, and more than half of them have long been run by Korean owners.

Even though many Koreans say that the industry’s growth has been gradually slowing down, Koreans operated 70 percent of the nail salons in New York City in 2013, according to an article from Korea Daily. There are about 30,000 Koreans working at nail salons in the New York metropolitan area – which makes them the largest employer of Koreans.

Sangho Lee, president of the Korean American Nail Salon Association of New York, cited Koreans’ dexterity as the reason why many have gone into this business. “About 30 years ago, when Koreans first started to open nail salons, they were quite new and unfamiliar to people in New York at the time,” Lee added. Earlier, most of the first-generation Korean immigrants usually ran laundromats or produce stores.

The Korean nail salon business in New York, with its competitive pricing, served as a foundation for the growth of nail salons in the U.S., said Suzanne E. Shapiro at a recent event on the occasion of the release of her new book “Nails.”

Shapiro noted that “the West Coast is more dominated by Vietnamese and around here in New York more by Korean business people. They were able to drive prices down and make nail services more affordable for women across all classes. It’s a fairly affordable way to express yourself.”

However, Korean-owned nail salons have been losing ground to other ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Latinos.

Anna, a Chinese-Korean worker at Pink House Nail on West 40th Street in Manhattan, which opened in February, said that Chinese nail salons are more specialized in brush strokes than Korean salons.

Chinese and other ethnic groups have been competing with high-quality services at lower prices. A customer at a nail salon run by Americans in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said in an interview with Voices of NY that she tried many nail salons around the city and felt more satisfied with Latino ones than Korean since they worked hard and scrupulously.

Koreans, who used to believe they offered higher quality than other nail salons, now admit that competitors are catching up to them in quality, putting pressure on them. Their market share has dropped significantly over the past couple of decades.

An owner of a nail supply house in Flushing mentioned that even though he believes that Korean salons offer high quality, their work lacks artistic value.

“These days, I feel that Koreans are losing popularity because of Chinese and Vietnamese nail salons’ good services. Korean nail salons were booming about 15-20 years ago and I guess now they only have 60 percent of the market share,” he said. His estimate is lower than other estimates.

Since competition in the nail industry has been growing more fierce, many Korean nail businesses are remodeling their salons while others are offering new services. Some Korean nail salons, for instance, are differentiating themselves from Chinese ones by adopting luxurious interiors. Skyrocketing rent has prompted some salons to contemplate closing, but some decide to remodel instead as did one salon in Woodside.

Adding massage services at nail salons is a trend in the industry and usually they are much more expensive than a basic manicure, which means nail workers and salon owners can make higher profits.

It was estimated that a basic manicure, which usually takes 20 minutes, costs about $15 to $18 in Manhattan and about $10 or slightly more in the other boroughs, based on inquiries at nail salons in the city.

If someone wants to get a massage, he or she has to pay more than $80 for a one-hour body massage and about $90 for a facial massage in Manhattan.

The Korean American Nail Salon Association of New York has imported nail polish and other supplies from Korea through its annual event, the Nail and Spa Show, which introduces Korean nail products to New Yorkers. But one nail supply store owner explained that people in the U.S. prefer American brands such as OPI and Essie.

For employees of nail salons, the competitive pressures of the workplace are great. To begin with, if a person wants to work at a nail salon, he or she has to complete  250 hours of classes at a professional institute such as a nail school before taking the exam for the license. The owner of the salon in Sunset Park said that there were not many Koreans at a nail school she attended, and she suggested that some of the Korean nail workers may not be licensed.

Korean salon owners and workers alike may also face conflicts. Some of this is attributable to them having been raised in a patriarchal society and now being major breadwinners in their families in the U.S.

In her 2010 book “The Managed Hand,” Miliann Kang cited the example of a Korean nail salon owner, Charlie: “These dynamics are even more pronounced among Asian immigrant families, where traditional patriarchal relations are often resistant to the new economic roles for women and men that migration brings. Although Charlie can be viewed as a nail salon success story, she felt like a failure in her role as a mother and believed that her work extracted too high a toll in caring for her child and other domestic duties.”

Anna, from Pink Nail House, said in an interview that she was apart from her children in China because she was working in the U.S., and planned to bring them to New York for their education.

Still, she seemed to be worried about her role as a mother.

It is difficult for Korean nail workers to spend more time with their families since they work about 45 hours every week on average.

A Korean male grocery worker, who identified himself only as Yoon, said that he has spent less time with his wife since she started working at a nail salon. “We cannot spend much time together because we take time off on different days and she comes home around 10 p.m. every day,” Yoon complained.

Yoon added that it is more difficult for Korean men, especially those who cannot speak English, to find a job than for women. Nail salon workers usually earn more than Koreans at other workplaces.

Official statistics shows that Korean women in New York City make more money than Korean men, which is the opposite situation from that in Korea. Experts assume that the wage gap is one of the factors that cause conflict for married Korean couples.

Yoon estimates that the average wage for a nail worker is $80 a day, plus tips, for a workday that may be 10 hours long. Experienced manicurists can earn higher wages and much more in tips.

When one salon owner was asked about how much in tips her employees received, she replied that it depends on the person’s skills and efforts. “If you want to apply for this job, you shouldn’t think about tips and income,” she said.

Another problem for employees of salons can be having to do pedicures as well as manicures. A Korean worker at a nail salon in Woodside said she was very discouraged at first when she had to take care of other people’s feet, saying that “it is not an easy thing to do.”

In spite of these difficulties, why do so many Koreans in New York work at nail salons? Many say that there are not enough jobs for Asians in the U.S. because of their lack of English and special skills. From May 27 to June 2, ninety-seven help-wanted ads for manicurists were posted on HeyKorean.com, a website for Koreans in the U.S., which was about 15 percent of the total number, 671. Other ads were mostly for restaurant employees, guesthouse janitors, and other blue-collar jobs, which usually offer less money. Even though some well-paid white-collar jobs were posted on the website, they required higher levels of education and English proficiency.

“What other work is there?” many of the Korean manicurists ask.

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