The exterior of Orchid Beauty Centre on Kingsway Street in Kensington-Cedar Cottage is a colourful mix of turquoise-green vinyl siding, a pink door and purple writing. And while the odd-looking building could be easily mistaken for a garden shed, it’s actually one of the most popular nail salons on Kingsway Street.
Just moments after the front door opened last Friday, women of every nationality, age and demographic began trickling through the door. And while at 10 a.m. there were only three employees tending to a handful of customers, by 11 a.m. there were eight staff members painting toes, scrubbing feet or applying artificial nails to seven women, while as many sat waiting for their turn for a salon treatment.
Owner Anna Ly opened the shop 13 years ago and from the number of clients frequenting the salon on this day, it was obviously a wise decision. Ly also owns a second Orchid Beauty Centre location on East Broadway and recently celebrated the grand opening of a third shop on Lougheed Highway in Burnaby.
Ly immigrated to Canada from Vietnam with her husband and young daughter in 1991, first moving to New Brunswick before heading west to Edmonton and finally settling in Vancouver. Lyn had her second child and then in 2000 opened Orchid Beauty Centre on Kingsway.
The entire length of Kingsway has no lack of nail and beauty salons, including Ngoc & Nga Beauty Salon, Jenny Hair Design, Shed O Beauty Care, Wendy Hair Salon, and Bianca’s Hair Salon and Boutique, but they’re particularly prevalent in and around the business district now officially known as “Little Saigon,” the stretch of street between Fraser and Knight streets. It’s there where you’ll find Orchid Beauty Centre at 1298 Kingsway.
According to Aprodicio Laquian, professor emeritus with the Centre for Human Settlements Community and Regional Planning at the University of B.C., it’s no coincidence the majority of nail and beauty salons along Kingsway, and even across North America, are operated by Vietnamese owners.
“Like China, Vietnam uses an internal passport system called ‘ho khau’ that controls migration,” Laquian wrote in part in an email to the Courier. “As the country’s economy boomed, cities needed more workers so the ho khau was relaxed and millions of peasants flocked to the cities.”
Laquian noted that while the population of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, increased from 2.7 million in 1999 to 6.5 million in 2009, the majority of migrants did not have technical skills so barber shops and beauty and nail salons boomed. He added these “informal sector” jobs were exported as former Vietnamese residents moved abroad.
“The migration of rural folks to cities also applies to the proliferation of pho or noodle shops not just in Vancouver, but in other countries,” said Laquian. “I was in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Da Nang and Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] recently and mostly subsisted on delicious pho from street vendors.”
He added the fact Vietnamese rule the world of nails and beauty in North America is likely not cultural.
“It could be as simple as a Vietnamese group cornering the market for nail salons, the purchase of equipment, facilities, training programs, like South Asians cornering the taxi business or the Vietnamese cornering the corner store business in New York,” said Laquian.
But for Orchid Beauty Centre owner and Vietnam transplant Ly, it’s more than a matter of culture or practicality that drives her every day.
“I love Vancouver,” said Ly, while filing a customer’s fingernails. “And I love what I do.”
(Note: This story has been revised since first posted Aug. 15)