The oldest of six, Wills did not heed her parents’ wishes. She went big into nails, opening two Base Coat Nail Salons in Colorado, 13 more nationwide in partnership with Nordstrom, her nontoxic polish sold at two regional Whole Foods. Wills promotes safe products and fair labor practices, correcting the treatment experienced by her family and fellow Asian American workers.
The pandemic devastated small-business owners like Wills, who was forced to shutter two salons in Southern California and saw revenue plummet 80 percent. “All of our lives fell apart,” says Wills, a mother of four.
For many Asian Americans, it has also been a long, hard year of hate, hurt by “China virus” and “kung flu” references uttered by former president Donald Trump, incessantly repeated in conservative media and accompanied by an escalation of hate incidents, almost 3,800 from March 2020 through February, according to a Stop AAPI Hate national study. Experts believe that most hate crimes against Asian Americans are not reported.
Then came the mass shootings in Atlanta, which targeted three Asian spas, leaving eight people dead.
Now, Wills and others in the nail industry are in shock and grieving for the victims, six of whom are women of Asian descent. Salons are a service field dominated by Asian American women who are similarly vulnerable targets, and many workers fear for their safety. They worry about whether to speak out — and what can be done.
To Wills, Atlanta was not a matter of if but when. “Before I read past the headline, I knew what had happened. I knew it was going to be Asian American women who were killed,” she says.
“I saw my own face, my daughters, my mother, my grandmothers, my aunties, my sisters, my staff, my friends,” she posted on Instagram. “I am profoundly sad, scared, furious with rage and simply just heart broken.”
Masks do not shield her identity. “My face is Asian. It doesn’t matter what I own or what I do,” she says. “I am a target. That is the reality. I’m terrified for me. I’m terrified for my workers.” She starts to quietly weep.
“I’ve had people move away from me in stores to another line,” she says. One client requested a nail technician who wasn’t Asian American. She was told to get her nails polished elsewhere.
“I still feel very invisible in an industry dominated by Asian American women. I get left out of conversations,” Wills says. Until it was called out earlier this year on social media, Nailpro magazine didn’t include a single Asian American on its 14-member advisory board. The industry is three-quarters immigrant — and 76 percent of that group is Asian, according to a 2018 study, and predominantly Vietnamese in California.
“Most of our culture tells us to put your head down and keep moving forward and stay out of the limelight. They don’t want the attention. They just don’t want the negativity,” Wills says.
Since the shootings, she has placed additional Mace canisters in her salons. Wills restricted patronage to appointments only, with no foot traffic to purchase products, which will further reduce revenue. She’s already operating at 50 percent occupancy, following state guidelines.
Wills is also considering active-shooter training for her staff. In eight years of operating nail salons, this was never on her to-do list.
Her escalating fears are shared by other Asian Americans in her industry. Khanh Tran has long begged his mother, an Oakland resident and Vietnamese refugee, to retire from doing nails. The chemicals, the physical labor.
She “has always been scared of the world, always worried about bad things happening. She always told us to keep our head down and don’t pay attention to any of this,” says Tran, 27, a computer hardware technician.
During the pandemic, the Bay Area has been besieged by anti-Asian American attacks, several of them violent. Days after the shootings, Tran posted a tweet that received more than 105,000 likes: “Was told that my mom is finally gonna stop doing nails and retire. Not because she’s 65. Not because she can’t stand the ammonia/fumes. Not because she has arthritis and back aches, but because she’s scared to work after what happened in Atlanta.”
Few women become wealthy by doing nails. Technicians made a median of $12.39 an hour in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $25,770 a year. Last year, when the pandemic forced salons to close for months, was surely worse.
“It’s been a really intense and traumatic year for the nail industry. There have been instances of vandalism. One of our members’ salon was broken into last week after the murders. It’s hard not to see the connection,” says Lisa Fu, executive director of the advocacy group California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.
“A lot of issues related to nail workers is about being ignored and being made invisible. My work has been dedicated to making this community visible,” Fu says.
“The level of anxiety continues to grow and grow. Asian spas and salons are easier targets,” often identifiable by exterior signage in other languages, Fu adds. “Now, they’re going to be afraid for the their lives.”
Hong Dinh, 38, moved to the United States from Saigon in 2003. She’s helped support herself and three children doing nails for 15 years. The dream was to open her own salon with her sister in San Jose — which she realized this month, her grand opening on March 15.
The next day, the killing rampage occurred in Atlanta.
The following day, Dinh ordered a steel front door for protection and closed the salon.
It will remain locked until the door can be installed and she feels safe that her salon won’t be a target.
“I’m sad. I’m sad for the whole world,” says Dinh, through an interpreter. “I think this is the beginning of the attacks. People are mad because of covid. There’s anger in them. They’ve been stuck at home for a year now. It also depends where they get their news from.”
Rachel Yoon, 59, who immigrated from Korea, owns a salon in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Nail salons have long been places where women of varied backgrounds gather. The majority of Yoon’s clientele are Dominican. They’ve been great. But she’s heard unseemly comments, often from White people who are strangers.
Outside the salon, she attempts to blend in. “I feel, thankfully, when we are wearing masks, sometimes people can’t distinguish. Sometimes they can. It’s definitely something you feel in the air,” she says on the phone, driving from her home in Queens to her salon. “I worry about my niece, my sisters, in the subways. I’m always afraid.”
She sticks to her routine and feels relatively safe. “I tell my kids if someone approaches you and says something bad, just ignore them. You cannot confront them,” says Yoon, who has two grown daughters. “I’m not going to any places I’m not familiar with. I’m being careful until this thing goes away. Everyone is warning each other, ‘don’t look at someone in the eye.’ ”
Wills, in Denver, feels something else must be done. Let Atlanta be instructive. Look at the increase in violent incidents. On March 18, two days after the shootings, Xiao Zhen Xie, 75, was brutally beaten in San Francisco but fought back her attacker. A GoFundMe campaign launched by her grandson has raised nearly $1 million; the family plans to donate almost all of it, less Xie’s medical expenses, to combat racism in the community.
“I feel like I have to be more outspoken. To tell people, ‘Don’t forget about me,’ ” Wills says.
She’s talking. Wills is sharing her anger and frustrations on social media and in her community. She’s considering running for public office, possibly the state legislature, where she isn’t represented by people who look like her or share her experiences.
Keeping her head down isn’t in Wills’s nature and, as she will tell you, staying quiet isn’t working.