Binh “Gene” Nguyen was inhigh school when his mother sent him to learn to do nails.
“Don’t fight. Just do it,’” Nguyen recalls his mother saying.
The young man soon mastered the art of manicures and pedicures, and before long, Nguyen was teaching the trade to fellow Vietnamese immigrants.
The industry that he had so reluctantly entered has been expanding ever since. Growing with it is Nguyen’s profile as a business and community leader in Northern Virginia, where the Eden Center in Falls Church has long been the hub of the region’s Vietnamese American community.
Today, the 41-year-old Virginia man not only runs the nail academy his family founded in 1988, but he owns the highly regarded restaurant Present and the nightclub V3 Lounge.
And as the founder and president of the new Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington, Nguyen now has a title to match the influential role he made for himself.
He owes his success, he said, to his start doing nails, a trade his relatives took to soon after they arrived as refugees in Southern California in 1983. With his family’s nail academy in Northern Virginia, Nguyen helped establish an industry in Washington that hardly existed in the mid-1980s.
Nguyen has trained hundreds of Washington’s nail technicians, many of whom have gone on to opentheir own shops.
“It is easy for a Vietnamese person to find a nail job now,” Nguyen, dressed in a dark suit, said on a recent morning as he flipped through a textbook and demonstrated to four immigrant women how to do gel nails.
“They don’t need a lot of English, they don’t need a high education, and they don’t even need high skills,” he said. “This can be learned.”
At the Eden Center, where Vietnamese Americans own most of the 120 small businesses, Nguyen has become the go-to person.
Last year, when police raided 13 businesses at the plaza and arrested 19 people on misdemeanor charges that included gambling and alcohol violations, Nguyen was among the first to protest. He said innocent bystanders were caught up in the sweep.
He organized community meetings with police and government officials. Shop owners and residents came to his nightclub to discuss their concerns about more police raids.
“Even before the raids, during the hardship of the economy, a lot of the tenants have had concerns about the policing,” Nguyen said. “We feel we have been unfairly targeted.”
Authorities said a gang known as the Dragon Family had been operating illegal gaming machines at Eden Center. Nguyen and other merchants said they had not heard of the gang.
“[Gene] didn’t just sit around,” said Due H. Tran, who as the chamber’s lawyer defended some of the people arrested during the raid. “He cares about civil rights. He went through the same obstacles that many people face in this socially and economically challenged environment where he went from nothing to riches. And he didn’t just stop there. While he was climbing the ladder, he turns around and he says, ‘How can I help the next family?’ ”
Some Vietnamese business leaders also credit Nguyen with helping fellow immigrants establish their own businesses in the region.
“If you need advice or you need support in some way, you can always go to him,” said Thai Nguyen, an Annandale resident who owns an immigration consulting business in Falls Church. “We got a leader, somebody who is going to stand up and say: ‘Please be fair to everybody.’ ”
As a young boy, Nguyen strived to assimilate into his new country. After he arrived in the United States, a friendly seventh- grade classmate suggested “American” names.
“She told me, ‘You want to fit in? You have to have an American name,’ ” Nguyen recalled. John and Michael were too common, Nguyen thought. So he picked Gene.
From that moment, he was Gene to Americans and Binh to Vietnamese. The new name opened doors to mainstream America, he said.
A bullet scar on his left leg, though, was always a reminder of his roots, he said.
Nguyen was 2 when his father was killed fighting the communist takeover of South Vietnam. His mother made several attempts to send her two children out of the country, and during one of those attempts, Nguyen was shot in the leg. He was 8.
A few months later, his mother sold everything the family had, including her wedding band, and took Nguyen and his older sister on a boat trip out of My-Tho, their hometown in southern Vietnam.
“We stayed together, trying to survive,” he said, recalling their rescue at sea and three years at the Galang refugee camp in Indonesia.
“When we came to America, we ended up in one of the poorest neighborhoods. I was in central L.A. watching the gangs go by everyday. . . . We fought poverty,” he said. “I was very disappointed because that’s not the America that I had in my mind.”
His mother, Tu Nguyen, a teacher and dentist in Vietnam, found work in the booming nail industry in California. She opened a nail shop, where her children helped.
“I was thinking about keeping them busy at the shop so I didn’t have to worry about them,” she said.
When the nail industry got competitive in Los Angeles, the family sought new opportunities in Virginia. The young Nguyen helped establish Nails for You, a nail salon and academy that was originally in Alexandria and now is in Falls Church.
At its peak, from 1993 to 2000, the academy had two locations and as many as 200 students, Nguyen said. He became an advocate for government regulation of the industry and was among the first licensed nail technicians in Virginia.
It was at the academy that he met his wife, Tina, Nguyen said, recalling his experience as a nail technician as a blessing and an opportunity to help other immigrants.
“We tried to make it, live the American dream, build it up slowly,” said Nguyen, who lives in Annandale with his wife and three children. “I am proud to be an American and in my heart I will never forget who I am. I am Vietnamese. That’s where I came from.”