Viet Film Fest Highlights Transgender Rights and Nail Salon History & Unsafe Working Conditions

by Tom Nguyen

This year’s Viet Film Fest impacted me greatly, not just as a Vietnamese immigrant refugee but also because the festivals highlighted social justice issues important to me: LGBTQ rights, in particular the rights of the transgender community through the film “Finding Phong” and the history and current unsafe working conditions of the nail salon industry, dominated by Vietnamese immigrants and other people of color, through the documentaries “#NailedIt: Vietnamese & The Nail Industry” and “Painted Nails”.

It’s no secret there is still a lot of homophobic and transphobic attitudes in the very traditionally conservative Vietnamese community and culture, both in the global diaspora communities and in Vietnam. In 2013, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were barred from participating in the yearly Tet Lunar New Year Parade in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community abroad. It was only due to a lot of civic and public pressure that members of the LGBTQ community were allowed to participate the following year.

Expecting attitudes in my native Vietnam to be even more unforgiving, I was surprised to hear about a documentary highlighting the transgender experience there. The film “Finding Phong” is a video diary of one transgender woman, Le Anh Phong, and her quest to get gender-reassignment surgery. It’s a deeply personal look at her thoughts, aspirations and insecurities.

While Phong enjoys a supportive circle of friends while living away from her family, she is constantly barraged with calls from her elderly mother who tries to persuade her not to go through with the surgery. She often speaks to the camera as if addressing her mother and others directly in a way that she can’t in real life. In a particularly poignant opening segment, a weeping Phong professes to the camera that she hopes no one will ever see this footage. Such is the burden of shame and stigma she has shouldered all her life since she was a child, adamant that she was born into the wrong body.

Luckily the film was shown and such was its impact that Vietnam’s National Assembly, the country’s ruling body, voted to recognize the rights of transgender people after it was screened for them. I was particularly impressed that most people in the film and her own family, who while not entirely understanding her experience, were all supportive of her. The most rousing, hand-clapping moment of the film was when her elderly father, in his 80s and quiet throughout most of the film, finally spoke with heartfelt conviction: “We didn’t understand people like Phong back then, but we have science now. In this new world created by the [Vietnamese] revolution, everyone has a place in it and so does Phong.”

Phong flew from Vietnam to attend the screening and panel on LGBTQ issues in the Vietnamese community. I asked her one question: with the transphobia here in this country, like North Carolina’s recent anti-transgender law, and recent violence against 2 transgender women in Monterey Park and Skid Row, and the fact that transgender people face disproportionate abuse, violence, homelessness from being shunned by their own families…Was her transgender experience, in comparison, easier and without the same dangers as the film depicts?

Absolutely not, she replied. Up until about 5 years ago, transgender people like her still faced daunting discrimination and violence and very much the same issues. Beatings and harassment by police were commonplace. However, she’s noticed a big change in the general society’s attitudes the last few years and together with films like this and new legislation, she’s hopeful this trend of better acceptance and understanding of the transgender community continues in Vietnam.

After the Q&A was over, the curiosity factor was still very high among older audience members who surrounded Phong with questions ranging from “Are you in a relationship?” [Yes, she proudly showed her boyfriend’s picture.] to “Can you get pregnant?” Hey, at least our older generation is talking and asking questions and that’s a good thing. The film had a big impact on both the festival and audience, winning both the Spotlight Award and Audience Choice Award for Best Feature. The film’s producers, Gerald Herman and Nicole Pham, and Phuc Van (a member of VROC – Viet Rainbow in Orange County) were also part of the panel and I let Van know about “Made in Bangkok”, another poignant film about a transgender woman from Mexico entering a Thai beauty pageant to pay for gender-reassignment surgery she can’t afford. That film is showing at Hola Mexico Film Festival later this month in Los Angeles and is a must-see as well!


Next up at Viet Film Fest was a series of film dedicated to nail salons…yes, the industry ubiquitously populated by Vietnamese immigrants and famously spoofed by comedian Anjelah Johnson (which as a Vietnamese person, I didn’t find funny but rather offensive). The series started with a bizarre music video using a nail salon as the backdrop to an indie electronic song “I Can’t Be Your Superman” by Skylar Spence.

Then, there was a documentary by Adele Pham called “#NailedIt: Vietnamese & The Nail Industry”. The film celebrates the history of how Vietnamese immigrants came to dominate the $8 billion dollar industry.

It all started when actress Tippi Hedren visited a refugee camp to see how she could help them. A group of Vietnamese women admired her beautiful nails, which gave her the idea to fly in her manicurist, Dusty, on a weekly basis to teach them the skills and get certified in a new vocational trade that didn’t require much English language proficiency. That original group of 20 Vietnamese women started a trend in the resourceful refugee community that recognized the nail salon industry as a gateway to work and entrepreneurial opportunities.

That much I did know. What I didn’t know was how crucial and supportive the Black community in LA was to the fledgling industry. In the 70s, acrylic nails were not as popular as they are today and it was Black women who were exclusively wearing them in bold, expressive colors, that helped spark the growth of acrylic nail salons. One nail salon veteran commented, “It wasn’t Beverly Hills that gave us our start, it was the hood.” The film recounted how Mantrap, the first nail salon chain in the Black community, was co-founded by Olivett Robinson, an African American woman, and Charlie Vo, a Vietnamese refugee.

Dusty Coots Butera was in attendance at the Q&A along with some of the women from that original group. She was deservedly honored in the spotlight for once, since the story always focuses on Hedren as having the idea but never mentioning Butera who was the manicurist Hedren flew in to teach the women. At 80 years old, Butera is still working as a nail tech and says back then, being a single working mother allowed her to relate to the plight of the Vietnamese women and motivated her to make sure they would succeed.

By the way, I didn’t know about Adele Pham‘s work until this film. The mixed-race Vietnamese American documentary filmmaker has a prolific body of work about various perspectives and experiences of mixed-race and other marginalized communities of color. Check out films like Parallel Adele, The Throwaways, Fine Threads, The Prep School NegroRebirth: New Orleans, The Forgotten Occupation.

Finally, on the flip side to the Vietnamese immigrant success story in the nail salon industry, was the eye-opening documentary “Painted Nails“, which exposes the stark reality of occupational hazards like long hours and exposure to toxic chemicals used in the acrylic nail industry. The film by Erica Jordan and Dianne Griffin focuses in particular on Van Nguyen, a shy, unassuming Vietnamese nail salon owner and worker in San Francisco, who begins to make the connection between the chemicals she is exposed to and her previous miscarriages.

Laws on the books since 1938 have given the $50 billion cosmetic industry loopholes that allow them to use toxic, dangerous chemicals in their products without requiring any testing, labeling or government oversight. The film follows the mild-mannered Nguyen as she becomes empowered to be an activist for change and travels to Washington DC, to testify in Congress. She was among the first workers to testify against the cosmetic industry in over 30 years. As of this writing, there is a bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein called the Personal Care Products Safety Act of 2015 to give regulatory power to the FDA over the powerful cosmetics industry but as of yet, no legislation has been passed.

This film was particularly shocking to me because my mother was a manicurist for many years and never spoke up to me or anyone in our family about the hazards of her job. While I can see that she has bad posture from sitting stooped over customers’ nails and feet for many hours and poor eyesight from having to squint and focus for so long, it never occurred to me that maybe other ailments, like her shortness of breath, might be related to chemical toxins being breathed in on a daily basis.

If you get your nails done on a regular basis, you’re also exposed to these same chemicals and you should be concerned about your health and workers’ health. Here is a list of organizations on the Painted Nails site to find out more information and ways to become involved in the movement to regulate the cosmetics industry.

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