LUMBERTON — When Johnny Pham opened Glamor Nails in 1994, the other tenets of Biggs Park Mall predicted that his salon “would last three weeks.”
They underestimated the tenacity of Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled his home country after being tortured by communists.
Many of his doubters have since closed shop, but Glamor Nails is still standing — albeit in a different part of the mall.
Pham recently upgraded to a larger storefront. The space became available after RadioShack, an electronics chain that seemed bulletproof in 1994, shuttered its store at the mall along with 1,700 other locations across the country.
“I’ve been very blessed,” said Pham, who was a senior at the University of Science in Saigon when the Communist Party took hold of South Vietnam in 1975.
“All university students were taken to an eight-month labor camp without any notice to our families,” he said. “They were afraid the youths would start a revolution against them.”
After he was released from the camp, Pham was told by school officials that he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate unless he joined the Junior Communist Party.
“I walked out saying, ‘I don’t give a (expletive) about the system,’” he said. “Another student heard me and snitched, which landed me in police custody.”
As punishment for the outburst, he was forced to stand in “a river of waste” while catfish nibbled at his skin. After a week in the filthy water, Pham was transported to a field and shackled to a post in the sweltering heat.
“[The guards] were safe under shelter watching me die,” he said. “My father had come to visit and was devastated at what they’d put me through. He sold everything he had to bail me out.”
Having seen what happens to people who run afoul of the Communist Party, Pham was anxious to leave Vietnam. He caught the first available boat to a refugee camp in Malaysia.
“With my luck, the boat’s engine went out,” he said. “The next morning, we found out that the reason for the engine’s malfunction was because we were over capacity.”
More than 170 people were crammed aboard the tiny vessel. In an effort to lighten the load, passengers tossed food and other important supplies into the sea.
“Because room was limited, I was kicked out onto the very front of the boat,” said Pham, who nearly starved on the 16-day journey.
The ship’s bow offered little protection from the blistering sun and pounding waves.
“I could hardly swallow because it felt like my entire throat was cut and my body was rotting from the inside,” he said. “I had no more physical feeling; everything was numb.”
Pham says 40 passengers died before the boat reached Malaysia.
“When I finally got a real drink [at the camp], it felt like I was in heaven,” he said.
He eventually gained access to the U.S., where he lived in Los Angeles for six years and worked “100-hour weeks” for a company that assembled helicopters.
“I got my whole family into the United States and was very grateful for the opportunity that America had given me,” he said. “I owe this country everything for the opportunities that I have been given. I don’t think I would have made it this far if I had landed in any other country.”
Pham “fell in love with the kindness of people from the South” and moved to Lumberton to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a small business.
“Even though I wasn’t born here, I consider myself a Robeson County son,” he said.
Glamor Nails celebrated its 22nd anniversary on Sunday. Chelsea Biggs-Sullivan, manager of Biggs Park Mall, says the salon’s unassuming owner has inspired her to “work harder” in her career.
“He fought so hard to get here. He came here with nothing and made himself into something. We don’t realize how good we have it here and hearing Johnny’s story helps you take a step back and look at the big picture.”
Features editor Jaymie Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5771 or by email at [email protected]