Refugee business owner dedicated to giving back to America

By Natalie Merrill

Prior to becoming a successful business owner and respected philanthropist in the Dallas area, Kim Chen had to endure and overcome multiple hardships and obstacles in order to experience the freedom she longed for as a young woman in Vietnam.

Kimberly Chen and her son, Jonathan, own Signature Nails.
Photo by Natalie Merrill

Only 21 years old and two months pregnant with her first child, Nina, Chen fled Vietnam by boat to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. It was no easy feat, though, as she made three attempts to do so, was robbed by bandits along the way, and battled life-threatening conditions with no food or clean water for four days and three nights on a 16-foot boat with 42 people.

“I had to try to find a way to survive,” she said. “It was scary. I had to risk my life for freedom.”

Chen’s sister-in-law, Lucy McDaniel, was able to sponsor her and help her get to a different refugee camp in Indonesia, and it was from there that Chen was able to fly to Little Rock, Ark., where she began her new life in America. In 1982, however, she and her family decided to make the move to Dallas.

“We wanted to see something better for our future,” she said.

Since living in the DFW metroplex, Chen has built a successful career as a business owner of multiple establishments, including in the restaurant industry. Currently, she and her son, Jonathan, own Signature Nail Bar & Spa on East Mockingbird Lane in Dallas. In each place she has worked, she has made sure to become involved in the community and serve its members in any way she can. For her, it’s a matter of expressing her gratitude for the opportunities she’s received since arriving in the U.S.

“I used to be homeless,” she said. “I was on the ocean for four days and three nights with no food and no water. So, whenever I can, I like to show my appreciation to this country.”

One of her service accolades includes helping victims of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia through the organization One Body Village in 2014. Chen, who was the owner of Lee’s Sandwiches in the Garland area at the time, was in charge of a fundraiser that raised $49,990.87 — all of which went directly toward the prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of child sex victims in Southeast Asia.

Chen has consistently helped with donations for the North Texas Food Bank and contributed more than 8,500 pounds of food in 2018 during the U.S. government shutdown. 

She has also shown great compassion and generosity for the homeless, donating her time and resources to the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) police’s Coffee with a Cop program, for which she was presented an appreciation plaque by the DART Police Department.

“It touched me and made me cry,” Chen said. “I love helping people, and I love helping my community.”

In 2020, after the onset of COVID-19, Chen reached out to medical professionals to help people however she could, and she ended up providing meals from Lee’s Sandwiches for fire stations throughout Garland — all three shifts for all 11 stations. Robert Vera, who was a member of the Garland City Council, delivered the food to the first responders and was grateful to Chen for her heart of service.

“Kim is a lovely lady and does so much for the community,” he said. “She’s a true team player and is always there to help people. She does what she says she’s going to do.”

Chen received plaques of appreciation from the City of Garland for her charitable giving during the pandemic. But she doesn’t do the work for the recognition or accolades — she does it because she truly is thankful for this life she’s been able to live.

“It makes me proud to know that I did something for this country to show my appreciation,” she said.

Chen said she is grateful to the father of her children, Mike Chen, who always supported her in her work and her passion for investing in her community. She is also thankful that she was given the chance to embark on this journey she began more than 40 years ago when she came to America.

“This country welcomed me and gave me the opportunity to do a better life,” she said. “That’s why I try to show my appreciation and do my best to help out. People always ask me how I have the time because I’m so busy. But if you can take some time off to help the community, you do it.”