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Framed: Cambodian wedding stylist keeps culture alive one 'I do' at a time

Seattle salon owner Nary Kuy finds comfort and purpose in bringing her traditions to the PNW.

Nary works on a wedding outfit

Nary Kuy makes final adjustments for a bride, Bory Khun, before wedding festivities in Kent on July 27, 2019. Along with running her own salon business during the day and working as a janitor at night, Kuy styles local Cambodian weddings. For her it is about preserving her culture and keeping her treasured Cambodian traditions alive, even far away from her home. (All photos by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

In a second floor bedroom in Kent, about 10 women crowd around the edges of the room, chatting in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and watching a bride primp. The group is dressed in brilliant pinks, greens and purples. The sounds of traditional Khmer instruments fill the air from the living room downstairs. Nary Kuy is right in the middle, kneeling down to pin skirts and adjust gold accessories.

It is Bory Khun and Chhonly Pin’s wedding day, and Kuy is in charge of making sure the bride and groom look like royalty and that the bridal party matches perfectly.

Once everyone is dressed, the party heads downstairs to begin the daylong festivities. Kuy stays in the background taking photos with her phone. She is smiling. The scene reminds her of home.

“I miss home but I’m happy when I do weddings because it is like I am still there,” she says.

Kuy, 44, grew up in Cambodia. After losing her father when she was 11, she quickly stepped up to help her mother. She was one of five children.

As a child, Kuy started her days fishing in the wee hours of the morning with her older sister. Then before she went to school, Kuy would stop by the bus and taxi stations to sell sweets, beef and fish that her mother made. She also sold food during her breaks at school.

“I had to grow up fast and support my family,” she says. “We had no money to eat. It was very hard.”

Kuy married when she was 18, and had two children. 

She moved to Washington in 2003. After arriving in White Center, Kuy started going to night school to learn English. She also worked as a janitor during the day, to earn an income.

“I wanted freedom,” she says.

Her kids joined her three years later, and her mother followed in 2012. She is still trying to get her siblings here, all of whom are still in Cambodia.

Once she learned English and earned her cosmetology license, Kuy opened her own salon: Nary's Beauty Hair Salon. She says her customers are like family, often inviting her to birthday parties or dropping by the salon just to chat.

She started styling traditional Cambodian weddings in 2014, and also works nights as a janitor in West Seattle. This is how she supports her nieces and nephews in Cambodia, sending money to help with school, clothes and food.

“That’s why I work day and night, to support myself and support over there,” she says. “This life is not easy.”

Nary unlocks the salon door

Nary Kuy arrives at her salon to start her workday on Feb. 7, 2019.

Nary adjusts a dress

Nary Kuy dresses the bridal party before wedding festivities in Kent on July 27, 2019. Traditionally, Cambodian weddings last three days and three nights, though Kuy says in the U.S., most families stick with just one day. Either way, there are copious amounts of food and multiple outfit changes.

Nary fixes her hair in the mirror

Nary Kuy takes a moment to prepare for a workday at her salon before customers arrive on Feb. 7, 2019.

Nary cuts little boy's hair

Nary Kuy works on 5-year-old Sivatra Khim’s hair in her salon on Sept. 25, 2019. “My customers are like having more friends. They invite me to their birthday parties, too,” Kuy says.

Nary cleans in a bathroom

Nary Kuy works at her night job as a janitor at Swedish Medical Center in West Seattle on Feb. 20, 2019. Her workday starts at her salon at 10 a.m. and ends at the medical center at 2:30 a.m.

Nary fixes the bride's skirt

Bride and groom Bory Khun, center, and Chhonly Pin, receive final adjustments from Nary Kuy for wedding festivities in Kent on July 27, 2019. Kuy says the bride and groom are considered king and queen during the wedding. “I want them happy and beautiful,” she says.

Nary in her kitchen

Nary Kuy prepares food for a cookout in her White Center home on July 4, 2019. Her home is filled with Cambodian art and memories from her home country. 

Nary's hands working on a skirt

Nary Kuy makes final adjustments for the bride, Bory Khun, before the wedding festivities in Kent on July 27, 2019. Kuy says she feels as if she is back in her Cambodian home when she works on traditional Cambodian weddings.

Nary takes a photo from the front porch

With her phone, Nary Kuy takes photos of the wedding procession in Kent on July 27, 2019. “I miss home but I’m happy when I do weddings because it is like I am still there," she says.

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