The Donut King and Ted Ngoy’s Empire
October 29, 2020
Guest post by Jasmine Nguyen, student at Stanford University
Located under clear skies and California sun, Santa Monica’s DK Donuts rests in between a nest of shops in relative normalcy. I passed by the store in an Uber just a few weeks ago and did not think much of it, other than that I liked the eye-catching, bubblegum pink colors of its signs, noting the trail of customers that stood outside its doors. Little did I know that the shop had a long history tied into the Vietnam War, Cambodian refugees, and the American dream.
The Donut King is a documentary directed by Alice Gu that covers the life of Ted Ngoy, one of the primary reasons behind the Cambodian American donut shop boom. The film details how Ngoy fled Cambodia with his family during the Vietnam War and later went on to build a donut shop empire, only to lose it all because of a gambling addiction. Both a heart wrenching and inspiring true story, the documentary covers the rise and fall of Ted Ngoy, and a legacy that is still felt today.
Watching the film, I ultimately had mixed feelings regarding Ngoy and his perspectives on America. On one hand, I was inspired by his work ethic and ability to transition from his role as a janitor living out of a church to a multimillionaire with a home that held its own personal elevator. The detailing of Ngoy’s and the other Cambodian refugees’ journey was hard not to admire; watching the constant struggle of working seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day struck a chord with me, as it reminded me of my own grandfather’s toil as a refugee himself.
My family’s history is also deeply intertwined with war, having fled Vietnam in the late 1970s as a result of the Northern Vietnamese victory. They came to America with similar attitudes as Ngoy, promising me the ability to rise to success if I followed “the right steps.” Put into a stereotypical “tiger mom” type of setting, my parents pushed me to study hard and work late into the night until I had produced some type of success. Now, as a first-generation and low income college student studying at Stanford University, I have made my parents proud. Ngoy’s story reinforced these feelings of accomplishment and pride, uplifting ideas of social mobility.
On the other hand, I was mildly worried about his rhetoric regarding the United States, which was actually reminiscent of my parents’ discussions with me. Ngoy often idealized it and gloated about its bountiful opportunities– the “American dream.” My own family raised me telling me I was lucky for the US intervention and ability to immigrate from Vietnam to America. What was left out of the narrative, however, was the discussion of US imperialism and intervention in the war that led to the fleeing of Ngoy and his family in the first place. I also questioned the message of the meritocracy that was being delivered throughout the film. To what extent is social mobility truly legitimate given the broken capitalist systems of America? To what extent is Ngoy’s success attainable in the modern-day USA? When looking at my own successes, how many of my achievements can I credit to hard work versus pure luck?
Even with luck largely at play, however, I understand that Ngoy did work to attain his empire and had a certain charm in doing so. I admired the way in which Ngoy gave back to his community, specifically other Cambodian refugees as a form of building ethnic capital. In fact, watching his growth inspired me to give back to my own communities in the future, and gave me hope that I have the power to make change and aid those I love. Ngoy’s eventual losses felt personal to me by the end of the film, as I had grown attached to Ngoy and his story. The stories embedded in the film were done skillfully, as to where I myself pictured myself in the shoes of those speaking. One scene in particular that stood out to me was when Ngoy’s son recounted being dropped off at an arcade with $20 in his pocket, left by his father, who had gone off to gamble. Ngoy’s wife, Christy, went searching for him, only for Ngoy to hide behind a slot machine. It was in this moment that I felt the true loss and pity for those who had misplaced trust in him and lost because of it; I felt for Christy, Ngoy’s wife, and each of his children.
Aside from this scene, however, I also remember the picture of the small children waking up at five in the morning to help their parents run their donut shops, when darkness still seeped through the windows and the world was quiet. Little fingers kneading dough, laughter, struggle, love, and sweat; these were all keenly depicted throughout the documentary as it discussed the growth of these shops as beacons of hope for recent Cambodian Americans. Now, I find myself looking upon mom and pop donut shops with a sense of respect and awe. Tomorrow morning, I plan to try DK Donuts for myself during my morning stroll past the various plazas and apartment complexes lining the streets of Santa Monica. With a delicious range of options from ube bacon to vegan matcha green tea, I am excited to get a taste of the donut that started it all.