The Donut King: a film about Cambodians interpreted by a Cambodian
November 1, 2020
Guest post by Julia Hok, student at Stanford University
As Alice Gu intended, The Donut King accurately shares a refugee success story in a time when refugees are usually associated with tragedy, and, at the bare minimum, it definitely leaves you knowing more about donuts than you ever expected. As a first-generation daughter of Cambodian refugees myself, I had a variety of thoughts about this film. While they were all supplemented from my prior knowledge about my own community, I believe this is significant in giving me a personal perspective on the film.
First and foremost, I overall enjoyed The Donut King. At its heart, it was about a story that I felt greatly deserved to be known for its historical significance, and I appreciated how it served to elevate my community that has for so long been, and still is, marginalized, misunderstood, underrepresented, and overall unknown by the general population. Furthermore, as I watched the evolution of Cambodian donut shops in Southern California, I saw beauty not only in the intimacy and art of the interviews, in the mode of first-person storytelling, but also the resilience of the Cambodian immigrant community.
In explaining the history of the Vietnam War and Cambodian Genocide, I believe the film did a decent job. I felt it effectively exposed to the general public the essence of what it means to be Cambodian, how war formulates our existences and how the refugee work ethic is derived; I found myself relating my own family to the families in the film on the shared experiences of hardship during and after the war. Yet, while this means to me a perfect encapsulation of the Cambodian immigrant experience, it is such because it is perfectly palatable. While I felt seen as a Cambodian, it felt similar to being physically perceived from an outside lens. This was because of what my other fellow Southeast Asian peers and I realized to be the highlighting of the “American Dream” and the glorification of bootstrapping. From within, this sentiment is held strongly within the Cambodian immigrant community. Yet, from without, this glorification also leads to issues where damage can be done in perpetuating what is known to be model minority myth. While work ethic is a significant quality of immigrant communities as a whole, the model minority myth does not recognize the class differences and privileges within each community, and even though it was shown that Ngoy had pursued his wife partially to attain economic mobility, I wish the film directly addressed the effect of differing economic statuses when it came to immigration.
Furthermore, I noticed some holes in representation, one being that a majority of the interviewees did not actually speak Khmer, but Mandarin or a Chinese dialect. The Khmer population in its entirety is not homogenous, and I personally am still learning about the historical past of ancestrally-Chinese Cambodians, yet this topic itself was not addressed in the film. I wonder if Gu was aware of this, and if she wasn’t, would she have chosen to highlight different stories? Additionally, in one of the climactic scenes showing Ted Ngoy’s “resurgence,” the song
choice seemed to be a missed opportunity. Playing in the background of dramatic and delightful shots of Ngoy was “Angel’s Prayer” by Ty Burhoe, a song with Hindi lyrics and written by an artist renowned for his work in classical Indian music. On one hand, I felt the song was beautifully spiritual and fitting to the pace of the scene. On the other hand, I was overcome with confusion because I was hearing a language that was not Khmer but one that I did not understand. I expected there to be a soundtrack full of traditional Khmer music, but instead there seemed to be only one amidst a slew of modern English tracks: “Rom Changvak (A Go Go)” by Pen Ron. If the intention was to commemorate the past of the Cambodian refugee, where was the Cambodian music?
All in all, seeing how Alice Gu was not Khmer but Chinese made sense to me. As a non-Cambodian person, one would not have as much cultural knowledge as someone who’s actually of the culture, and I am still thankful for the representation that was still given. With the critiques made, I hope they provoke thought and inspiration for improvement, especially since it is from a perspective that is directly centered within the community that is spotlighted. In the end, I was happy hearing that my non-Cambodian friends felt they learned a lot about my background after watching this film, and I still have a sense of pride knowing that at least people can appreciate Cambodians for what they’ve contributed to our nation in the form of pink-boxed donuts.