In 1975, Ted Ngoy was working as a gas station attendant when he suddenly noticed the delicious smells coming from a nearby donut shop. Curious, he approached the counter and ordered his very first donut, the glorious pastry instantly reminding him of nom kong, a similar treat from his home country of Cambodia. Just four years after this moment of love at first bite, Ted owned 25 donut shops and began sponsoring families who, like him, had survived the Cambodian Civil War and its horrific aftermath. This was a man who strived for the “American dream” and seemed to achieve it, only to later lose it all in one fell swoop.
A fascinating story that some critics have called Shakespearean in its nature, The Donut King chronicles Ted’s rise and fall wonderfully, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was so much more to this documentary than I expected. While Ted is the main focus, his journey is positioned as a lens to explore such matters as immigration, generational legacies, entrepreneurship, as well as the forgotten history of the Cambodian Civil War.
A vital piece of Ted’s story, this vicious eight-year war between the insurgents Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s government forced the Ngoy family and thousands of others to come to the US – and yet, despite America’s involvement in the war, I can’t recall ever learning about this moment in history, a fact that Ted’s niece Susan Wahid remarks on in the film: “You would think by now most people would know about Cambodia, would know about the genocide, would know about all the killing, but there are a lot of customers, my customers, they approach me, or I approach them, talking about Cambodia and they have no clue where it is!”
After the Khmer Rouge won the war, Cambodians thought their suffering was over but they quickly learned how wrong they were. The Khmer Rouge sealed off the country from the outside world, forcibly migrated everyone out of any major cities and into rural labor camps, and killed over a million people through famine, executions, and more. As the Red Cross began helping the Cambodians in 1979, the US took in thousands of refugees and Ted began sponsoring what eventually became over 100 families. With Ted’s support, many of these families learned the donut business and started their own shops. Today, out of the 5,000 independent donut shops in California, 90% are owned by Cambodians — and it all started with Ted. As someone in the film said, “He established a path for Cambodian refugees to actually have an opportunity in America.”
According to Jennifer Lee, an associate professor in sociology and an affiliated faculty member of Asian American Studies and the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society at IU:
“With limited job opportunities available to them, Cambodian newcomers, like many Asian immigrants and refugees, looked to the ethnic economy for employment in the United States. Sociologist Ivan Light introduced the idea of the ‘ethnic economy’ in reference to an ethnic group’s self-employed and employers and their co-ethnic employees.(i) The ‘enclave economy hypothesis’ proposes that ethnic solidarity in the labor market can help immigrants.(ii) Research suggests that self-employment in the ethnic economy is beneficial for immigrants because it can provide equal or greater returns to education and other forms of human capital compared to other jobs that they would otherwise have.(iii) In addition, the ethnic economy serves as a training system of sorts — newcomers can take up work in an immigrant-owned business and gain skills and experiences to eventually start their own business.(iv)”
For Ted’s family and friends, owning a donut shop wasn’t just about an income: it was about providing a better life for themselves and, most importantly, their children. As the years have gone by, these shops have been passed on to the next generation, who have to continually reinvent their businesses in order to compete against chain stores like Starbucks. Mayly Tao, for instance, revitalized her family’s Santa Monica shop by capitalizing on social media and crazes like the cronut. “These family-owned businesses have been able to survive, and in fact thrive, despite the rapid expansion of Dunkin’ Donuts in recent years,” Jennifer Lee says, “but how they survive the pandemic remains to be seen. Because of the racialization of COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Kung Flu,’ Asian-owned businesses have been hit especially hard. Asian American-owned business activity dropped by 26% from February to April 2020.(v) And with the rapid rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since March of last year, it is putting even more strain on Asian business owners.(vi)”
With its pop sensibility and occasional use of animation, The Donut King is entertaining and fun, but there is also a poignancy to it that made me realize the film is a testament to the bravery, strength, and perseverance of immigrants like Ted. As William Mimiaga reminds us in his interview, the Cambodian refugees “lost their country. That doesn’t leave you.” The trauma of that experience is still fresh for so many in this film, but their determination and courage to prevail in the wake of such trauma left me feeling awed. For me, The Donut King is not just a delightful confection of a documentary; it is also a thoughtful love letter to the human spirit.
The facts and statistics from the following sources were generously compiled by Jennifer Lee. Thank you, Jennifer!
i) Light, I. H., & Paden, J. N. (1973). Ethnic enterprise in America: Business and welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks. Univ of California Press.
ii) Wilson, K. L., & Portes, A. (1980). Immigrant enclaves: An analysis of the labor market experiences of Cubans in Miami. American journal of sociology, 86(2), 295-319.
iii) Portes, A., & Zhou, M. (1996). Self-Employment and the Earnings of Immigrants. American Sociological Review, 61(2), 219-230; Zhou, M., & Logan, J. R. (1989). Returns on human capital in ethic enclaves: New York City’s Chinatown. American sociological review, 809-820.
iv) Bailey, T., & Waldinger, R. (1991). Primary, secondary, and enclave labor markets: A training systems approach. American Sociological Review, 432-445.
On March 25 at 7 pm, join IU Cinema for a virtual introduction and screening of The Donut King as part of the Movement: Asian/Pacific America series and the International Arthouse Series. This special virtual event is presented in partnership with the Asian Culture Center and the Asian American Studies Program.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.