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War. Romance. Family. Immigration. Entrepreneurship. Politics. Gambling. Betrayal. Tragedy. Doughnuts. Wait, what?
Yes, lots and lots of doughnuts. The story behind the documentary “The Donut King” is large and it contains multitudes.
Directed by Alice Gu, the movie details how one man, Bun Tek “Ted” Ngoy, built a sugary, deep-fried dynasty, revealing both the promise and the pitfalls of the American dream.
Gu wraps Ngoy’s immigrant tale in that of California doughnut culture, though the stories eventually prove to be inseparable. The filmmaker deftly moves backward and forward in time to chronicle Ngoy’s remarkable journey from war-torn Cambodia to the strip malls of Orange County while becoming a multimillionaire.
Simple animation and eclectic music provide a confectionery dusting to the interviews with Ngoy, his family and doughnut industry executives (it’s a thing!). The visually satisfying preparation and display of the sumptuous pastries deliver an inviting illustration of the work involved in running a neighborhood doughnut shop.
Emerging from the post-war economic boom and the rise of the automobile, the two-doughnuts-and-a-coffee breakfast became a staple of the fast food landscape and Southern California was a natural locale for a high concentration of these emporiums of glazed and powdered pleasure. While Dunkin’ Donuts ruled the Northeast United States, Winchell’s initially dominated the West.
But in 1975, Cambodian army major Ngoy, his wife, Suganthini (soon to be Christy), their three children, a nephew and two cousins landed at Camp Pendleton with 50,000 others as part of a refugee program. (In archival footage, it’s interesting to see President Gerald Ford, a Republican, expound upon the importance of immigrants while California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, questions the wisdom of taking in refugees when the state was already saddled with 1 million unemployed workers.)
A church in Tustin sponsored Ngoy and his family, and one night while working as a gas station attendant, he smelled something delicious. He followed the scent to a nearby doughnut shop and it was love at first bite. He was soon training as a baker at a Winchell’s in La Mirada before being given a store to manage on Balboa Peninsula. With Ted baking, Christy handling the counter and the kids helping out, the Ngoys soon saved enough to buy their own shop for $45,000 in 1976.
Ngoy proved to be a shrewd businessman — he’d been a payroll specialist in the army — and by 1979 he owned 25 shops and was on his way to becoming a legend. Fascinating details emerge such as how those pink boxes became the ubiquitous regional symbol of doughnuts and how he and Christy learned washing and reusing wooden stir sticks was frowned upon.
In the meantime, those left behind in Cambodia, including Ngoy family members, endured the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge, with more than a million people slaughtered and others forced into labor camps. Following the invasion by Vietnam, more Cambodian refugees came to the U.S., and Ngoy sponsored more than 100 families, allowing dozens to own their own shops through an inventive leasing program.
The system benefited both the new immigrants and Ngoy as his wealth increased to a reported $20 million and cut into Winchell’s market share. At one time, there were reportedly more than 5,000 independent doughnut shops in California, with up to 80% owned by Cambodians. That one man’s success begot so much opportunity for so many others is an amazing saga.
And unknown to most, that saga had a dark side. A fateful trip to Las Vegas in 1977 planted the seed that led to a Shakespearean reversal of fortune in which Ngoy lost everything. “The Donut King” glides past certain details of Ngoy’s downfall, preferring to focus on the current generation of Cambodian doughnut makers who, despite many others leaving the business, follow gourmet trends, discuss branding and use social media to tout their wares.
The documentary eventually circles back, connecting Ngoy to this legacy. Proud of his achievements, humbled by his failings, at 77, he is a man with regrets but seemingly content to live out his days in peace. In a way, Ngoy was gambling all along, the difference being that in the doughnut game his hard work and ingenuity allowed him to beat the odds; in the casinos, he was playing against a stacked deck.
And despite the film’s cautionary nature, you will crave doughnuts. Lots and lots of doughnuts. Although the king has fallen, the kingdom still stands.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.