After reading the autobiography of Ted Ngoy titled “The Donut King” I was delighted to see there is now a documentary of the same name and its executive producer was Ridley Scott so there must have been some serious money behind its production.
Ted Ngoy was a Cambodian military officer in a non-combat position that was training troops in Thailand. While the Khmer Rouge were about to capture the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh as it was collapsing, he managed to grab a flight on a military plane out of the capital to join his family in Thailand. With $3,000 in their pockets they made it to a refugee camp at Camp Pendleton in California along with 50,000 other Cambodians. America under Ford and Carter were much kinder than the United States of today.
Ngor’s sponsor was a pastor at a Lutheran Church where he worked for $500 a week as a custodian until he obtained a job pumping gas. Then one evening he smelt the most fragrant smell wafting over the gas station. It was from a 24-hour donut shop so bingo a light went off in his head that perhaps selling donuts, which reminded him of one of his favourite Cambodian cakes, was his ticket to the American Dream.
So he took a three month training course at Winchell’s donuts a Californian mega donut chain and they were so impressed they gave him his own store to manage. So with gruelling tenacity he built up the donut shop’s book of business and then left to start up his own shop. California was a great beneficiary of the 1955 US Highway Act and the drive-in culture of California launched the donut business to new heights. In California today there is one donut shop per 7,000 people while in the rest of the United Staters it is 1 for every 30,000 people.
Ngoy opened many donut shops using cheap Cambodian labour of other Cambodians wanting to make the American dream. Then he started leasing donut shops sponsoring many Cambodian refugees. His great legacy is that of the 5,000 or so donut shops in California 90% are owned by Cambodians.
By 1985 Ngoy was making over $100,000 a month and had a net worth of close to 25 million. Therefore he earned the name Donut King and lived like a king until that fateful day he visited Las Vegas and was drawn into the life of a high roller loser losing the shirt off his back admittedly cheating the Cambodian Donut crowd shabbily even forging signatures to fuel his gambling addiction. His wife divorced him and believe it or not he resurged into the donut business a second time making and losing yet another fortune a fact the book reveals but the movie does not. I seem to recall from reading his book after being disgraced he returned to liberated Cambodia for some land development deals and did eventually return to the United States where many forgave him harkening back to the fact he gave them a start.
While the book was more focused on Ngoy the documentary pays more attention to the cloistered Cambodian donut community and the choice many of the sons and daughters of successful donut shop owners about working in the family shop or using their higher education in a more prestigious workplace. Many did stay revolutionizing the conservative Cambodian donut clique with new packaging, new donuts, donut festivals and of course the cronut.
This is not only an interesting documentary about the American Dream but a snapshot of American and Cambodian history and what it takes as a small operator to make the American Dream happen. It is also a warning about the dangers of gambling.
For $9.99 you can see the film here until the end of 2020 https://watch.eventive.org/filmswelike
You can catch the trailer here https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-norton-ext_onb&hsimp=yhs-ext_onb&hspart=norton&p=the+donut+king+trailer#id=2&vid=9690e83ddbb852f1cefe745dad09b3fd&action=click
Directed, written and produced by Alice Gu.