Yes, there are dozens upon dozens of donuts in Alice Gu's enlightening documentary, "The Donut King." But there is more to the story of subject Ted Ngoy than just fried, sugary confections. Behind the cream filling, icing, and sprinkles is the story of immigrant families, and the American Dream.
According to Ted, he owned around 70 donut shops in California during the height of his success. In fact, he was such a powerful businessman, his stores kept Dunkin' Donuts from entering the marketplace. (He was trained by Winchell's Donut House and then "drank their milkshake," expanding his stores as Winchell's franchise shrank).
Gu addresses this history, but there is actually more at stake here. Ngoy is Cambodian and he was in Phnom Penh when it fell. He was fortunate to escape with his wife, two kids and some relatives, arriving in California where he and his family were housed in a refugee camp. After a month in the States, he was sponsored by a church and started working various jobs to provide for his family. At one job, at a gas station, he smelled donuts, and that led not just to him building an empire, but sponsoring other Cambodians to come to the States, and giving them jobs. He saved more than a hundred of families through his efforts.
"The Donut King" celebrates Ngoy's efforts at becoming a self-made man, but it also chronicles his conspicuous consumption — and not just of donuts. He bought a mansion, and threw parties, hosting a 52-person Cambodian dance troupe when they ran out of money during an U.S. tour.
Ngoy ran out of money, and Gu tells that story, too. But she also focuses on the younger generation whose parents worked 18-hour days, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year to provide a better life for them. Will the younger generation continue the family business? That is one of the interesting themes in "The Donut King."
Gu spoke with Salon about her documentary, donuts, and the American Dream.
Ted shaped an entire ethnic community. How did you learn about him and his rags-to-riches story?
I found out about Ted very organically. It was through a nanny that I had. My husband brought home high-end, bougie donuts, and we offered them to her, and she declined. She only eats Cambodian donuts. She found a Cambodian donut shop, and one day she brought them and we ate one and thought they were great. But it was a regular glazed donut. "Right," she said. "But it's a Cambodian donut." I asked, "Why is it Cambodian?" She said Cambodian people make it. I said, but if Cambodian people make it, it's still an American donut. She said, they are fresher, less sweet, and fluffier. I googled Cambodian donuts Los Angeles. All these articles come up about Ted Ngoy, the rags-to-riches story. This is why the boxes are pink, and why there is no Dunkin' Donuts on the West Coast. I was riveted.
I was riveted too! What are your thoughts about his character? He took risks to meet his wife. He did some great things, but he exploited his workers, disappointed his family, and self-destructed.
I've never met anybody like him in my life. He's quite the complex character. He kept me on my toes for two years. His story is amazing, and then you hear the other stories — he exploited all these people — there's a reason why he burned all these bridges. Ted is so charming and so likable and that's how he got successful, he's this hustler. As one interviewee in the film said, "Ted Ngoy could sell snow to an Eskimo." That's how smooth he is.
We were in Cambodia, and I couldn't find anything on this 52-person dance troupe. It was our last day, and I thought, what if he made this up? What if this isn't real? I said, "Do you remember the name of the troupe. Do you know anything?" Ted brought this guy over, and he was a kid in the dance troupe. He said, "Yes, I was a kid. Some guy who brought us over, lost all his money, and we were stranded, and Ted took us in. We played on his boat, swam in his pool. He took us to D.C., and we went to the White House and shook hands with President Bush. He took us to New York, and we saw Broadway shows." Ted paid for this all for 52 kids. The kid never forgot this. When Facebook started, Ted was the first person he looked up — he was this generous angel. Right when you think you have Ted figured out — maybe he was bulls**tting us — not only is it true, it's better than you thought it would be. My take on Ted is that he was a truly complex man. His intentions were good, but he was just a bit seduced by the power and the money. Too much power and too much money.
You assemble the film with a mix of interviews, history, archival footage, family photographs, animation, and more. Can you talk about how you visually approached the story that mixes the personal with the political?
We knew from the beginning that it would be a complicated edit, to weave all these stories together, because there was so much story we wanted to tell. We had to give enough historical context to show people what the stakes were. We had to show how untenable it was at home for him and he had to leave a country he didn't want to.
I like the tool when you use a small story to tell a bigger story. Peeling Ted's story back, there is so much more story we can tell. Using archival, and animation and pop culture elements — how pervasive donuts are in our culture. We never think of where they come from, or why they are there. They are thought of as an American food. It was so profound to me, that it's still an American donut right, if a Cambodian person makes it? What does it mean to be American or Cambodian? That was very profound to me. I'm American. When we started this two-and-a-half years ago, immigration and refugees were a pressing issue. We wanted to show how the most American confection is on the west coast, largely made by Cambodians.
One of the subtexts in your film is this idea of assimilation and community building. Can you talk about this aspect of the story, and how these immigrants adapt and chase the American Dream?
The idea of community . . . with the rhetoric that was going on two-and-a-half years ago, there is so much "other" and "this and them" and demonization of other at the time. I had it with haters, and I really wanted to tell a story of optimism and hope and the best of humanity. What happens when we support each other so we can all rise? One of these stories within that community was about xenophobia. In Orange County, in the 1970s, many people had not heard of Cambodia, or had seen an Asian person. People made fun of him and his accent. He was hurt by that. So how did he overcome that? Well, little by little, our store gets better, and we had more of a standing in the community and you donate to a little league game, and you get more accepted.
During the making of this film, there was a donut shop in Seal Beach, and the owner's wife got sick with cancer. His customers said you have to be with his wife. And the owner said, I'm the only one here. If I'm with my wife, you won't have donuts. I have to keep the shop open. And the entire community of Seal Beach decided, let's help him out. If we sell him out of donuts by 9 a.m. every day, he can close his shop and be with his wife. And they did that every day for a month. The kindness of community and the positive things that can happen when people come together is incredible. This is the same community that a couple decades early made fun of him for his language.
There is a discussion of how many of these Cambodian immigrant families are victims of their own success; their strong work ethic is why they provide a better life to their kids in the United States, but the kids don't always want to run the businesses they benefitted from. What observations do you have about this trend?
While we made the film, an article came up in the New York Times about Chinese restaurants in New York. It's super hard work. Donut stores are open 24 hours or at 5 a.m. so you have to start baking at 1 or 2 in the morning. It's pretty unglamorous. They do that because they don't have many options when they arrive here. Their English is not that good. You can work hard, and you can survive. They save, save, save. They want the best for their kids, who get educated, and their kids get a degree in Marketing and work for Facebook and Apple. They don't want to be slinging 40-pound bags of flour and waking up at 1 in the morning. But a couple of the kids can't quite let it go. One kid, whose parents were going to sell the shop, went to go work in it. But he does have a marketing degree and was raised here, and he is innovative and very savvy on social media. The donut shop evolves. DKs is still in a strip mall, but it has 86,000 Instagram followers.
Many of the subjects in the film are surprised they worked at donut shops. There has been an emphasis on innovation — from cronuts to the poop emoji donut. How do you think the donut has changed since Ted opened his first store?
You can't just survive being that corner store anymore. The kids do not want to work at the Mom and Pop shops. The owners are getting old and not on Instagram and can't drive business. It's a different culture and a different generation. Those stores are going the way of the dodo. The kids who are innovating are able to compete with donuts as a treat or Instagramable. They have to find food that is beautiful to have a leg up over the competition. Donuts are not just two donuts and coffee for breakfast. That kind of innovation is limitless. On the west side of LA where every stereotype is true, there is a donut for every diet trend, the paleo donut, the vegan donut, the keto donut.
Your film appreciates the long hours and hard work of these mom and pop stores. What do you think about how the Cambodian Donut Empire competes and wins against chains?
It's really incredible this David and Goliath component to the story. This unlikely group of Cambodian immigrants fighting off the giant, Dunkin' Donuts. They operate on such low overhead. They have resentful kids as employees, but they aren't paying out much. They themselves do the hard work. They keep the costs so low. They find every way to save costs, including reusing and washing coffee stir sticks. When I spoke with Bob Rosenberg of Dunkin, they have such a huge operation and marketing expenses. They needed to gross so much money per store and had too much competition. The Cambodians had cemented themselves in their communities.
Ted's favorite donut is the glazed donut. What is your favorite, and how many donuts do you estimate having eaten during the making of this film?
We ate numerous donuts during the filming of "The Donut King." I'm also a purist, my favorite donut is the glazed donut. But what was new to me and actually an out of body experience for me was a fresh buttermilk bar, 30 seconds out of the fire and glazed. It's indescribable. We were at the shop, and they asked if I wanted one, and I said, "Nah, I'm good." She cut it into quarters. I had a quarter, and then I didn't share the rest. It was that good.
"The Donut King" is in theaters and virtual cinemas beginning Friday, Oct. 30.
It's also the closing night film at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, where it will be screening LIVE on Nov. 15 at 6:30PM followed by a Q&A.