'Donut King' Ted Ngoy's Life Is Even Crazier Than The Documentary About Him
Nearly every independent donut shop in every Southern California mini-mall hides a story — and many of them start with an unlikely impresario, a Cambodian refugee named Ted Ngoy. In the 1980s and '90s, when Dunkin' Donuts tried to establish itself on the West Coast, his frosted, deep-fried empire sent the company packing. Then, he lost it all.
Ngoy's epic rags-to-riches-to-rags story has been chronicled before (in the Los Angeles Times, the Phnom Penh Post and California Sunday, to name a few outlets), but Alice Gu is the first to put it on film.
Gu's documentary, The Donut King, chronicles Ngoy's thrill-of-victory/agony-of-defeat rollercoaster ride through the American Dream — immigration, capitalism, history, hubris, romance, addiction, family and food.
Few foods are as universally adored as fried dough. The United States alone is home to more than 25,000 donut shops and they produce more than 10 billion donuts each year. Gu didn't know about any of that before she started developing this project.
A cinematographer who has worked on commercials and movies with Rory Kennedy, Werner Herzog and Stacy Peralta, she stumbled onto the subject after her nanny brought her some "Cambodian doughnuts."
"I was like, 'What on earth makes this Cambodian? This tastes like any other glazed donut,'" Gu says. "And she says, 'Because Cambodian people make them.'"
After a little research, Gu discovered that a huge number of California's independent donut shops, maybe 80-90%, are owned by Cambodian Americans, mostly thanks to Ngoy. She was hooked.
In less than two years, while working on other jobs and projects, Gu directed and shot the 94-minute documentary. The Donut King comes out Friday, Oct. 30, online, and when you buy a ticket, some of the dough (see what we did there?) goes to your local theater.
How It All Started
Gu first needed to find Ted Ngoy but she had no idea how to do it. One day in 2018, she cold-called DK's Donuts in Santa Monica. She was lucky that Mayly Tao, whose mom, Chuong Lee, owns the shop, answered the phone.
"This friendly voice picks up the phone, a young voice in that perfectly American accented English. I gave her my spiel, and she said, 'Well, you've called the right person. Ted is my great uncle,'" Gu says.
"When Alice called me, she described something that I have always wanted to tell but never thought that it would get picked up anywhere," Tao says. "Growing up, when you look on the screen, there's not a lot of Asian representation. Just knowing that my great uncle Ted and the story of my parents and hearing Alice say, 'I want to really dig deep on a Cambodian doughnut shop,' I was like, 'Wow, this is real. This is going to happen.'"
Tao did everything in her power to help Gu. Most crucially, she acted as something of an ambassador for Gu, introducing her to other donut shop proprietors and vouching for her.
Two days after Gu's out-of-the-blue call to DK's Donuts, she was talking to Ngoy in Cambodia.
"He was a little uneasy," Gu says. "'You want to tell my story? I'm not famous. Why would anybody be interested in my story?' I said, 'Because it's incredible, for one. What you've done is incredible.' But it was really the immigrant story. It was helping his community and it was a bit of a cautionary tale."
Six weeks later, Gu and her producer, José Nuñez, were on a plane to Cambodia where they spent three days interviewing Ngoy and shooting B-roll. Gu realized his story was also an epic romance.
He Almost Died For Love
In The Donut King, we learn that a teenage Ted won over his wife, Christy (née Suganthini), by spending 45 straight days laying under her bed. Yes, you read that right.
The two had met as teenage classmates in Phnom Penh. Ted was a poor boy from a poor family while Christy was the daughter of a high-ranking official. Her parents wanted nothing to do with him. So Ngoy snuck into her family's heavily guarded compound and climbed through her bedroom window. We learn, in the documentary, that after Ted revealed his presence to Christy, he hid under her bed until he was eventually discovered and her family allowed them be together. The details that aren't in the movie even much crazier.
According to Tao, the servants caught on to Ted's presence after a few days but didn't say anything. Nevertheless, Christy's parents eventually discovered the ruse and were furious. She ended up threatening to starve herself, saying, "If you won't let me be with him, I'm not going to eat."
Gu says Christy's family then threatened to kill Ted but his mother made a deal with them. Christy's parents said they would let Ted live if he told Christy that he was a dog who had romanced other girls and had never loved her. To make sure he went through with it, they insisted on hiding behind a curtain while he said his spiel.
According to Gu, Christy's family brought her into the room and Ted started reciting his speech.
"He's like, 'You know what? I'm no good. I never loved you.' And he said he saw her heart break before his very eyes. He had hidden a dagger and he took it out and stabbed himself three times. He was bleeding out and her parents were like, 'Oh, God. Don't die. Okay, you guys can...' It was a whole Romeo and Juliet story," Gu says.
She thought it might have been a tall tale, "But when I was in Cambodia, [Ted] lifted his shirt and I saw the puncture wounds," Gu adds.
Coming To America
In the early 1970s, Cambodia was in the midst of a brutal civil war that displaced two million people, more than a quarter of the country's population. Ted, Christy and their two kids fled to Thailand. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, they knew they couldn't go home.
That same year, President Gerald Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, allowing 130,000 people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to come to the U.S.
California's Governor at the time, Jerry Brown, opposed the move, saying, in a clip that's featured in The Donut King, "When we have a million people out of work, when we have our own people taxed to the hilt, I'm just very slow to just open the floodgates and say come on in unless we provide a way to put Americans to work."
Along with thousands of other Cambodian refugees, the Ngoys ended up at Camp Pendleton. Peace Lutheran Church in Tustin sponsored the family, allowing them to live in the church where Ted worked as a janitor. He took two additional jobs, working almost 24 hours per day.
One night, during his shift at a gas station, the scent of freshly baked goods wafted toward him. He ran to the shop across the street where he bought a donut. It was love at first bite.
Living The Dream
Ted soon got a job working at Winchell's, which was then the dominant donut chain on the West Coast. After completing the company's training program, they gave him the keys to a store in Newport Beach.
The entire family — Christy and the three kids — worked alongside him. Long hours. Hard work. No days off.
By 1976, Ted had saved up enough money to buy his own shop, which he named Christy's. The family also still had the Winchell's so now they had two stores to run.
As word of Ted's success spread, Cambodian immigrants started seeking him out when they arrived in Southern California. Over the years, he says he sponsored more than 100 Cambodian families that wanted to come to the U.S. He paid for their airfare and, when they arrived, "Uncle Ted" let them stay at his house while he taught them the ropes of the donut business.
Ted was the consummate schmoozer and salesman. He bought donut shop after donut shop, leasing them to other Cambodian immigrants, who ran the stores with their families, and taking a monthly cut of each store's profits. You see some of these families and their stores in The Donut King — Mag's Donuts in Irvine, BC Donuts in Pasadena, Rose Donuts and Cafe in San Clemente and, of course, DK's Donuts in Santa Monica.
At the peak of his success, Ted owned something like 65 donut stores — many of them named Christy's — and was bringing in about $100,000 per month.
The ubiquity and low overhead of these Cambodian mom-and-pop donut shops helped drive Dunkin' Donuts out of California in the late '90s. Aside from what the Los Angeles Times called "a short-lived comeback in Sacramento in 2002," the Massachusetts-based company didn't return to the Golden State until 2014.
Ted Ngoy was reaping rewards of that success. All that money paid for expensive clothes, luxury cars, fancy trips and an opulent home in Mission Viejo. But with great riches come great temptations.
On one of his Las Vegas trips, Ngoy took up gambling. It was small amounts first but he was soon blowing bigger figures and he couldn't seem to stop.
Perpetually in need of cash, he'd ask the people running his donut shops for loans. Since many of them had gotten their start in the business — and the United States — thanks to Ngoy, they were happy to help. When he couldn't pay them back because he had gambled the money away, Ted signed away his ownership stake in those stores. One by one, Ted lost all of his donut shops.
Broke, Ted and Christy returned to Cambodia.
Where Are They Now?
Gu is working on developing a couple of music-themed film projects, both documentaries and narratives. One involves reggae and another focuses on Puerto Rican musicians.
Ted and Christy are divorced. Christy has remarried and lives in Lake Forest, not far from their three adult children, who all live in Orange County.
Ted resides in Cambodia where he splits his time between Phnom Pen and Kep, a province in Southern Cambodia that's famous for its crab fishing industry. "Ted, again, is Mr. Nine Lives. He has found his way to be wealthy again. Now, he is in real estate development," Gu says.
Chuong Lee, who has run DK's Donuts since 1988, is officially retired although she occasionally helps out at the shop.
Her daughter, Mayly Tao, has taken over the reigns of DK's. After earning a communications degree at UC San Diego, Tao worked for a while at a news station but wasn't enthused about that career path. At loose ends, she returned to Los Angeles and, once again, started helping with the family business.
Over the last few years, Tao has rebranded the shop with a colorful, hot pink logo and experimented in the kitchen, producing eye-catching, Instagram-friendly creations and original flavors.
"I came back to L.A. and I didn't know that I was going to create this crazy explosion in the business. I always thought of it as a Plan B to come back and now, it has become the Plan A — and more," Tao says.
COVID-19 has hit her store — and most other shops — hard. If there's anything she wants people who watch The Donut King to know, it's that this seemingly simple treat has a deeper cultural resonance.
"I'd want [people] to know about not only the journey of the donut itself but the story of the people behind it, the people making the doughnuts," Tao says. Oh, and stop for a donut and say "hi."