The Donut King

M, 99 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Once during the spectacular rise of doughnut entrepreneur, Bun Tek Ngoy, his chain of fast-food outlets in West Coast USA was more than 75%-owned by Cambodian refugees, just like him. In fact, he had sponsored many of them to enter the business by getting their own franchise for selling two donuts and a cup of coffee to Californians to help kickstart their day.

It was remarkable. Once he was US-based, Ngoy helped transform the lives of Cambodian refugees by paving the way for them to set up their own doughnut shops and become a success just like him. During the late 1970s, tens of thousands of Cambodians in flight from the evil Khmer Rouge regime in their homeland, were desperate for a new life in a land of opportunity. How strange it must have been for many who Ngoy helped set up to realise that many of their customers actually had no idea where Cambodia was.

This documentary is directed by Alice Gu, originally a cinematographer, who co-wrote, produced and handled the camera here. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is well placed to tell the story of a Cambodian refugee of Chinese ethnicity who did great in his adopted home­ until his good fortune ended abruptly. In the mid-1980s Ngoy was a rags-to-riches story in the media, until a gambling obsession overtook him and the tagline reversed to ‘riches to rags’. The Donut King documents this rise and fall.

Welcomed by Republican President Gerald Ford, the Democrat Governor of California wasn’t quite so pleased

The backstory in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years, related in a substantial amount of archival footage, is a reminder of the tragic history that backgrounds this story of a multi-million-dollar empire built on American’s favourite pastry. The animated sequences by Andrew Hem that also progress these parts of the narrative do help deflect a sombre mood that is unavoidably engendered by recounting the Cambodian experience.

Ngoy managed to escape just as Phnom Penh was falling and brought his wife, Suganthini, and their three children to America in the mid-1970s. The family were among the many tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees flown to the US and welcomed by Republican President Gerald Ford. The Democrat Governor of California wasn’t quite so pleased.

Former army major Ngoy tried his hand at various jobs, including gas attendant, until he was drawn into a doughnut store by a delicious aroma. His favourite doughnut remains the glazed variety. He subsequently joined a three-month management training program at Winchell’s, which was the top Californian doughnut business at the time.

When the Ngoys acquired their own franchise, they funnelled all their energies, and that of their three children, into the business that offered doughtnuts 24/7. Interviews with the Ngoy’s grown-up children testify to the tough regime of 18-20 hour days, seven days a week. Dunkin Donuts, on the other side of the country, ‘gave up’ trying to enter the West Coast market, once Ngoy’s business was roaring along.

It wasn’t long after he had reached giddy heights, that he had begun to reverse his fortunes drastically

Ted Ngoy in The Donut King. Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment

I’ve never really got doughtnuts, myself. If you feel the same way, there is plenty of interview material that throws light on the doughnut craze, particularly the comments by food and culture commentator, Greg Nichols.

Bun Tek and Suganthini changed their names to Ted and Christy, then Ted received a reward that was presented by the President in person. Gerald Ford, seen affirming that America is built on the efforts of its immigrants, was a great advocate for America accepting refugees, not welcomed by all.

It is sad to see Ted Ngoy, now 77 years, has become a chastened man, reminiscing how he was drawn to doughnuts because they reminded him of Cambodian ‘nom kong’ all those years ago. It wasn’t long after he had reached giddy heights, that he had begun to reverse his fortunes drastically. Why?

At least he can relate with pride how he sponsored more than 100 Cambodian families to the US, and though there are some mixed feelings in his own community about him now, his story is a powerful example of how immigrants have helped shape the US. As they have Australia.

The Donut King is replete with lively, energetic characters and important social history, but I think the filmmaker could have drawn more insight from her material into the American Dream.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes