Sugar coated: Cambodian refugees chase the American dream in The Donut King

Streaming (Violet Crown Cinema) Streaming (Violet Crown Cinema)

Every chapter of American history, every aspect of American culture, and every American industry has been shaped by immigration. This is more than a political talking point. It’s a concrete reality, and nowhere is it clearer than in the story of the Cambodian influence in the donut industry. Alice Gu’s new documentary The Donut King chronicles the rise of unlikely mogul Ted Ngoy, and his lasting effect on the community he built and the confections we consume.

Ngoy came to the United States in 1975 with his wife and children, as refugees from the Cambodian civil war. He wandered over to a donut shop while on break from his job pumping gas, and fell in love. He immediately began training at the nearby chain, putting in long hours and eventually opening his own shop. Taking little money for himself and employing his family, he kept costs low and profits high, allowing him to open other stores. As the Cambodian civil war gave way to genocide by the Khmer Rouge, Ngoy used his success to allow more refugees to land on their feet in an unfamiliar country, leasing new shops to them and using his business as a template. Before long, the Cambodian presence in the California donut industry was so powerful that even Dunkin’ Donuts saw no inroads in the 1980s.

The Donut King is Gu’s first feature as a director, and she is keenly aware of the challenges of telling a story with such fluctuations in tone. This is a tale worth telling, but it’s not easy to balance images of a cute family-owned donut shop beloved by a community with one of the most horrendous events of the 20th century.

Gu is aided by her experience as a camera operator and cinematographer, capturing her subjects in their respective elements without judgment or affectation. She takes a light approach to the topic of donuts, employing colorful imagery and silly songs. But when it comes to the immigrant experience, business ownership, war refugees, or familial bonds, the subjects tell their own stories.

Gu’s light touch gives her interviews a human touch that escapes many documentaries, but it also makes one aspect of the story a little uneven. Without revealing too much, it’s helpful to think of achieving the American dream as the first chapter in a story, rather than the story itself. It’s a long fall if you leave yourself unprotected and don’t watch your step, and those who climb the highest and fastest can be victims of their own success. One of the most important events in the Ngoy family history is explored in less depth, raising questions in the audience’s mind when the documentary ends. We can wonder why Gu left it this way: sensitivity for the family’s privacy, fear of giving the film too many story arcs with not enough focus, or preferring to emphasize the role of community over the achievements of an individual.

Aside from the fascinating details of the story, The Donut King is always aware of the wider historical, political, and philosophical implications of its tale. Watching shots of Gerald Ford emphasizing the importance of immigrants in America, we’re reminded that political decisions made decades ago affect our reality today in tangible ways. Gu never specifically mentions immigration bans or modern day xenophobia, but it is a small leap for us to consider how those events are analogous to today.

There is an eternal question at the heart of The Donut King, which is not for Ngoy, Gu, or anyone involved in the narrative to answer. It’s up to us as a society. Who owns the achievements of an individual? Who then suffers for his failings? Is it that person alone, or representative of the community at large? Ngoy cleared the path for others to succeed, but without their hard work, he would not have profited as he did, and the innovations of his successors are far removed from his initial business model. Similarly, can America as a country claim credit for the accomplishments of the Cambodian community when immigrants today are so often met with xenophobia and skepticism? How can we accept one and vilify the other?

The Donut King tells the story of Ted Ngoy and his extended family, but it is primarily about ripple effects and the interconnectedness of our planet. The grandchildren of war refugees are defining what it means to be American decades later, using a food they did not invent but would not have been the same without them. As one interview subject observes: How many times do most Americans actually eat apple pie in a year versus donuts? The events of a half century ago directly impact the modern day. We should have the same consideration for future generations in our actions today.

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