A Hole-y Unlikely Tale: The Donut King

Little did I know it at the time, but this Ube Ice Cream filled
donut from The Parlor Ice Cream in Sacramento, CA, was
just the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating tale

As I was watching the 2020 documentary movie “The Donut King” (which I streamed recently on Hulu), I realized I had already experienced a bit of the latter half of the film in real life.  Looking for ideas to explore on a California trip a few years back, I encountered this Sacramento Bee article on Sacramento’s Baker’s Donuts, which detailed not only the younger progeny’s knowledge of social media to raise their profile to the public at large, but also detailed a fact I had not known previously – Cambodian immigrants own a substantial number of the state’s independently owned donut shops.

Something I had brushed by at that time was the vital role that Ted Ngoy, the man who is the focus of the documentary, played in bringing those donut shops to life.  If you watch the documentary (and I highly recommend you do), Ngoy’s generosity, and in some ways, his failings, proved to be the driving force in making this status a reality.

Another thing that struck me while I sat watching the documentary: this inherently American story (rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption) may be among the last of its kind.

Promo graphic for “The Donut King“, directed by Alice Gu

It is not controversial to say that with today’s Republican Party/GOP, immigration to the United States is not a popular concept. The so-called Muslim Ban, the hubbub over a border wall, and the drastic lowering of refugee numbers were but the most prominent of a number of actions enacted by the previous administration that were seen as anti-immigration and anti-immigrant.

Perhaps that is why it is so striking that in “The Donut King”, members of both political parties play important roles in getting people like Ngoy over here in the first place.  After the fall of South Vietnam and the rise of Pol Pot, a number of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees fled their countries, and United States officials saw that their efforts to assist them were woefully inadequate.

Officials like Republican President Gerald Ford and Senator Edward Kennedy were vital in eventually implementing a more comprehensive and well-funded plan for refugee relocation to the States. In fact, a May 6, 1975 news conference showed President Ford’s dismay regarding opposition to his plans to relocate these refugees, declaring “I am primarily very upset because the United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries…We’re a country built by immigrants from all areas of the world, and we’ve always been a very humanitarian nation, and when I read or heard the comments made a few days ago I was disappointed and very upset.”

Reading further into the story, it proved striking how different the political winds were in the mid-1970s. The New York Times article covering Ford’s speech notes prominent Democrats’ doubts about the idea: West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd advised that the President “ought to see to it that “undesirables” be screened out of the resettlement process, naming “barmaids, prostitutes and criminals” as excludable categories”; meanwhile, Delaware’s Senator Joseph Biden (now President Biden) charged that the Administration had not informed Congress adequately about the scope of the operation.  Even Democratic Governor Jerry Brown was not thrilled about the idea, saying that out-of-work Californians needed to come first when he heard that Camp Pendleton would be one of the housing sites.

In the end, the so-called “Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act” was passed by both houses of Congress with minimal opposition, and in fairly rapid fashion to boot (just over three weeks from introduction of the bill to the President signing it into law.)  Would today’s Congress act so swiftly in a similar situation these days?  My gut says absolutely not.

Columbus has its own immigrant success story via donuts in the
Barouxis Family and University District-located Buckeye Donuts

The fact that U.S. soil was used to house these refugees is also striking in and of itself.  After passing through Guam for initial processing, refugees were dispatched to four locations throughout the country (Camp Pendleton, which Ngoy ended up at; Elgin AFB, Florida; Fort Chaffee, AR, and Fort Indiantown Gap, PA.)  While Ngoy was initially one of a small portion of the initial refugees who were Cambodian, the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, whose demented attempt to create an egalitarian agrarian/Marxist society led to the death of roughly two million people, kept the flow of Cambodian refugees into the United States strong well into the President Jimmy Carter era.

Would anything as welcoming as this setup be created for immigrants to this country nowadays? Like before, my gut says absolutely not.

A interesting third thought came to mind: Ngoy, who has a passing resemblance to some of my relatives and has received praise for his success from a number of GOP dignitaries throughout his life, could easily these days be a victim of a random racism-based attack, which has been a troubling trend in this country for the past year or so. While it isn’t always the case, the smart money says that the perpetrators of these attacks were staunch supporters of the prior GOP administration.

* * * * *

Ironically, I’ve almost always identified as “American” than I have the Asian side of my heritage.  This is not surprising: I was born here in this country, was an eager consumer (well, at least as much as my Dad’s relatively meager military salary could afford) of all things pop culture, and my parents didn’t subject me to things that have brought others in my shoes ridicule (e.g. bringing a “weird smelling” Filipino delicacy for lunch.)  For awhile, I bought into the whole notion of needing to “blend in” with society, and even the whole model minority stereotype seemed to have merit.

In fact, thanks to Canton, Ohio-born William McKinley, my family has deeper American roots than many fellow Asian-Americans. His declaration of war against Spain in 1898 resulted in the United States acquiring a number of former Spanish possessions, including The Philippines. As a result, five generations of my extended family either currently have or formerly possessed U.S. National or U.S. Citizen status.

But then I realized a couple things.  No matter how much I try to blend in, my skin color automatically marks me as “Not American” in some people’s eyes.  I’ve stopped counting the number of times after I’ve told someone where I was born, someone has responded, “No, where are you REALLY from?”

Secondly, I learned the truth about the model minority stereotype , which wasn’t meant as much for praise for Asian-Americans as it was meant as a way to demean other minorities, specifically African-Americans. In addition, we’re the model minority only when convenient: it was decades after I graduated from school when I learned about things like “The Yellow Peril“, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Watsonville Riots, and the Vincent Chin murder.  With some, Asians, no matter what heritage you may have, are always going to be the least-preferred Asian group of the time (Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos have held this slot at various times) and we’ll always be to blame for any number of things.

(By the way, have you been told to go back to China?  I have, and believe you me, it’s not a fun experience.)

However, in a weird way, I am thankful for this, as I don’t think I would be pursuing my Filipino roots as eagerly as I do now.  As famed Buddhist monk/peace advocate Thich Nhat Hahn has said, “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” My verve towards this continuation has never been stronger.

I have looked into the palm of my hand a lot lately…
and am a much better person for it

As the documentary finishes out, we find out that Ngoy’s own return to his ancestors helps bring him to his ultimate redemption, as well as his realization of how much his efforts (Ngoy himself sponsored thousands of refugees as his business fortune increased) had truly impacted the food landscape across a vast portion of California.

One source estimates that 90% of the roughly 5,000 independent donut shops in California are Cambodian-owned. I find it interesting to think that quite a few hardline, anti-immigration folks have almost certainly purchased a few boxes of sweet rings of pleasure in those iconic pink boxes (Ngoy was the inventor of that now standard donut shop staple) from these shops. The irony in that is they may have bought it from a clerk who has a relative who was present when First Lady Betty Ford made a trip to the Camp Pendleton Refugee Reception Center to visit some of the 18,000 refugees being housed on the site on May 21, 1975, to help assure them that things would get better.

That irony might indeed be thick enough to ice a donut.

The Donut King” is now available on for viewing on the Hulu Streaming Service

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