When they arrived in the United States, Cambodian refugees bought up doughnut shops by the thousand. One extraordinary man is credited with setting the boom in motion and, after several tumultuous years, he is back in his home country where the dessert is still mostly unknown. Poppy McPherson writes.
Before he was flat-broke and living on a friend’s porch, Ted Ngoy was the doughnut king.
One of tens of thousands of Cambodians to flee the Khmer Rouge to seek a new life in the United States, Ngoy arrived in California in 1975 without a cent or a basic grasp of English.
He went on to sell millions of doughnuts, make a fortune and shake the hand of three presidents. His business model was copied with success by other Cambodian refugees who cashed in on America’s love for a pastry that had never touched their lips before they had landed on the West Coast.
By the 1990s, there were thousands of doughnut shops owned by Cambodian Americans. Many owed their success to Ted Ngoy, who made millions in the process.
He and his wife bought a luxurious home, drove fast cars, and holidayed in Europe. Theirs was a fairytale romance. Back in Phnom Penh, Suganthini was a sheltered high-class young woman; Ngoy, then known by his Cambodian name, Bun Tek, was the son of a peddler. But he wooed her by playing the flute, and eventually sneaked into her family home where she let him sleep under her bed for more than 40 days. When her parents forced them apart, she attempted suicide. After that, they couldn’t be separated.
They escaped Cambodia in May 1975, a month after Phnom Penh fell. They settled in Newport Beach, California, where they became US citizens, and Bun Tek became ‘Ted’ and Suganthini, ‘Christy’. Ngoy came to be known by another name: the doughnut king.
Then, he lost it all.
To understand what happened to Ngoy, the Cambodian doughnut business is as good a place to start as any.
In the United States, doughnuts are to Cambodian Americans as bagels are to New Yorkers, or soul food to the men and women of the Deep South.
In California as many as 90 per cent of independent doughnut shops are owned by Cambodians. There are reported to be more than 5,000 in that state alone.
The ‘doughnut boom’ started in the early 1980s as refugees worked their way into the US. Doughnut shops were cheap to buy but labour-intensive to operate.
According to Paul Mullins, the author of Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, this combination made them an attractive working environment for Cambodians.
“My sense is that it helped that many Cambodian families worked together, and doughnut shops demand a lot of work around the clock so it provided a reliable labour source among folks who felt reasonably comfortable with each other,” he wrote in an email.
Ngoy was a big part of that. He sponsored thousands of refugees, promising offering them work in his doughnut shops. At his peak, he owned 70 shops, and helped others to own more. In turn, those pioneers got their friends and relatives started.
One of those beneficiaries was Paul Quach, whose dabble in the doughnut business took him back to Cambodia last November, as he opened Phnom Penh’s second doughnut shop.
His story was a common one.
Before the Khmer Rouge, Quach’s parents were farmers in Battambang. They grew oranges for export to Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. Miraculously, his whole family survived the regime though they had many bitter experiences before its end.
In 1979, they fled to Thailand, and stayed for a few months in the refugee camps on the border. Then, without explanation, they were forced out, and had to make the long march back over the mountains. Quach remembers single-file walkers treading over the dead bodies of friends.
“If people died from mines, the others would not pick them up because underneath them, another mine could explode.”
They drank water from the stagnant pools filled with corpses.
The march took nearly two months.
“Walk, walk, walk, walk. Red sand, and no food. Only some potato flour.”
Finally, in September 1981, they were allowed into the Thai refugee camps, and ultimately, to the US.
In April 1984 he and his entire family were flown to the US. He worked as a lawnmower, a shelf-stacker, a teacher, and then a flight control technician. It wasn’t until 1990 that he became interested in doughnuts.
“The Cambodian community every day was gossiping about the doughnut business,” he reflected earlier this month over coffee in his Street 51 café.
He married Stephanie Ngoy, whose brother was one of Ted Ngoy’s first pioneers, and the couple ran two doughnut shops.
By 1990, the ‘doughnut king’ was reported to be in the grips of a serious gambling habit. He spent two months in Buddhist monasteries in Washington D.C and Thailand, to no avail. His doughnut fortune dwindled, and he sold the few shops he still owned.
Three years later, he left the US to embark on a political career in Cambodia, and formed the Free Development Republican Party ahead of the country’s UN-backed elections in 1993.
His major achievement was securing a most-favoured-nation trade status for Cambodia after lobbying the US, making use of friends in the Republican Party. The status helped create the modern garment industry once in effect, and thousands of jobs were created.
But his party never won a seat in the National Assembly and he returned to the US in 2002. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times found him sleeping on the porch of a friend’s mobile home. “I don’t know who I am right now,” he told them.
When the global recession hit in 2009, Quach, and many other doughnut shop owners, started to lose money. Quach sold one of his shops, while others around him shut down.
“Many doughnut shops were closed. There was also the competition at the boom time. Also another thing in Cali: the Mexican illegal immigrants were pushed back to Mexico because of the recession. That was a big hit for doughnut business. Many of them are the real core customers.”
Quach lost 30 to 40 per cent of his business, he said. Rents remained unchanged and he simply couldn’t afford to run the shop any longer.
So he decided to look elsewhere. In November last year, he opened Paul’s Brewehouse in Phnom Penh.
By that time, Ted Ngoy had left the US again. He was rumoured to be in Cambodia, with a new woman. That had been the final straw for Christy, who divorced him and married an American. Quach believed Ngoy had gone into real estate in Sihanoukville. “His fortunes come and go,” said Quach.
When Quach arrived in Cambodia, there was already one doughnut shop: USA Donut, run by a different pioneer, the bombastic Tea Channy.
“The doughnut king? That’s me,” he said with a toothy grin, standing in his shop surrounded by shelves piled high with imported American products.
Channy is a stocky man in his mid-forties, and he runs USA Donut in Boeung Keng Kang with his wife. Alongside doughnuts, they sell imported American goods – everything from Pop-Tarts to Starbucks Frappucinos. Channy also wholesales doughnuts to other minimarts. But when he arrived from Long Beach in 1994, where he had owned his first doughnut shop, Phnom Penh was a very different place, and there was not a doughnut in sight.
Channy’s family had been rice farmers in Battambang. They were poor, and living in California didn’t change that. Channy and his parents bought one doughnut shop in Long Beach but, unlike for Ted Ngoy, the doughnut business didn’t bring them great returns.
About Ngoy, he said: “Oh, that guy? I heard about him. It’s a big business. We’re just a small shop. We were a very poor family.”
In 1994, Channy decided to test the market in Cambodia, setting up his first doughnut shop outside an international school. Then he opened another one at the gas station which is now the fast food joint Mike’s Burgers. He settled on the current location a few years ago.
While Channy sells regularly to expats and Cambodian children, it’s a small business.
“The profit right now in Cambodia is not a lot,” he said, adding that the ingredients, all imported from the US, are expensive.
Doughnuts are a hard sell in the Cambodian market, where desserts can be bought on the street for less than half a dollar.
After all, sweet bread fried in hot oil is not an uncommon formula.
Nom korng is the Cambodian equivalent, made by mixing rice flour with water and frying. The result is dipped in heated sugar and water, and topped with roasted sesame seed or palm sugar.
According to Mullins, fried flour is found in nearly every cuisine, sometimes savoury, sometimes sweet, but Asia may have a claim to the first doughnut.
“Its origins in any specific place are not really evident, but there is some evidence that travellers were introduced to pastries in Asia,” he wrote.
“It looked aesthetically different in many ways, but the circular torus-shaped form is almost certainly a mid to late 19th century American refinement.”
So what’s the difference between nom korng, which sells for less than a dollar at most markets around town, and what Channy and Quach tout for more than double the price?
“Cambodian flour is only good for bread – you cannot make doughnuts. You cannot keep the doughnut more than an hour, it’ll go hard,” said Channy.
More than that, it takes a long time to make a good doughnut.
“If someone paid you three million dollars a day, I don’t think you’d want to do it,” said Channy, before taking out his smartphone to play a video of his morning.
He and his assistants get to work at 3am every morning baking batches. He’s lucky. In big businesses, the work starts before midnight,
For Channy, the whole process takes two and a half hours, working with 16 pounds of flour. The ingredients are mixed, forming a dough which rises and is kneaded and cut.
Making the icing alone takes at least half an hour. Channy uses powder from the US and mixes it with hot water. The longer you mix, the silkier it gets.
Frying takes around five minutes. Then, the doughnut is dipped in different icings including chocolate, strawberry, and caramel.
Channy tastes each batch to make sure it’s up to scratch.
While doughnuts are his passion, burgers and imported goods are the big sellers. But he won’t give up.
“Right now, there’s only two: me and Paul, that’s it. But my doughnut shop is not going to shut down, we stick forever.”
Down the road, at Paul’s BreweHouse, Quach plans to return to the US in November. He will leave the shop to his brother.
“It’s very hard for me to come back and leave my family in the States,” he said.
“We are still in a state of orientation for [Cambodians] to like doughnuts. The market might be big if everyone knew about doughnuts, but only the rich know.”
His US counterparts haven’t fared much better.
There, franchise chains with a full range of food alongside doughnuts have captured the market, according to Mullins.
The author believes, however, that small doughnut shops will continue to make a solid living.
“Doughnuts have a very powerful symbolism as significant treats in the US, so I cannot see doughnut shops actually disappearing,” he wrote earlier this week.
When Ngoy spoke on the phone last week, he sounded surprised to be discovered.
“I am so excited to speak to you because you went to so much effort to speak with me.”
But an hour before the interview, he called to cancel.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,” he said.
“I live a very happy life. I have family around me. I’m very close to the lord Jesus. He saved me.
“Oh you want to talk about doughnuts?
“How many doughnut shops are there in Phnom Penh? I’m interested to hear this.
“I’m the creator of the doughnut business in America.”
In Sam Rainsy’s memoir, published earlier this year, he singles out Ngoy as a pioneer among a generation of refugees hungry for the American dream.
But the story isn’t that straightforward. Rainsy didn’t mention that the doughnut king had moved on to real estate in Kep.
The doughnut king is 74. He’s had a tough life but, when we met earlier this week in a coffee shop that didn’t sell doughnuts, he was eager to tell his story. He gesticulated as he spoke and his gentle brown eyes, the irises of which are circled by a light blue, held a steady gaze.
He returned to Cambodia in 2005 to reunite with his second family, he explained. But when he arrived, he discovered his second wife was having an affair and asked her to leave. He took his children with him. Again, he was homeless and poverty-stricken.
“It was exactly like my life in America, 1975. I had no pennies. Penniless! I became very wealthy but here again, after running out of everything, penniless.”
He and his two children subsisted on one packet of noodles a day, between them. Ngoy mixed the noodles with a lot of water: the kids had the noodles, Ngoy the broth. “When you’re poor you’ve got a goal,” he said.
They had nowhere to sleep, so Ngoy called his old friend, a former Minister of Interior, who owned a beautiful wooden house by the sea.
“I call him and say, ‘Excellency, you know me?’ He says, ‘Oh, Excellency Ted.’ ‘You know my financial situation is very bad. You’ve got a home here, a wooden home, so can I stay? I have no money but when I get money I’ll pay for the rent.’”
The friend agreed, but specified they must sleep outside.
“It’s a wooden house facing the beach. At nighttime it was mostly raining, raining so heavy. I have no pillow, no blanket, two kids. Oh, I want to cry when I talk about it.”
He spoke fluent Chinese and English, and soon local people began to ask him to translate. He began to teach. Then he sold a bit of land, to “make a little money”, and then he sold a little more. Eventually he had $1,500 spare to buy a Toyota Camry to take his children to school.
He set up a real estate business: Kep Realty International Company.
“Right now, my main job is to connect the buyer to the seller, and make 3 per cent [commission] or something.”
He intends to buy a Lexus, and has no plans to retire.
“I cannot retire – I have babies. I have to support them, have to prepare for when, without me, their life should be better.”
He had never tasted a doughnut made in Cambodia. In fact, he said, he had no idea they existed and was keen to try one.
As for his doughnut empire in the US, he is pragmatic about its future. Rising rents and competition are obstacles, he said. And sometimes, he added, people are on diets.
“In the long run, they are facing some problems. Some shops are forced to close down, new shops come in. But that’s the way of the business.”
Second generation Cambodians don’t want to run doughnut shops, he said. They laugh at their parents toiling in the kitchen. They want something better. They work for big companies, like Ngoy’s own children.
“In America, many people do other things now. They have some more money, they go to other fields. But everybody starts from the base of doughnut shops and I think that’s a good start.”
As the conversation wrapped up, he outlined what he expects to be his final project: a foundation for higher education.
“When I do things they never fail,” he said.
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