We all love to read about linear narratives of zeroes who become heroes. We also love to read about turnaround stories – heroes who fell from grace, picked themselves up and rose again. But until we came across the story Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee to the US, we had never heard about a life story which repeatedly oscillates between great tragedy to unbelievable triumph and in so doing mirrors life. Ted’s story has been turned into a movie, ‘The Donut King’, and the link to the BBC site given above also contains an interview with this remarkable man whose flaws resemble many of our own.
Ted’s story begins in a Cambodian village where he falls in love with Suganthini, the daughter of a powerful civil servant. They marry in the face of opposition from her family and then flee to America in 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge begin their killing spree. Suganthini’s family is left behind in Cambodia and is subsequently murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
In America, the young Cambodian family work hard and achieve the American dream: “Ted worked as the church janitor but he soon realised earning $500 a month wouldn’t be enough to support his family. With the pastor’s permission he went out and got two more jobs, as a sales person from 6pm to 10pm and petrol attendant from 10pm to 6am.
Next to the petrol station there was a doughnut shop called DK Donuts…All night long Ted would watch people buying coffee and doughnuts, and he realised it was a good business. One night he asked the woman at the counter if saving $3,000 would be enough to buy a doughnut shop. She said he would be throwing his money away. Instead, she told him about a training programme run by the doughnut chain, Winchell’s. Ted became their first South East Asian trainee.
“I learned to bake, to take care of payroll, cleaning, sales – everything,” he says. One of the tricks he learned was to bake doughnuts in small batches throughout the day to keep them fresh – and because the smell of baking was the best form of advertising.
When he completed his three-month training, Winchell’s gave him a shop to run on Balboa Pier, a tourist spot on the Newport peninsula not far from Tustin. Suganthini became the smiling face behind the counter, even though she hardly spoke any English. Ted did a lot of the baking at night…”
After 10 years of being in the US and working 15 hour days, Ted & Suganthini (who changes her name to Christy) “…Ted and Christy were millionaires, owning around 60 doughnut shops. Ted became known as the Donut King – or Uncle Ted, because of the many Cambodian immigrants he’d sponsored. The couple had flash cars, bought a million-dollar mansion with a pool and an elevator, and went on holidays abroad.”
Then it all goes horribly wrong as Ted goes to Las Vegas and becomes addicted to gambling and over the next decade bankrupts himself with his gambling debts.
In 1993, Ted and Christy move back to Cambodia where Ted tries his hand unsuccessfully at politics. Then he has an affair which in turn results in Christy divorcing him and moving back to the US by herself. A few years later with $100 in his pocket Ted also moves back to the US. He fails to find gainful employment in the US and spends four years sleeping on the porches of other people’s homes.
Around the turn of the century, Ted – penniless and single – migrates back to Cambodia and engineers another turnaround in his remarkable life to become a millionaire again: “…still homeless, he moved to the coastal town of Kep, on the Gulf of Thailand. He had no way of making a living until a Chinese contact from better days asked him to help out with a real estate deal. Ted negotiated well and got a good commission.
More land deals followed and he has now worked his way back to being a millionaire. He remarried and had four more children…”
The world would have never heard about this story of failure and redemption had it not been for filmmaker Alice Gu’s curiosity: “LA filmmaker Alice Gu got in touch a couple of years ago. A child of immigrants herself, she had become curious why Californian doughnut shops were so often run by Cambodians, and why there were so many of them.
In most of America there’s an average of about one doughnut shop for every 30,000 people – in LA, there’s one for every 7,000 people. And of the 5,000 independent doughnut shops in California today, around 80% are still Cambodian, she says.
“This story sheds light on refugees in a positive way, about what happens when they’re given an opportunity,” she says.”
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