On Sun., March 20, the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies presented a screening of “The Donut King” at the State Theater. Upon arrival, viewers were greeted with delectable donuts from DJ’s Bakery, whose owners learned the art of donut-making from “The Donut King” himself.
“The Donut King” documentary follows the entrepreneurial journey of Cambodian Civil War refugee Ted Ngoy, otherwise known as “The Donut King.” Arriving in the United States in the 1970s, he went from living in an overcrowded and underfunded refugee camp to a majestic mansion where he provided shelter to refugees. After only having donuts for the first time in the United States, he quickly changed the entire donut industry — for good. Have you ever seen one of the iconic pink donut boxes that are aesthetically placed all over social media? That pink box was Ngoy’s idea.
In tandem with his construction of a multi-million dollar donut empire on the West Coast, he created a system of chain migration that allowed for other Cambodian refugees to come to the United States. He would sponsor the refugees, provide them shelter and teach them how to run donut stores that he would then lease to them. Ngoy was beyond successful in not only building his business but allowing other Cambodians to enjoy similar entrepreneurial success. By the 1990s, 80% of California donut shops were owned by Cambodian immigrants.
Unlike other documentaries that try to hide their editing, “The Donut King” has a visible editing style. Quickly moving from bright, attention-capturing donut graphics to harrowing stories and Cambodian Civil War footage, the documentary uses editing to push the story forward in some rather unconventional ways. The story does not move linearly; rather, it weaves together the past and present. This was, for the most part, an exceedingly effective technique — a powerful visual example of how the past informs the present. With this, the filmmakers were able to shock the audience with a whiplash-inducing curveball: Ngoy lost his donut empire due to his gambling addiction. As the documentary dug deeper into this facet of Ngoy’s story, the audience was on edge; in the theater, neighbors gasped and turned to each other in shock.
Interestingly, “The Donut King” can not be classified as a wholly feel-good or heartbreaking story. Whereas Ngoy suffers a financial demise, his proteges grow increasingly successful. Still, viewers are shown how much suffering and sacrifice are required to produce such success. Weaving together the personal histories of various Cambodian refugee families, the piece underscores just how interconnected immigrant communities are. The documentary’s ability to capture nuanced portraits of so many different people is one of its strongest assets. From laughing at the children who are annoyed to be folding donut boxes to rooting for the store owner who is promoting her unique donuts on Instagram, the audience remains invested in the stories of each family. Although about donuts, the fallout of the Cambodian Civil War, entrepreneurship and so many other themes, “The Donut King” centers on the resilience of Cambodian immigrants and their fight to make a life and career for themselves in the United States.
Immediately following the documentary, Dr. Melissa Borja, a core faculty member in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program, hosted a talkback to discuss the documentary’s themes. As the documentary touches on how the United States granted refugee status to over 100,000+ Cambodian immigrants, the talkback reminded viewers to be critical of this historical phenomenon. Borja reminded viewers that the United States’s willingness to accept Cambodians was intrinsically connected to their anti-communist stance, since the antagonizing player in the Cambodian Civil War was a regime tied to communism. This information provided viewers with a glance at some of the hidden political features that shaped the experience of Cambodian Americans as opposed to other immigrant groups. This was just one of the topics discussed during the talkback; still, I think talkbacks should be maintained as a standard viewing practice for historical documentaries, giving viewers a chance to absorb what they just learned. Sitting with the information, instead of leaving the dark theater to have one’s thoughts erased by the blinding natural light, is a way to ensure that meaningful cinema like “The Donut King” has its time to shine. Like the last bite of a donut, this documentary left me hungry to learn more.
Daily Arts Contributor Nicole Appiani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.