Ted Ngoy arrived penniless from Cambodia, only to build a multi-million-dollar donut empire up and down the West Coast. (Photos courtesy PBS)

To say this is a document of how a man made a lot of money selling donuts is to deny a story whose intimate beauty eventually eclipses its main subject.

“The Donut King,” airing Monday at 10 p.m. on PBS SoCal, begins with a portrait of Ted Ngoy, a refugee from war-torn Cambodia who is credited with establishing businesspeople from his country as the dominant ethnic presence in the U.S. donut industry. It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all independent donut shops in California are owned and operated by Cambodians.

Alice Gu’s profile of this pioneer of American entrepreneurship quickly gives way to a beautifully executed account of history and survival, family, compassion, serendipitous timing, and regret and redemption.

Ngoy and his family in a refugee camp at Camp Pendleton.

The film traces Ngoy’s escape from Cambodia as it fell to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, his family’s immigration to the U.S. and the hard work and acumen that made him a legend of American business. Even the pink boxes now synonymous with donuts and pastry shops originated with Ngoy’s marketing approach.

Hardly limited to series of static interviews, the image emerges of a man whose hard work and sense of charity earned him every bit of success that came as a result. Ngoy is the central figure, as is the woman he married at a young age, their children, and a host of others whose lives he changed beyond measure.

The story takes several unexpected, and in some cases, heartbreaking, turns and developments. It reveals a distinctly American tale, one that reminds us of so much of what has time and again, made the United States the land of promise since its inception, and it does so as we currently live through a period of stifling division and acts of hate. Much of who we are, and who we have been, is laid bare in this compelling and ultimately inspiring film.


“The Donut King” airs as part of the “Independent Lens” series on PBS this Monday, May 24, at 10 p.m. on PBS SoCal. A conversation with director Alice Gu is at the PBS website.

The torch has been passed to a new generation, including Mayly Tao, founder of the Donut Princess in Santa Monica.

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