A sweet-bitter story of a former doughnut king
A sweet-bitter story of a former doughnut king
Aug 22 2005, 07:21 AM
Joined: 19-August 04
The immigrant who became the 'doughnut king' had wealth and clout --
and a nasty gambling habit. Now he sleeps on a trailer porch.
By Sam Quinones, Times Staff Writer
http://www.latimes.com/news/pr intedition/la-me-donutking19ja n19,1,396...
On the porch of a friend's mobile home in Long Beach, the Cambodian
doughnut king falls asleep each night shivering.
Once, he enjoyed the warmth of family and the respect of his
community. Once, he was a poor boy who carried away one of
Cambodia's wealthiest daughters. Once, he was a millionaire who met
three U.S. presidents.
Ted Ngoy made a fortune in doughnuts. Over the years, he led
thousands of his countrymen into the business. Through doughnuts,
many Cambodians stepped out of isolation and into the American
mainstream. And a new figure emerged on the California business
landscape: the Cambodian doughnut-shop owner.
Today, at 62, the doughnut king is broke, homeless and dependent on
the goodwill of his few remaining friends.
"He lost all the doughnuts," said James Dok, director of the United
Cambodian Community, a social service agency in Long Beach. "He has
to start a new life."
He was born Bun Tek Ngoy. His mother raised him in a rural village
near Cambodia's border with Thailand. He was Chinese Cambodian, part
of a despised underclass.
In 1967, his mother sent him to study in Phnom Penh, the capital. At
school, Ngoy fell in love from afar with a beautiful girl. Her name
was Suganthini Khoeun. Her father was a high-ranking government
official. Her brother-in-law, Sutsakhan Sak, was chief of police and
would become, briefly, the country's president.
Suganthini's parents hoped she would marry well. Until then, she was
kept sheltered. At 16, she had no friends, could not talk to boys
and was forbidden to leave home alone.
Ngoy lived in an attic apartment a few blocks from the Khoeun
family's mansion. The son of a peddler had no chance with such a
girl, no right even to think of loving her. But one night, he had an
He sat on the roof of his apartment and played his flute, the music
sweeping over the neighborhood. Suganthini and her mother heard the
music. Those are the sounds of a man in love, her mother said.
Ngoy wrote to her. I am the flute player, he said in a note passed
through the family's maid. A week later, Suganthini wrote back, and
the two began a secret correspondence. Ngoy asked to visit.
"I don't think you dare come to my room," she responded. Soldiers
and dogs guarded the mansion. One night in a pouring rain, Ngoy
scaled a coconut tree beside the wall surrounding her home. He cut
his chest sliding under barbed wire. From the wall, he leaped onto
the roof and crawled through an open window. Drenched and bleeding,
he tiptoed into a hallway. He had to guess which room was hers.
He opened a door, and there she was.
Suganthini was terrified, but she let the stranger stay. For the
next 45 days, he lived in her room. He slept under the bed and hid
when the maids came to clean.
Late at night, Ngoy would put Suganthini on his back and climb down
the roof, then down the coconut tree. They would speed through Phnom
Penh on his motorcycle, the couple recalled. Before sunrise, they
would climb back into her room.
One night under a full moon, they knelt and prayed. They pricked
their fingers and squeezed drops of blood into a cup of water. They
both drank and vowed to be faithful.
Eventually, her parents discovered Ngoy and threw him out. They
arranged a meeting for the couple at a relative's house, where Ngoy
was expected to formally end their romance. Her parents and cousins
hid behind curtains so they could hear him break off the
Ngoy told Suganthini that he didn't love her. He was a fraud, he
Then he pulled a knife. That is a lie, he cried, and plunged the
blade into his belly. Suganthini's father ran out from hiding and
called an ambulance.
Suganthini's parents kept her locked in her room for days.
Distraught, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and fell into a
When the couple recovered, her parents finally allowed them to marry.
War erupted in 1970. Ngoy joined the army. With the help of his
brother-in-law, he was promoted to major and appointed military
attache at the country's embassy in Thailand.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and the Cambodian
"Then I went to America," Ngoy said, "and created the doughnut
The couple and their three toddlers arrived penniless at Camp
Pendleton, part of the first wave of Cambodian refugees.
Peace Lutheran Church in Tustin hired Ngoy as a janitor. He found a
second job at a gas station. Near the station was a doughnut shop.
Night after night, he watched customers come and go.
Eager to learn the business, Ngoy approached the shop owners. They
told him Winchell's Donuts trained store managers. Ngoy became a
trainee and took over a Winchell's in Newport Beach. He hired his
wife and nephew. The family members worked 17 hours a day and saved
for a year.
Ngoy bought his first doughnut shop from a couple who was retiring.
Christy's Doughnuts in La Habra never did great business. But from
then on, every store Ngoy and his wife bought or opened they named
Ngoy bought stores in Fullerton, Anaheim, Anaheim Hills and Buena
Park over the next year. He wanted to buy more, but he was exhausted
running the five he owned.
Then he had his next great idea. Huge numbers of Cambodian refugees
were arriving in California. Doughnut shops were easy to run. An
owner could keep costs low by employing his family.
Ngoy would open more shops and lease them to fellow refugees.
"I'm happy; they're happy," he said.
The Ngoys drove a motor home around California, opening shops in Los
Angeles, Modesto, Fresno, San Jose, the Bay Area city of Brisbane,
Sacramento and San Diego. At each stop, they set up the business and
trained the families who leased it.
Ngoy showed them baking and bookkeeping. He taught them the names of
the doughnuts: old fashioned, jelly-filled, glazed. He helped them
apply for permits. He co-signed loans for supplies and equipment.
The Ngoys helped hundreds of refugees find housing and apply for
Social Security cards. Because of the Ngoys, a Cambodian refugee's
first American job was often in a doughnut shop.
Doughnuts offered an escape from years of welfare dependency. The
families who followed Ngoy's lead learned to run businesses and
picked up English. Doughnut revenue put their children through
Ngoy doesn't remember how many stores he started or bought - 40? 50?
"I just want to create as many as I can," he said. "Where I'm going,
I don't know. I just do it."
Like Ngoy, most of the people who leased his stores were Chinese
Cambodian. They did business on a handshake, he said, and his
tenants always paid.
By the mid-1980s, he was a millionaire. But he was more than well-
off; he was respected. In 1985, he and Suganthini became U.S.
citizens. They took American names. He became Ted. She became
Christy and Ted bought a $1-million, three-story, 7,000-square-foot
house with palm trees and a three-car garage on Lake Mission Viejo
in Orange County. Ted liked Cadillacs; Christy preferred Mercedes-
Benz convertibles. They had a vacation home in Big Bear and a time
share in Acapulco. They went to Europe twice.
Ted joined the Republican Party, held fundraisers for George H.W.
Bush, met former Presidents Reagan and Nixon, and urged other Asian
immigrants to support the GOP.
Soon, Cambodians began copying the Ted Ngoy business model. His
tenants opened their own stores and leased them out. In the early
1990s, it was reported that California had 2,400 Cambodian-owned
"Everybody went to the gold mine," Ngoy said.
Despite his success, he said, he felt unhappy and isolated.
"No political life, no religious life, just work, work," he
said. "Money, doughnuts, sleep."
He was ready to be taken by a new passion.
He had gotten his first taste of that passion years earlier. The
Ngoys went to Las Vegas for the first time in 1977. They saw Elvis
Presley perform, and Ted played a little blackjack.
Over the next few years, he went back every month or so, seeing Tom
Jones, Diana Ross and Wayne Newton - and betting ever-larger sums.
Pit bosses, floor men and dealers at Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand
and the Mirage got to know the Cambodian doughnut king. Casino
operators gave Ngoy free rooms, food, airfare and front-row seats to
In return, he played their tables and lost thousands of dollars.
"Las Vegas was the new thing," he said, "besides making money and
Ngoy's wife hated his gambling. She would discover big losses, and
they would argue, sending their children running to their rooms. She
would forgive him when he promised to stop, and he would - for a
while. "I believed him a thousand times," she said.
Then Ngoy would fly to Las Vegas without telling her, sometimes
staying as long as a week. She would drive there with her youngest
son and go from hotel to hotel looking for him.
Ngoy forged her signature on checks. He borrowed money from
relatives who had leased his doughnut shops. When he lost big, he
would sign the stores over to them.
"When you get to the table, you're so emotional, evil in your body,"
he said. "You cannot resist against it."
Word spread. Refugees who had sought his advice now avoided him,
fearing he would ask for a loan.
Ngoy tried Gamblers Anonymous. "I cry. Everybody cry," he
said. "After cry, go back gambling."
He began placing bets with Cambodian bookies on football and
basketball games. He had $50,000 riding on many Sundays.
In 1990, after disappearing for another disastrous trip to Las
Vegas, he flew to Washington, D.C., and joined a Buddhist monastery.
In saffron robes and shaved head, the doughnut king spent a month
meditating. Then he flew to a monastery in the Thai countryside.
Each morning, he walked with the monks, begging for food from
peasants, crying as the rocky roads tore at his bare feet.
Once back in Orange County, he bet more than ever.
"Monks cannot help me," he said. "Buddha cannot help me."
Cambodia was planning its first elections in 1993, and well-to-do
emigres from California were returning to run for office.
Ngoy was one. His doughnut fortune was almost gone. He had sold what
few shops remained. A bank had foreclosed on his mansion on Lake
In Cambodia, Ngoy formed the Free Development Republican Party. He
believed he could show others the path to wealth and opportunity.
He also figured that as a prominent politician, he would be forced
to control his gambling habit.
"When I become big guy, then I cannot go gamble because people won't
vote for you. They won't trust you," he said.
His party did poorly in the 1993 and 1998 parliamentary elections,
but Prime Minister Hun Sen made him an advisor on commerce and
Using his Republican Party connections, Ngoy successfully lobbied
the U.S. for most-favored-nation trade status for Cambodia in 1995,
helping create a modern garment industry and thousands of jobs.
When Christy returned to California for the birthday of a grandchild
in 1999, Ngoy met a young woman and brought her to live in his
house. To Christy, this was the final betrayal. She divorced him and
didn't return to Cambodia.
Ngoy ended his political career abruptly in 2002, breaking with two
powerful allies, the commerce minister and the head of the Cambodian
Chamber of Commerce. At a news conference, he dissolved his party
and accused the government of corruption. The next day, he flew back
to Los Angeles.
He left behind his new wife and their two children, and what he had
seen as his last chance at redemption.
The doughnut king landed at LAX with $50 in his pocket.
He returned to a refugee community in transition. About 30 Christy's
Doughnuts were still in operation, as were hundreds of other
Cambodian-owned doughnut shops. But Cambodians were leaving the
business, tired of working 17-hour days and squeezing a 13-cent
profit from every 65-cent doughnut. They were moving their capital
and know-how into liquor stores, markets and fast-food restaurants.
None of the people Ngoy helped get started lent him a hand, he
said: "I trained them. I shared love, my heart. Where are they now?"
He says his gambling is under control - though he has no money with
which to test this will power. He subsists on small handouts from
friends. He turned down a job as a security guard because it
required standing for eight hours. He took a real estate class but
said he couldn't retain the details.
He has converted to Christianity, he said, and prays often, asking
God for help. On Sundays, he attends Parkcrest Christian Church in
Long Beach. He spends his evenings alone, reading the Bible.
A woman from his church lets him sleep in the screened porch outside
her mobile home, which he has fashioned into a makeshift bedroom.
His few shirts and pants hang from a clothesline.
Ngoy believes he is suffering God's punishment for having betrayed
the blood vow he made as a young man under the moonlight in Phnom
Christy Ngoy now owns a Peruvian restaurant in Irvine. One of their
sons is a financial consultant; another is a computer-networking
technician. A daughter owns a 1950s-style hamburger restaurant in
"Once, I said I would die if something happened to him," Christy
said of her ex-husband. Their fairy tale romance is so distant, she
said, it's as if it happened to someone else. The stranger who crept
into her room more than 35 years ago is a stranger again.
Ted Ngoy has become a stranger even to himself.
"I don't know who I am right now," he said. "I say, 'Ted, who are
you?' I really don't know."
Aug 22 2005, 08:19 AM
Joined: 10-July 04
Yes I've read this story before. And my dad has even read it in a Vietnamese magazine.
Aug 22 2005, 03:03 PM
Joined: 12-May 04
I liked the love story part. So sad he succumbed to gambling. I always wondered how the doughnut story in the US came to be.
Aug 22 2005, 09:46 PM
Joined: 8-June 04
From: Long Beach, CA
Wow, what an interesting story. Where in Long Beach does he stay at right now?
Aug 22 2005, 11:06 PM
Joined: 6-July 04
Interesting story. Well worth the read.
Aug 23 2005, 01:17 PM
Joined: 14-June 05
Thanks for the wonderful story, it's bring tear to my eye, I myself also is the Donutman I put 12 to 13 hours aday just to make a living. Life is hard I'm sure any donut person could tell you that. I felt sorry for the poor guy, let hope that I will not choose the same path to gambling. Ngoy where ever you are thanks for open the way to the donut world for someone like myself- may GOD bless you and get back up on your feet and start a new Chapter in life.
Aug 23 2005, 08:12 PM
Joined: 30-July 05
^I know a family who owns a doughnut shop here, and they said the same thing. But just recently they sold it to some khmer family. What a relief they must feel.
Aug 23 2005, 08:34 PM
Joined: 9-July 05
One of my Khmer friends told me about Ted and how he inspired him to become a successful manager at a consulting firm...
It is a shame to see someone for the Khmer community who helped serve and inspire his fellow Khmer-Americans ruin himself...
Aug 24 2005, 12:43 PM
Joined: 17-April 04
That's such a shame .. true love turning into a night mare. seee what money does to people. moneys evil!
Oct 31 2005, 04:28 AM
Joined: 29-October 05
Oct 31 2005, 05:13 AM
Joined: 13-November 04
gambling is a mutherfu-ker.
Oct 31 2005, 11:37 PM
Joined: 25-October 05
i love gambling. 2
Jan 21 2012, 02:05 AM
Joined: 20-January 12
BookGrill = free technology books
Jan 21 2012, 02:36 PM
Joined: 20-January 12
Free books, daily updates
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