There are about 5,000 independent donut shops in California, and Cambodians own almost 80 percent of them. It all started with Ted Ngoy who came to America as a refugee after fleeing from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in 1975. In four years, Ted built a multi-million-dollar business baking donuts and helped bring hundreds of other refugees seeking safety to America. Together, this community of refugees lived their “American Dream.” The story of Ted Ngoy and his community, as told in the documentary “The Donut King,” serves as one example of how refugees can thrive if given the opportunity. Read our interview with filmmaker Alice Gu.
Refugees International: Your nanny was the one who introduced you to the concept of “Cambodian donuts” and the story of Ted Ngoy. What about this particular story interested you?
Alice Gu: I was instantly fascinated by the fact that I had no idea about this story. Donuts and donut shops are so ubiquitous, as is the familiar pink box [they come in] here on the west coast, but I’d never given it a second thought. I always love an immigrant story, but this had another level of stakes to it, being a refugee story. I also realized that, in the last few years, there have been important films made about the plight of refugees, but I don’t recall ever seeing a refugee success story.
Refugees International: How did your experience as the daughter of Chinese immigrants influence you in telling this story? How does your parents’ story compare to Ted’s story?
Alice Gu: I felt an immediate sense of closeness to the story because there were many similarities. I feel like when people hear the word, “refugee,” a certain image comes to mind. The definition of a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. I never thought of my parents as refugees, and I don’t think they’ve ever identified as refugees, but they both had fled Communist China in 1949 due to persecution. Neither of their families wanted to leave and fled with barely any possessions. Making this film gave me a great understanding of where I came from.
Refugees International: This movie takes place 45 years ago. Why is this story relevant today? What lessons can we learn as a country about refugees? What do you hope people will walk away with?
Alice Gu: It has been an incredible journey in making this film and being able to dive into some of our country’s history that was unfamiliar to me before. When I started making this film in 2018, the migrant caravan was constantly in the news. Also in the news was how this migrant caravan was portrayed, as “full of rapists, murderers, and thieves.” I kept thinking to myself, “What if there is a Ted Ngoy in there?”
In the Donut King story, I was really moved by the leadership of President Gerald Ford, in inspiring the American people to accept the refugees entering this country, even if it was unpopular to do so.
In one of my interviews, I asked the Camp Pendleton historian why the government would execute such a huge undertaking, and huge expense, to receive the refugees. She replied, “Because it was the right thing to do. And the world was watching. Other countries looked to America as the moral leader.”
I hope that this film will humanize refugees and allow people to, perhaps, change any preconceived notions of what a refugee is.
Refugees International: In one clip, the governor of California talks about how the state was facing its own unemployment issues and was hesitant to welcome the new refugees into the community. That sentiment is still applicable today decades later. What lessons in how the country dealt with that fear then can be applied today?
Alice Gu: Jerry Brown, in his second term as governor, always seemed to be the voice of reason, and a voice of tolerance for California. It was shocking to see Jerry Brown’s [negative] stance on refugees entering California in 1975. I would say that the lessons in how the country dealt with that fear at that time really had to do with strong leadership from the president of the United States at the time. I still believe that to be true today.
Refugees International: What did you learn about the refugee experience as you filmed this movie?
Alice Gu: I learned that refugees are tough, tough people who only want what we all want—food to eat, to love and be with their families, and to have a roof over their head without fear. Hearing their stories humbled me and inspired me. I also learned that refugees very much want to be financially independent, hard-working, and are very grateful for their adopted countries.
Refugees International: While this film is centers on the story of one refugee, it is also very much about his community. What do their stories highlight about the refugee experience?
Alice Gu: I believe in the best of humanity. Making this film has really made me see how important community is in success—helping one another and everyone trying to achieve the common goal of security and acceptance.
Refugees International: A major theme in this film is the idea of the American Dream. What does the American Dream mean to the refugees you spoke to?
Alice Gu: The American Dream really is about the land of opportunity. It’s the land where someone can arrive penniless, not speaking a lick of English, and be able to provide for their families. All of these refugees ended up being successful, bought homes, integrated into their communities, and had children educated at universities. They all want their children to not have to work as hard as they did, and as a result, so many of their educated children are doctors, lawyers, working in tech—they all feel like they’ve achieved the American Dream.
Refugees International: In the film, you show the local communities stepping up, answering the calls for help, universities and teachers helping new refugees learn English, health care workers providing medical services. Do you see that sense of togetherness and support today in our communities?
Alice Gu: Again, I really do believe in the best of humanity, even if we see so much division in the media. I believe in the hearts of the American people, and I believe that we are good people! I really believe that most people want to be helpful and most people want to do the right thing. Good leadership and role models cannot be underestimated, and we should all work harder to promote kindness and generosity.
Refugees International: What led you to partner with Refugees International on this project?
Alice Gu: My producer, Jose Nuñez and I, are both the children of immigrants. We are both realizing our dreams because our parents brought us to this country, and we have been given the opportunities to succeed. We believe that opportunity should not only be for the privileged. We knew early on in our film journey that we wanted to make an impact, as this story was so beautiful and cathartic for both of us. Partnering with Refugees International was a natural choice for the film, and we are very proud of it.
Refugees International: What’s your favorite DK donut?
Alice Gu: Buttermilk bar, consumed within 30 seconds of leaving the fryer with hot glaze! It’s an out-of-body experience. No exaggeration.
Refugees International is grateful to Alice Gu and The Donut King team for committing a portion of their proceeds to support our work.