SXSW Review: Alice Gu serves up a delicious taste of Asian American entrepreneurship in ‘The Donut King’
Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles County, I’ve occasionally wondered what the story was behind those local Asian-owned mom and pop donut shops that were never more than a five-minute drive away. They seemed to be everywhere, all offering a familiar smattering of tasty pink frosted donuts, heavenly maple bars, and elegantly simple pink donut boxes that made breakfast a meal worth looking forward to. But living in an area with a densely populated Asian American population, it made sense that I saw familiar faces wherever I went. But whenever I moved throughout Southern California, those same donut shops always seemed to follow me around. Even though the locations changed, it always seemed that that same donut shop formula persisted everywhere: friendly Asian owners, scrumptious delights, and the same pink donut boxes. Coincidence, or was it something more than that?
In Alice Gu’s documentary debut The Donut King, she reveals that it’s the latter. This loose network of Asian-owned donut shops exists for a reason, linking back to a Cambodian refugee named Ted Ngoy and how he started a donut empire in Southern California. After learning the donut trade from working at a local Winchell’s (the major donut chain in the region at the time), Ngoy soon opened his own donut shop, Christy’s Donuts, which became moderately successful in its own right. Seeking to expand as well as hoping to aid other Cambodians who were interested in coming to America, Ngoy started to sponsor other families and teach them the trade as well. This slowly became the basis for his donut empire. Eventually, thanks to the low start-up costs and hard work ethics of these donut shops, Ngoy and his peers shaped the donut landscape within the region by pushing out large corporations like Dunkin Donuts, who sought to expand here but never found proper footing due to the competition. Nowadays, even though people outside of the industry don’t know who Ngoy is, his unspoken legacy can still be felt throughout the Southern California region.
Gu thus does something that many documentarians can only hope to do–shed light on an interesting piece of American history worth telling and knowing about. Although The Donut King is a tale that seems to rely on the classic American rags to riches documentary cliché, Gu carefully weaves in parts of Asian history and American history to coincide with the central storyline. Stories from Ngoy’s childhood and those of other Cambodian refugees are dispersed throughout to give the film an important contextual background, which is then loosely animated to visualize each experience. Immigrants are given a chance to let their experiences be heard, talking about the difficulties of assimilating to America in the 70s–citing language difficulties, culture difficulties, and even horribly racist stereotypes that shaped how others viewed them as people. Thanks to Ngoy’s opportunities, they were able to slowly build a life for themselves in the States despite all of that. Also interesting is Gu’s choice to include interviews with representatives from Winchell’s and Dunkin Donuts to qualify the impact of Ngoy’s business ventures, giving his story a tactical business perspective in addition to its emotional edge. In relation to these corporate giants, Ngoy’s business acumen seems even more legendary by carving out a path for himself against all odds. But most importantly, every strand of information Gu presents never detracts from Ngoy’s central story–only enhancing it and shaping it further. Gu’s focused storyline and occasional pop-cultural references keep the film moving and engaging, even though the majority of it is focused on one person.
Bursting with pop culture references (one can guess how many donut themed songs are in the film), sugar-sweet visuals, curious footnotes (did you know that Ngoy chose to use pink donut boxes because they were the cheapest to buy from wholesalers?), and a touching story to boot, Gu’s The Donut King is as decadent and delightful as the holey treats themselves. More importantly, The Donut King turns an otherwise forgotten story into an integral part of the Southern California experience.