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Artist Captures the Khmerican Donut Kid Experience

A flattened pink doughnut box against a black background. On the doughnut box is a portrait of a woman in a dark brown ink layered over a faint rendering of still images of a child a doughnut shop in a lavender ink.
"Donut kid" Dorothy Chow in one of Cambodian American artist Phung Huynh's Donut (W)hole exhibition. The solo exhibition features seven "donut kid" portraits rendered by Phung Huynh and printed on pink doughnut boxes. | Courtesy of Phung Huynh
Cambodian American artist Phung Huynh pays homage to the second-generation "donut kid" experience in her latest solo exhibition, "Donut (W)hole."
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Pink doughnut boxes may be a delightful symbol of sweet, ringed treats in California, but for many young Cambodian Americans, they are also a bittersweet symbol of survival and resilience. "[At the doughnut shop,] I learned to appreciate the unique differences that everyone in our community of customers had, which taught me to get out of my comfort zone a bit," said 26-year-old Andrew Hean from Long Beach, whose parents owned Donut Star in Inglewood, California, "but I also grew up working there every weekend, every holiday — any day I didn't have school all throughout high school I was there. My friends had stories of summers where they rode bikes everywhere, but I never did. I did go to parties, but I could only come once my family had finished making doughnuts for the day, since we had to drive all the way from Inglewood back to Long Beach." Hean's is one of the seven donut kid portraits rendered by Phung Huynh and printed on pink doughnut boxes by Dewey Tafoya for Huynh's solo exhibition at Self Help Graphics, "Donut (W)hole" opening this Saturday, March 12. Donut Kids is a collective term children of Cambodian American doughnut shop owners gave themselves to honor their shared experiences growing up around these houses of sweet, fried treats.

Andrew Hean in Phung Huynh's "Donut (W)hole" (2022)
"Donut kid" Andrew Hean on one of Phung Huynh's pieces in "Donut (W)hole." | Courtesy of Phung Huynh

"Pink doughnut boxes are so cute and so fun, but it stinks because all these Cambodians had to flee their country, live here and remake their lives working in doughnut shops," says Huynh. "Donut (W)hole" expands on Huynh's earlier body of work portraying first-generation Khmericans on pink doughnut boxes using graphite pencil. A refugee herself, Huynh could relate to many of her subjects' experiences of hard work and persistence. Huynh's father fled the Cambodian genocide and eventually relocated to the United States from Vietnam with his family, but not before spending some time in a Thai refugee camp. Through her parents, Huynh witnessed the trials of starting all over again in an unknown place with no previous connections to rely on.

Inspired by the sweet flavors of doughnuts, Huynh and Tafoya employed inks in hues of caramel, ube and blueberry. Huynh also added literal depth to her prints by layering a dotted image of them as children over their adult portraits. "I wanted to create this relationship of their past and how they grew up with their current portrait — who they are now," says Huynh.

A pink illustration of Michelle Sou is superimposed over a faint image of a Cambodian American family at a doughnut shop. The image in the background is faint and printed in a light pink color. Both elements of the art piece are printed on a pink doughnut box, flattened out.
A pink illustration of Michelle Sou is superimposed over a faint image of a Cambodian American family at a doughnut shop. The image in the background is faint and printed in a light pink color. Both elements of the art piece are printed on a pink doughnut box, flattened out.
1/3 "Donut kid" Michelle Sou, whose family owns a doughtnut shop in East Los Angeles, is featured on one of Phung Huynh's pieces in "Donut (W)hole." | Courtesy of Phung Huynh
An illustration of Chamreon Eng in purple ink superimposed over a faint photo of a baby and father. The photo in the background is printed in white ink over a flattened pink doughnut box. Chamreon is wearing eye glasses in his portrait.
An illustration of Chamreon Eng in purple ink superimposed over a faint photo of a baby and father. The photo in the background is printed in white ink over a flattened pink doughnut box. Chamreon is wearing eye glasses in his portrait.
2/3 "Donut kid" Chamreon Eng as part of Phung Huynh's "Donut (W)hole" solo exhibition. | Courtesy of Phung Huynh
An illustrated portrait of Ratana Kim in black and golden ink superimposed over an old photo of a Cambodian American inside the kitchen of a doughnut shop. The old photo is printed in pink ink.
An illustrated portrait of Ratana Kim in black and golden ink superimposed over an old photo of a Cambodian American inside the kitchen of a doughnut shop. The old photo is printed in pink ink.
3/3 "Donut kid" Ratana Kim on one of Phung Huynh's pieces in "Donut (W)hole." | Courtesy of Phung Huynh

Hean's childhood photo features him playing with Legos at his family's shop. "All the customers saw me grow up in that shop," says Hean, who is now on his final year of pharmacy at UC San Francisco and a hip hop artist, "That table [where I played Legos on] was the storefront where customers would sit down."

Emily Taing, an activist with a master's degree from Columbia University, submitted a photo of her as a young girl smiling at the camera with her upper body inside the display case. Her family owned the Best Donuts shop in Santa Clara, California. While playful, the image aptly conveys the sweet constraints of life at the doughnut shop. At one point, Taing's family was under investigation for child labor violations. "My parents could not afford childcare for me, other than to provide it themselves, nor were they able to hire on additional staff during the morning rush-hour crowd," wrote Taing of the experience years later. "On top of it all, there was the unspoken tension that this child labor violation served as a legal signifier from the state that my parents had failed at parenting, solely because I was spotted on the wrong side of the bar counter."

An old photo of Emily Taing as a baby with her father, Seng Taing. Seng is holding Emily as he leans over the counter. To their right is a glass box of doughnuts.
Emily Taing as a baby with her father, Seng Taing, at their family business, Best Donuts, in Santa Cruz circa 1995. | Courtesy of Emily Taing

"Donut (W)hole," says Huynh, is an exhibition that was partly born out of frustration. In California, anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of independently owned doughnut shops are run by Cambodian Americans, estimates Alice Gu, who directed the 2021 Independent Lens documentary "The Donut King." The 96-minute film details the incredible life of Ted Ngoy, the man behind this Cambodian American-doughnut connection. Despite Ngoy's epic life and the origin story of Cambodian American-owned doughnut shops being told in multiple media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to the Phnom Penh Post, Huynh noted that not many told the story from an insider's point of view. "I saw it trending and it irritated me. Other people shouldn't be telling our stories." At the time, the Trump administration also fanned the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism, which made telling these immigrant stories feel even more urgent.

Pink doughnut boxes are so cute and so fun, but it stinks because all these Cambodians had to flee their country, live here and remake their lives working in doughnut shops.
Phung Huynh

Then two things happened. Huynh connected with Pink Box Stories, a collective that shares stories of the Cambodian families behind these doughnut shops, and Self Help Graphics, who was able to secure a grant from the Pasadena Art Alliance for this exhibition. "All the stars aligned and it erupted into what I wanted to do," says Huynh.

With Pink Box Stories' help, Huynh was able to interview seven donut kids. Huynh says that while many were positive stories, others were also laced with traumatic experiences such as Dorothy Chow's early memory of being mercilessly heckled by college-aged customers while minding the store in eighth grade. "She was so terrified inside, but didn't show it. In the end, [the college kids] threw their money at her and then left," recalled Huynh. Chow took those and many other experiences and turned those things that only served to strengthen her resolve. Chow is now the Vice President of Sales at B&H Bakery Distributors, the biggest distributor to independent doughnut shops in Northern California. Over the pandemic, she also launched a podcast called "Death in Cambodia, Life in America," a one-on-one conversation between her and her father talking about his escape from the Khmer Rouge and rebuilding his life in the United States.

An illustration of a pink doughnut box, opened. On the inside of the top flap are the words "Open 24 Hours."
One of four doughnut box prints by Phung Hyunh made to complement the "donut kid" portraits. | Courtesy of Phung Hyunh

Complementing these portraits are prints of doughnut boxes with messages that help illustrate life in a doughnut shop. One print, a doughnut box with the words "Sold Out," could read as a double entendre. On the one hand, it could mean a good day of sales. On the other, it could allude to donut kids, leaving the doughnut shops in pursuit of their careers outside of the shop. Messages like "Open 24 Hours," "Cash Only" and "Vai Nom," which means "make donuts" in Khmer, hint at the sheer amount of work it takes to keep a store running.

The show is undoubtedly a pleasure to view, but for Phung and the donut kids, the exhibition is also a way to build bridges. "What I hope people take away from the exhibition is to always be cognizant of what other people have done to get to the point where they're at," says Hean. "When you walk into a doughnut shop, it could [be] a family business that is everything to them, where they spend so many hours. There's just so many stories behind everything, even though it may look like a rundown doughnut shop."

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