Few people know why there are so many Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in California. Even fewer would draw connections between the Cold War and those bright pink donut boxes made popular in the 1980s. As the U.S. war in Vietnam extended into Vietnam's neighbors, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, killing millions and displacing hundreds of thousands. Refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia first arrived in Orange County by way of Camp Pendleton in 1975. Among them was a man who would later be known as the "Donut King": Ted Ngoy. Ngoy, his wife Suganthini, their three children, an adopted nephew and two nieces were sponsored by a church in Tustin.
Working as a church janitor and a gas station attendant at night, Ngoy observed the nearby doughnut shop, and its food that reminded him of the Cambodian rice flour pastry nom kong. Seeing the steady stream of donut customers inspired Ngoy to start a business of his own. Ngoy's church sponsors helped him become the first Southeast Asian accepted into Winchell's management training program. In 1979, after gaining experience running a Winchell's on the Balboa pier in Newport Beach, he bought a small doughnut shop in La Habra called Christy's where his wife and kids worked to keep the shop running. This is a familiar story of the reliance on unpaid family labor in the "mom-and-pop" ethnic economy. When Suganthini became a U.S. citizen, she took the name Christy.
Explore some of the spaces in Orange County shaped by the Cold War. Click on the starred map points to read more in-depth stories.
As the Khmer Rouge wiped out between 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 and displaced hundreds of thousands more, Ngoy was steadily growing his doughnut empire in America. This niche business created an economic pipeline for newly arrived refugees from Cambodia. By the 1990s, there were approximately 1,500 Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in California.
The cultural lore that explains why doughnut boxes in the west coast are often the iconic bright pink is that they were chosen by Ngoy and his business associates as a cheaper alternative to the white boxes — suggestively symbolizing the valuation of immigrant labor compared to white labor. Cambodian Americans' dominance of the doughnut scene began in Orange County and helps us see the ongoing legacies of the Cold War from a freshly glazed lens.