‘Uncle Ted’ made millions from doughnuts. His story is a sweet tooth’s delight

The Donut King ★★★½

Americans, apparently, eat 10 billion doughnuts a year. It’s staggering but what’s even more amazing is that a large portion of those doughnuts, in California at least, are made by Cambodian refugees and their families.

And that’s because of one man: Ben Tek Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who made millions through his doughnut shops, helped hundreds of Cambodian families fleeing Pol Pot’s murderous regime and then gambled it all away. That’s not a spoiler – it’s saving you half an hour from this overly long documentary that, while interesting, skips over some important details in the past decade or so of Ngoy’s life.

For the first hour, though, this is a cracking story from director Alice Gu that will have you craving every glazed, iced, sprinkled doughnut going around. Not the relatively modest ones we have here, which come with a coating of cinnamon sugar, but the colossal American variety – you know, a moment on the lips, a lifetime on medication to reduce your cholesterol levels.

The shots of the thick white icing being poured over the doughnuts is hypnotic yet heart tightening, but the story behind Ngoy and America’s deep-fried circle is the American Dream and a Cautionary Tale rolled into one. A migrant success story that America prides itself on, where hard work will get you far, but the trappings of that success will only see you fall further.

It took six months between Ngoy landing in a US refugee camp in 1975 to him being handed the keys to his first doughnut store. He worked almost 24 hours a day to achieve it, juggling three jobs and a young family, but focused on the idea of being somebody. As he says, When you’re poor, you’ll do anything. By 1979 he would own 25 doughnut shops and go on to sponsor more than 100 more Cambodian families fleeing the war. It wasn’t just pure selflessness, of course, he saw these families as providing even more business opportunities and money.

He became Uncle Ted to many, a semi-mythical figure who provided money, training and jobs, but who then gambled it away, taking money from the very community he helped build. He fought off Donut King, who reigned supreme in the eastern states of the US, and created a food culture that was peculiar to California. Ngoy was even responsible for the pink box that has become synonymous with doughnuts in pop culture.

Now 80, Ngoy is still a sprightly figure who is interviewed throughout the documentary. His family and former colleagues flesh out the picture somewhat but his last decade or so living in Cambodia, his second family and political career are largely glossed over.

It’s as if Gu wanted the cuddly migrant story and couldn’t quite bring herself to fully explore what happened to Ngoy after he built and then lost his empire. Maybe it wasn’t interesting, and that’s fine, but the way some type of calamity was hinted at all through the first part of the documentary, I thought some type of war crime was in the offing.

And maybe that’s on me – with the explosion of true-crime documentaries over the past few years, have we all been conditioned to believe there’s a monster hiding around every corner? Sometimes it’s just plain ol’ gambling and then a rebuilding of some sorts, a story of struggle, community and doughnuts. Does that make good TV? It makes for gentle television, but mainly it made me hungry.

The Donut King airs on SBS Viceland, Tuesday, May 31 at 8. 30pm.

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