TED NGOY HAD an unrelenting obsession during his 1975 plane ride from Southeast Asia to Southern California.
“I just wanted to raise pigs and chickens and have enough meat and eggs to take to the market,” recalls Ngoy, who came from a poor family in Cambodia, where 99% of the people are farmers. “That was my dream.”
The dream would not be fulfilled, but eventually, Ngoy, now 47, made his way in a manner more spectacular than he ever could have imagined.
In Cambodia, Ngoy was in law school when poverty forced him to drop out and work as a travel agent and tour guide. Later, he became a major in the army assigned to his country’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. That’s where he was in 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge took control of his native land and began a four-year reign of terror.
Unable to return home, Ngoy fled with his wife and three children and arrived almost destitute at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. They spent their first month in America waiting for a sponsor. Eventually, a Lutheran church in Tustin hired Ngoy as its full-time janitor, allowing the family to move into a small, showerless room on the premises.
To make ends meet, Ngoy took on two extra jobs: as an evening clerk at a Builders Emporium and as a nighttime pump jockey at a gas station. Then, as if it had been preordained, it happened: Ngoy discovered doughnuts.
One night at the gas station, a co-worker ducked over to a nearby doughnut shop to bring him his first taste of the sugary snacks. “I didn’t know what it was,” Ngoy says, “but I liked it. My kids liked it, too.”
The next day, the ambitious church janitor bicycled to the doughnut shop and, holding out the small amount of cash he had managed to save, offered to buy the place. “They didn’t understand me,” recalls Ngoy, who spoke little English at the time. “They turned me down.”
A day later, he approached a Winchell’s doughnut shop with the same offer. As fate would have it, the company had just initiated an affirmative action program to increase its minority hiring, and Ngoy was soon enrolled in a management-training program. After a year of managing a Winchell’s Donut House in Newport Beach, Ngoy had borrowed enough money from friends and relatives in the tightknit Cambodian community to buy Christy’s, an independent doughnut shop in La Habra.
By the mid-1980s, Ngoy had saved and scraped together money many times over. The one shop had become 50--a veritable doughnut empire stretching from San Francisco to San Diego. And the new Cambodian doughnut czar and his family occupied a luxurious home on a private lake in Mission Viejo.
“I am very happy,” says Ngoy, who now employs most of his relatives, including his wife and children, and has begun to diversify. Over the years, he has also repaid his loans by setting up dozens of his countrymen in shops of their own. “America is a miraculous country.”
Indeed, it must seem miraculous to the hundreds of Cambodian refugees who, like Ngoy, are changing the face of Southern California. Their impact can be seen most dramatically in cities such as Long Beach, where nearly half of the region’s estimated 85,000 Cambodians live. They have virtually remade a bleak portion of that city’s central “Anaheim corridor” into a thriving commercial district, a neighborhood infused with their religion and culture.
One anchor of the Long Beach Cambodian community is the $1.4-million Khemara Buddhikarama pagoda, a religious and cultural center that provides social services. Another is the United Cambodian Community, which, over the past 12 years, has expanded from a few friends with part-time use of a borrowed desk to an organization with seven offices and a $2.4-million budget that annually serves more than 10,000 people from a variety of immigrant groups.
The community as a whole faces serious problems, says Vora H. Kanthoul, associate executive director of the center. Although Cambodian immigration has slowed to a trickle, according to Kanthoul, many of the immigrants are still unskilled and unemployed. Unlike doughnut mogul Ngoy, who was lucky enough to escape the atrocities under the Khmer Rouge, many of the immigrants face a particularly acute need for mental health services to treat what experts describe as disorientation, depression, inertia, paranoia, even functional blindness apparently brought about by the traumas they experienced. They also encounter discrimination. Asian leaders agree that most Americans seem to have a healthy respect for Cambodian culture, but occasional misunderstandings still evoke the sort of hostile reactions that some fear may be lingering just below the service.
An incident in Long Beach earlier this year is one example. Animal-rights activists expressed outrage after a judge dismissed cruelty charges against two Cambodians who had admitted killing a German shepherd puppy for food. Cambodian leaders were quick to characterize such behavior as un-Cambodian. Nonetheless, the incident provoked ugly responses, including a rash of seemingly racist bumper stickers, and resulted in state legislation outlawing the killing of pets for consumption.
Overall, most Cambodians say, life in America is improving. “The longer you stay, the better things get,” Kanthoul says. “It’s a success story. Considering that (the immigrants) came with nothing but their bare hands, if you’re not impressed with the achievement, I don’t know what you’re looking for.”