From Sweet Success to Bitter Tears
On the porch of a friend’s mobile home in Long Beach, the Cambodian doughnut king falls asleep each night shivering.
Once, he enjoyed the warmth of family and the respect of his community. Once, he was a poor boy who carried away one of Cambodia’s wealthiest daughters. Once, he was a millionaire who met three U.S. presidents.
Ted Ngoy made a fortune in doughnuts. Over the years, he led thousands of his countrymen into the business. Through doughnuts, many Cambodians stepped out of isolation and into the American mainstream. And a new figure emerged on the California business landscape: the Cambodian doughnut-shop owner.
Today, at 62, the doughnut king is broke, homeless and dependent on the goodwill of his few remaining friends.
“He lost all the doughnuts,” said James Dok, director of the United Cambodian Community, a social service agency in Long Beach. “He has to start a new life.”
He was born Bun Tek Ngoy. His mother raised him in a rural village near Cambodia’s border with Thailand. He was Chinese Cambodian, part of a despised underclass.
In 1967, his mother sent him to study in Phnom Penh, the capital. At school, Ngoy fell in love from afar with a beautiful girl. Her name was Suganthini Khoeun. Her father was a high-ranking government official. Her brother-in-law, Sutsakhan Sak, was chief of police and would become, briefly, the country’s president.
Suganthini’s parents hoped she would marry well. Until then, she was kept sheltered. At 16, she had no friends, could not talk to boys and was forbidden to leave home alone.
Ngoy lived in an attic apartment a few blocks from the Khoeun family’s mansion. The son of a peddler had no chance with such a girl, no right even to think of loving her. But one night, he had an idea.
He sat on the roof of his apartment and played his flute, the music sweeping over the neighborhood. Suganthini and her mother heard the music. Those are the sounds of a man in love, her mother said.
Ngoy wrote to her. I am the flute player, he said in a note passed through the family’s maid. A week later, Suganthini wrote back, and the two began a secret correspondence. Ngoy asked to visit.
“I don’t think you dare come to my room,” she responded. Soldiers and dogs guarded the mansion. One night in a pouring rain, Ngoy scaled a coconut tree beside the wall surrounding her home. He cut his chest sliding under barbed wire. From the wall, he leaped onto the roof and crawled through an open window. Drenched and bleeding, he tiptoed into a hallway. He had to guess which room was hers.
He opened a door, and there she was.
Suganthini was terrified, but she let the stranger stay. For the next 45 days, he lived in her room. He slept under the bed and hid when the maids came to clean.
Late at night, Ngoy would put Suganthini on his back and climb down the roof, then down the coconut tree. They would speed through Phnom Penh on his motorcycle, the couple recalled. Before sunrise, they would climb back into her room.
One night under a full moon, they knelt and prayed. They pricked their fingers and squeezed drops of blood into a cup of water. They both drank and vowed to be faithful.
Eventually, her parents discovered Ngoy and threw him out. They arranged a meeting for the couple at a relative’s house, where Ngoy was expected to formally end their romance. Her parents and cousins hid behind curtains so they could hear him break off the relationship.
Ngoy told Suganthini that he didn’t love her. He was a fraud, he said.
Then he pulled a knife. That is a lie, he cried, and plunged the blade into his belly. Suganthini’s father ran out from hiding and called an ambulance.
Suganthini’s parents kept her locked in her room for days. Distraught, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and fell into a coma.
When the couple recovered, her parents finally allowed them to marry.
War erupted in 1970. Ngoy joined the army. With the help of his brother-in-law, he was promoted to major and appointed military attache at the country’s embassy in Thailand.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and the Cambodian genocide began.
“Then I went to America,” Ngoy said, “and created the doughnut world.”
The couple and their three toddlers arrived penniless at Camp Pendleton, part of the first wave of Cambodian refugees.
Peace Lutheran Church in Tustin hired Ngoy as a janitor. He found a second job at a gas station. Near the station was a doughnut shop. Night after night, he watched customers come and go.
Eager to learn the business, Ngoy approached the shop owners. They told him Winchell’s Donuts trained store managers. Ngoy became a trainee and took over a Winchell’s in Newport Beach. He hired his wife and nephew. The family members worked 17 hours a day and saved for a year.
Ngoy bought his first doughnut shop from a couple who was retiring. Christy’s Doughnuts in La Habra never did great business. But from then on, every store Ngoy and his wife bought or opened they named Christy’s Doughnuts.
Ngoy bought stores in Fullerton, Anaheim, Anaheim Hills and Buena Park over the next year. He wanted to buy more, but he was exhausted running the five he owned.
Then he had his next great idea. Huge numbers of Cambodian refugees were arriving in California. Doughnut shops were easy to run. An owner could keep costs low by employing his family.
Ngoy would open more shops and lease them to fellow refugees.
“I’m happy; they’re happy,” he said.
The Ngoys drove a motor home around California, opening shops in Los Angeles, Modesto, Fresno, San Jose, the Bay Area city of Brisbane, Sacramento and San Diego. At each stop, they set up the business and trained the families who leased it.
Ngoy showed them baking and bookkeeping. He taught them the names of the doughnuts: old fashioned, jelly-filled, glazed. He helped them apply for permits. He co-signed loans for supplies and equipment.
The Ngoys helped hundreds of refugees find housing and apply for Social Security cards. Because of the Ngoys, a Cambodian refugee’s first American job was often in a doughnut shop.
Doughnuts offered an escape from years of welfare dependency. The families who followed Ngoy’s lead learned to run businesses and picked up English. Doughnut revenue put their children through college.
Ngoy doesn’t remember how many stores he started or bought -- 40? 50? 60?
“I just want to create as many as I can,” he said. “Where I’m going, I don’t know. I just do it.”
Like Ngoy, most of the people who leased his stores were Chinese Cambodian. They did business on a handshake, he said, and his tenants always paid.
By the mid-1980s, he was a millionaire. But he was more than well-off; he was respected. In 1985, he and Suganthini became U.S. citizens. They took American names. He became Ted. She became Christy.
Christy and Ted bought a $1-million, three-story, 7,000-square-foot house with palm trees and a three-car garage on Lake Mission Viejo in Orange County. Ted liked Cadillacs; Christy preferred Mercedes-Benz convertibles. They had a vacation home in Big Bear and a time share in Acapulco. They went to Europe twice.
Ted joined the Republican Party, held fundraisers for George H.W. Bush, met former Presidents Reagan and Nixon, and urged other Asian immigrants to support the GOP.
Soon, Cambodians began copying the Ted Ngoy business model. His tenants opened their own stores and leased them out. In the early 1990s, it was reported that California had 2,400 Cambodian-owned doughnut shops.
“Everybody went to the gold mine,” Ngoy said.
Despite his success, he said, he felt unhappy and isolated.
“No political life, no religious life, just work, work,” he said. “Money, doughnuts, sleep.”
He was ready to be taken by a new passion.
He had gotten his first taste of that passion years earlier. The Ngoys went to Las Vegas for the first time in 1977. They saw Elvis Presley perform, and Ted played a little blackjack.
Over the next few years, he went back every month or so, seeing Tom Jones, Diana Ross and Wayne Newton -- and betting ever-larger sums.
Pit bosses, floor men and dealers at Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand and the Mirage got to know the Cambodian doughnut king. Casino operators gave Ngoy free rooms, food, airfare and front-row seats to prize fights.
In return, he played their tables and lost thousands of dollars.
“Las Vegas was the new thing,” he said, “besides making money and making doughnuts,”
Ngoy’s wife hated his gambling. She would discover big losses, and they would argue, sending their children running to their rooms. She would forgive him when he promised to stop, and he would -- for a while. “I believed him a thousand times,” she said.
Then Ngoy would fly to Las Vegas without telling her, sometimes staying as long as a week. She would drive there with her youngest son and go from hotel to hotel looking for him.
Ngoy forged her signature on checks. He borrowed money from relatives who had leased his doughnut shops. When he lost big, he would sign the stores over to them.
“When you get to the table, you’re so emotional, evil in your body,” he said. “You cannot resist against it.”
Word spread. Refugees who had sought his advice now avoided him, fearing he would ask for a loan.
Ngoy tried Gamblers Anonymous. “I cry. Everybody cry,” he said. “After cry, go back gambling.”
He began placing bets with Cambodian bookies on football and basketball games. He had $50,000 riding on many Sundays.
In 1990, after disappearing for another disastrous trip to Las Vegas, he flew to Washington, D.C., and joined a Buddhist monastery. In saffron robes and shaved head, the doughnut king spent a month meditating. Then he flew to a monastery in the Thai countryside. Each morning, he walked with the monks, begging for food from peasants, crying as the rocky roads tore at his bare feet.
Once back in Orange County, he bet more than ever.
“Monks cannot help me,” he said. “Buddha cannot help me.”
Cambodia was planning its first elections in 1993, and well-to-do emigres from California were returning to run for office.
Ngoy was one. His doughnut fortune was almost gone. He had sold what few shops remained. A bank had foreclosed on his mansion on Lake Mission Viejo.
In Cambodia, Ngoy formed the Free Development Republican Party. He believed he could show others the path to wealth and opportunity.
He also figured that as a prominent politician, he would be forced to control his gambling habit.
“When I become big guy, then I cannot go gamble because people won’t vote for you. They won’t trust you,” he said.
His party did poorly in the 1993 and 1998 parliamentary elections, but Prime Minister Hun Sen made him an advisor on commerce and agriculture.
Using his Republican Party connections, Ngoy successfully lobbied the U.S. for most-favored-nation trade status for Cambodia in 1995, helping create a modern garment industry and thousands of jobs.
When Christy returned to California for the birthday of a grandchild in 1999, Ngoy met a young woman and brought her to live in his house. To Christy, this was the final betrayal. She divorced him and didn’t return to Cambodia.
Ngoy ended his political career abruptly in 2002, breaking with two powerful allies, the commerce minister and the head of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce. At a news conference, he dissolved his party and accused the government of corruption. The next day, he flew back to Los Angeles.
He left behind his new wife and their two children, and what he had seen as his last chance at redemption.
The doughnut king landed at LAX with $50 in his pocket.
He returned to a refugee community in transition. About 30 Christy’s Doughnuts were still in operation, as were hundreds of other Cambodian-owned doughnut shops. But Cambodians were leaving the business, tired of working 17-hour days and squeezing a 13-cent profit from every 65-cent doughnut. They were moving their capital and know-how into liquor stores, markets and fast-food restaurants.
None of the people Ngoy helped get started lent him a hand, he said: “I trained them. I shared love, my heart. Where are they now?”
He says his gambling is under control -- though he has no money with which to test this will power. He subsists on small handouts from friends. He turned down a job as a security guard because it required standing for eight hours. He took a real estate class but said he couldn’t retain the details.
He has converted to Christianity, he said, and prays often, asking God for help. On Sundays, he attends Parkcrest Christian Church in Long Beach. He spends his evenings alone, reading the Bible.
A woman from his church lets him sleep in the screened porch outside her mobile home, which he has fashioned into a makeshift bedroom. His few shirts and pants hang from a clothesline.
Ngoy believes he is suffering God’s punishment for having betrayed the blood vow he made as a young man under the moonlight in Phnom Penh.
Christy Ngoy now owns a Peruvian restaurant in Irvine. One of their sons is a financial consultant; another is a computer-networking technician. A daughter owns a 1950s-style hamburger restaurant in Orange County.
“Once, I said I would die if something happened to him,” Christy said of her ex-husband. Their fairy tale romance is so distant, she said, it’s as if it happened to someone else. The stranger who crept into her room more than 35 years ago is a stranger again.
Ted Ngoy has become a stranger even to himself.
“I don’t know who I am right now,” he said. “I say, ‘Ted, who are you?’ I really don’t know.”