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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

From Sweet Success to Bitter Tears

The immigrant who became the 'doughnut king' had wealth and clout -- and a nasty gambling habit. Now he sleeps on a trailer porch.

January 19, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Cambodian entrepreneur -- A Jan. 19 article in Section A about Cambodian entrepreneur Ted Ngoy said Ngoy saw Elvis Presley perform in Las Vegas in 1977. Presley, who died in 1977, made his final Las Vegas appearance the previous year, which is when Ngoy saw him.

*

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.

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