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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

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.

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.

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."

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