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Finding Human Decency in Glazed Donuts and Cats in the Cradle

In an era of great cruelty, two new documentaries attempt to reintroduce us to the kind of humanity that can restore our faith in each other

In October 2018, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic wrote a piece with such a clear-eyed title and theme that it’s become the metonym for the Trump era grotesquerie that at one point or another, has broken any and all of us with an ounce of human decency: “The Cruelty is the Point.”

There’s no need to relive the horror show right here, right now, because it would seem we’re about to put it all in the rear-view mirror. That said, while the cruelty may be coming to a close (provided there is something resembling our typical transition of power), a dark winter is coming, with holidays that are likely to be lonely and a pandemic that’s likely to cause a death toll the likes of which this country has never seen. 

My suggestion to get through it all: Put down the doom scroll, and pick up a donut. 

Better yet, get a dozen donuts and stream The Donut King. It’s the story of Ted Ngoy, a 1970s Cambodian refugee who built a Southern California cruller empire and dedicated himself to enriching the lives of so many of his fellow countryfolk sent to America with nothing. “Uncle Ted,” as he would come to be known by the Cambodian diaspora, was so influential that at the peak, there were 5,000 independent Golden State donut shops, an incredible 90 percent of which were owned and operated by Cambodians. The shops were so ubiquitous, Dunkin’ decided in the early-aughts it was no longer time to make the donuts in SoCal and shipped their frosted asses back to Boston. 

Documentarian Alice Gu first heard about the phenomenon from her nanny, who declined a fancy foodie, high-end cruller because she only ate “Cambodian donuts.” A few days later, the nanny brought Gu a sample, which she found delicious, but still didn’t understand what made them Cambodian. “My nanny said, ‘It’s because Cambodian people make them,’ which sent me down a rabbit hole of research. I came across an L.A. Times story about Ted Ngoy, which tripped me out,” says Gu. “Here’s a man who came to the U.S., penniless, doesn’t speak English, and within three years, he was a millionaire selling donuts for a dime apiece.” 

In 1975, Ngoy fled his home country with his wife Christy (they both adopted Americanized first names), three children and three other relatives. A former major in the army, Uncle Ted had to leave following a savage five-year Civil War that saw 250,000 deaths and the Communist Khmer Rouge taking over the country; they would go on to murder some two million of their own people in the Cambodian Genocide. In short order, Ngoy went from a Thai refugee camp, to a “tent city” at California’s Camp Pendleton, to sleeping in a church where he worked as a custodian, to a gas station jockey, to the Winchell Donut House’s training program, to purchasing his own $45,000 La Habra store (christened “Christy’s”), to immortality, best represented in pink, the color he brought to donut box history

Ngoy hit on a business arrangement with his fellow refugees that enabled so many of them to get a foothold while enabling Ngoy to become a millionaire 20 times over. He started leasing stores, keeping 30 percent for himself, which meant more than 60 shops each providing him between $3,000 to $7,000 a month. Ngoy fully enjoyed the fruits of his labor, too, buying a 7,000 square-foot, gated-community mansion with its own elevator and private lake boat dock, traveling the world and becoming a mover-and-shaker in Republican politics, meeting his hero Ronald Reagan along the way. By every measure, both honest and clichéd, Ngoy had achieved the American Dream, telling the L.A. Times in 1988, “It’s a miraculous country.” 

It’s an incredible saga for a man who didn’t actually know what a donut was when he reached the U.S. His largess became legendary, his financial seeds flowering 2,500 first-generation shops. He pulled people on the lowest economic rung out of poverty wages, like Choung Lee, a single mother who spent years earning $10 a day — sewing 1,000 garments at a penny per item — who eventually saved up 20K and opened her own Santa Monica joint, DK’s Donuts

However, like a three-bear-claws-for-breakfast sugar high, the euphoria eventually wore off, and it all came crashing down. “Ted is an enigmatic guy, a showman and a hustler who told me, ‘I can put on a glaze on anything.’ I’m not sure I ever totally figured him out, but when it came to Cambodians, his intentions were pure,” says Gu. “He genuinely wanted his refugee community to have better lives, and there was no hesitation in offering to help people and to get them set up in the donut business… until Ted’s demons got the best of him. Asian men and gambling is a thing.” 

The toxic recipe of money, ego, power and Vegas ended Ngoy’s reign as the donut king. It only took him a few years to lose everything at the blackjack tables, a high roller who took to taking secret flights, forging Christy’s name and “borrowing” money from Cambodians who wouldn’t see it again, even Choung Lee. (Don’t fret, DK’s Donuts is killing it in the age of Instagrammable “Fruity Pebble ‘O-Nuts.”) Within a decade, Ngoy would be divorced from the woman he’d loved since high school, estranged from his older children and living in pedestrian digs back in his home country. 

Thanks to the Cambodian community and social media, Gu was able to find Uncle Ted, interview him at his home and bring him on a return trip to California. Unlike so many men of wealth and power, Ngoy seems racked with guilt knowing the harm he caused and what’s been lost. His remorse is sincere. Divorcing his wife is a pain he’ll never get past, although Gu says in making The Donut King, he’s at least reconnected with all his kids. Ngoy’s fall from grace led to sleeping on the floor of a wealthy man he got started in the donut racket. That irony alone shows that what Uncle Ted did for his people can’t be overstated. 

Gu wraps up the film with an overlay of Gerald Ford’s speech welcoming 130,000 immigrants, refugees from the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia, a speech the Republican president gave because he was “damned mad” at the country’s opposition — including Democrats like California Governor Jerry Brown — to the humanitarian resettlement program. Ford got his way, Ngoy got his shot, Cambodians got a stake in the ground, and thanks to Gu, the rest of us get a welcome reminder that cruelty doesn’t have to be baked into America. Or its donuts. 

“I am forever changed by the profound fact that the humble donut fed, clothed, housed and educated countless Cambodian families,” says Gu, whose parents left Mao’s Communist China, afraid they’d be killed following the Communist Revolution. “This fun little empty-calorie sweet treat we all love was a source of salvation for an entire group of people.” 

Speaking of someone who has long been in need of salvation, it’s the unnamed-yet-fully-ashamed dad in “Cats in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin’s 1974 fable about the long-term ramifications of neglecting your kids, how they will turn the tables on you later in life and how for men of a certain Gen-X age, the opening line — “my child arrived just the other day” — sets the tear ducts a-flowing. (I needed a moment just typing it.) First written as a poem by Chapin’s wife Sandy, the incredible story of building an allegedly “successful” life in business that only culminates in short phone calls and regret was Chapin’s only #1 hit. 

A live “Cats in the Cradle” performance serves as the midpoint of the new documentary Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, accompanied by a montage of countless sitcoms referencing it, and how the phrase itself has become shorthand for shitty parenting. The song has been covered ad nauseam by everyone from Johnny Cash to Ugly Kid Joe to an inexplicable duet remix between DMC and Sarah McLachlan. It’s an American staple, as are other Chapin favorites like “Taxi” and “W*O*L*D,” a style of acoustic storytelling backed by a cello and falsetto that for a brief time, lit up the AM dial along with folkie peers like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and Carly Simon. 

As for the film, the first half details Chapin’s rise from a bohemian childhood in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights to a chart-topping troubadour and features an assortment of talking heads, all of whom rave about what a good dude Chapin was, including a gloriously exuberant Billy Joel. A one-time opener for Chapin, the fellow Long Islander laughs at how it took him years, but that he finally made his peace with “Piano Man” being referred to as Chapin-esque. 

“Harry came to our high school and played a two-hour concert and talked to us about the fight against hunger,” says director Rick Korn, a longtime producer of film and TV documentaries and benefit concerts. “I went to lacrosse practice, came back a couple hours later, and Harry was still there rapping with my classmates. It’s who he was. I was into the Allman Brothers and Springsteen, Harry wasn’t even considered cool in his day, but he was so dedicated and committed to fighting hunger and homelessness, it left a major impression.”

The second half of When in Doubt, Do Something zeroes in on the legacy Chapin left as an activist for poverty issues. In the 1970s, Chapin was a frequent guest on a radio program called “On This Rock,” a Sunday evening show hosted by a Catholic priest named Bill Ayres. The rock-and-roll-and-religion show led Chapin and Ayres to create the organization WhyHunger in 1975. (Ayres would leave the priesthood in the early 1980s to focus on social justice.)

More generally, Chapin was never one to sit still. He was always on the go-go-go, flying about the country preaching anti-hunger initiatives, often showing up for gigs at the last possible moment and always, always, always talking. (His loquaciousness is described in the doc as “two’s company, Harry’s a crowd.”) Chapin was relentless in his activist efforts, showing up in Washington D.C. to champion President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on World Hunger — the only member to attend all the meetings, natch — and basically doing a benefit show wherever, whenever, for whomever could help the cause. To the dismay of his touring musicians and agent, he would often play a cheap backyard show in the same city where they had an arena gig the same week. 

“Most rock stars are addicted to drugs, booze, women or all three, but Harry’s addiction was helping people to the point of bastardizing his own career,” says Korn, who got to know Ayres when they put together a 9/11 benefit concert series in New Jersey featuring Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. “Harry’s music sustained his philanthropic life. Money was never a big deal to him, and he just gave it away. He couldn’t say no.”

The cruelty in Chapin’s life was one of fate. It came on the Long Island Expressway on July 16, 1981 when his Volkswagen Rabbit was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer in a horrific crash. The truck driver pulled Chapin’s badly burned body from the wreckage, but he died within the hour. Harry Chapin was just 38. He had a benefit concert scheduled for that night. 

Korn said they timed the documentary to come out now, for reasons you can piece together on your own. (It also allows for a clip of Andrew Cuomo waxing nostalgic about his daughters via “Cats in the Cradle” during a daily coronavirus update.) Korn also carried Chapin’s torch this month, putting together a benefit concert starring Springsteen, Alabama Shakes and Keb’ Mo’ called Do Something and Vote. “I don’t know exactly what Harry would be doing if he were alive today, but I know his brother Tom got it right when he said, ‘Whatever it is, he’d be in the middle of it,’” says Korn. “In his lifetime, Harry never gave up the fight, but what blows my mind is here’s a guy whose last hit song came out in 1980, not long before his death, and the organizations he and Ayres started — WhyHunger, Long Island Cares and the Harry Chapin Foundation — are on the frontlines of the pandemic today. We made the film to show how empathy and compassion can change the world.” 

Ted Ngoy and Harry Chapin left their mark beyond cake donuts and folk songs. They looked out for those on the margins, forgotten people who so often take the brunt of the country’s casual lived-in cruelty. It’s been a long, hard, dispiriting road, but the fight never ends. Because no matter where we go, there is only one outcome to strive for: The humanity is the point. 

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