Two days before the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, a then 33-year-old Ted Ngoy dodged artillery shells as he tried to flee the capital in an American C-130, the last aircraft leaving town.
“When I was running to the plane, grenades continued to drop every 10 meters away, I just prayed that the plane could take off quickly,” Ngoy, who is now 80-years-old, recalled in a recent interview with Kiripost in Phnom Penh.
“They bombarded the airport so the plane could not take off, my flesh was shaking,” he added.
Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, and the C-130 was transporting rice from Bangkok to Phnom Penh to people who needed food at the time, as fighting continued between US-backed Lon Nol forces and the Khmer Rouge. At the time, Ngoy was a military major.
Ngoy, known internationally as the “Donut King,” is a Cambodian-American entrepreneur who is now involved in a multi-million real estate project in Kampot province.
Ngoy’s life has gone through many ups and downs. From being rich to broke and homeless due to gambling addictions. Now, he says he is rich again, thanks to Chinese money.
In recent years, Ngoy has been involved in purchasing 700 hectares of land in Kampot, which he plans to transform into a special economic zone for a Chinese investor.
“Now, I have money again. When I do good deeds, God helps,” he said, adding he also built New Light Church in Kep and is planning to build another one in Kampot.
His life now sits in stark contrast to that in 1975, when some months before the capital’s fall, Phnom Penh was bombarded with artillery shells by the Khmer Rouge. Soldiers of the Pol Pot-led regime surrounded the capital and Pochentong Airport, as it was known before, was the limit that people could reach, some 12 kilometers away, Ngoy recalled.
Phnom Penh residents lacked food and needed supplies, so American C-130s were transporting rice.
“Please look after my daughter”
The C-130’s last food supply was on April 15, 1975, Ngoy said. A pilot called him to run to the airplane to flee in the aircraft as it was the last to leave Cambodia at the time.
Senior military general, Sak Sutsakhan, was Ngoy’s father-in-law and was in his late-70s or 80s at the time. Sutsakhan drove Ngoy to the airport amid bombardment by the Khmer Rouge.
In the huge windowless plane, Ngoy recalled there were only three people inside - a captain, a mechanic and himself.
“He said to me, ‘please look after my daughter’,” Ngoy said as he recalled the teary goodbye with Sutsakhan. At the time, Ngoy was married to Khoeun Suganthini and had three children.
He landed in Thailand’s U-Tapao military base and stayed there for one month helping to organize for Cambodians to leave to countries in Europe and America as refugees.
After all the Cambodians had left Thailand, Ngoy chose to go to the United States on June 15, 1975 along with his wife Suganthini, children and some nephews. They arrived in California and Ngoy was sponsored $500 a month by a church in Tustin. During the daytime, Ngoy cut grass and cleaned the church after prayers.
“Cambodia’s noum kong”
The $500 per month couldn’t feed eight people in Ngoy’s family, so the church helped him find another job as a gas station attendant. His job was to pump gas from 10pm to 6am, earning him another $500.
Night shifts were cold and weekends were busy. Near the gas station, there was a donut shop and an American colleague gave him one to try. He found it delicious and brought donuts for his family to try. They agreed and said donuts were similar to Cambodia’s noum kong: deep-fried Khmer donuts made with coconut milk.
“I saw a woman selling donuts and I asked that woman if I could save up $3,000, I didn't know how much a shop costs, I just asked for fun, I was curious and wanted to be rich. If I have $3,000, can I open a shop? She said to me are you crazy? You don't know how to make donuts and your English is broken. If you open it, you will lose all of your savings.”
The woman told Ngoy to seek training on how to make donuts at Winchell’s Donut House, which trains people and lets them run a shop under a 60-40 percent profit-sharing agreement.
“Now I have $30,000”
After repeated attempts and with the help of the church, Ngoy secured the job and was told he was the first Asian to get the gig.
He managed to finance one shop, making some $20,000 to $30,000 profits per year. He went on to ask the advice of a police officer about bulking up his business and buying more shops.
The officer brought newspapers for Ngoy to see the business opportunity section for people to buy. He saw a shop that was on sale for $50,000 but he only had $30,000. However, he decided to give it a shot and called up.
“Before, I had $3,000 and I asked if I could open up a shop. Now I have $30,000,” he said. Fortunately, Ngoy was able to wrangle a deal, first paying $20,000 for the shop and the rest in installments.
Ngoy made between $60,000 to $70,000 monthly and began to buy more businesses.
In the 1980s, Ngoy’s donut empire expanded to about 70 shops in California, as more Cambodian refugees started to arrive in the US. At the time, Ngoy’s income was about $100,000 per month.
“I became the donut king because of my idea of nationalism to help my compatriot refugees. When I could survive, I wasn’t selfish, I shared what I knew, I shared the future with other Khmers, and that's what I wished.”
He called on other Cambodian refugees from other states, including Washington DC and Texas, to learn how to make donuts. He then allowed them to run their own stores.
For those unable to afford the upfront costs, Ngoy would help finance it, he said, adding he helped about 100 families. They went on to help thousands of others with jobs.
“It was growing like mushrooms,” he said.
Today, there are about 10,000 donuts stores in the US, which is his legacy. In California alone, there are about 5,000 shops, of which 90 percent are owned by Cambodian-Americans.
“Too rich, so bored”
Having started to amass huge wealth after landing in the US, Ngoy started to take trips to Las Vegas, where he watched performances and placed some bets. By the late-1970s, he had become addicted to gambling.
“In the United States when you are too rich, I had nothing to do with it, I was so bored, I went to Las Vegas as it was only a four-hour drive from California. At first, I went to watch shows, it was fun. I placed a few bets and it became addictive,” he recalled.
“Gambling made me lose my reputation, and made it very difficult….gambling destroyed me.”
As Ngoy battled his gambling addiction, he lost focus on his businesses and family. His marriage with Suganthini ended in the late-1990s after he became embroiled in an affair with a young woman. Ngoy said alcohol, women and gambling were the worst habits of his life.
“When I had money, I ran to gambling. If I didn't gamble, I don't know how many shops I would have now, from 70 shops….opportunities were lost because I was addicted to gambling.”
With unsuccessful attempts to quit his addiction, Ngoy became a monk twice. However, his life spiraled downhill as he lost money and became broke. This led to him being homeless in both the US and Cambodia, where he slept on the front porch of a house in Kep belonging to You Hockry, a former interior minister.
All he had to his name was an old bicycle and he slept under wind and rain. Sometimes, he would share a packet of noodles for dinner with two other small children.
“Her life was expensive”
Ngoy’s childhood was a struggle. He hails from Sisophon district in Banteay Meanchey province, from a poor family of mixed Cambodian and Chinese blood.
His father studied in China and returned to Cambodia with a Chinese wife. His mother moved to Cambodia and could not speak a word of Khmer.
She became an independent mother when her husband abandoned the family and ran away to Thailand when Ngoy was only five-years-old. The family became so poor and the mother had to raise three kids - Ngoy and two other sisters.
She borrowed money from neighbors and used it as capital to buy pork, beef and vegetables and other goods to sell across the border in Thailand. She would commute by train between Sisophon and the border with Thailand.
When she returned, she bought soap and other products to sell in Cambodia.
“She did that for 20 years and during the 20 years time, she fell off the train two times,” Ngoy said.
Her life was expensive when she fell off the train and did not die. One time, she was rescued by farmers, who saw her bloody body lying close to the tracks and put her on an ox cart to transport her to a hospital.
“Alive or dead”
As Ngoy became older, he recalled building his character into a straightforward person when he knew what he wanted and when wanting to be something.
“My character is straightforward, I had to choose one path - alive or dead,” he said. “If I see an opportunity, if I do it right, I will survive. If I do it wrong, I will die. I don't like to live in the middle, it's either survival or death, or being poor forever.”
This character started with his love affair with Suganthini when he was only 21-years-old. “Without love then, there would be no today.”
This began in the late-1960s in Phnom Penh, when he fell in love with Suganthini, the daughter of the powerful military general Sutsakhan.
He wrote love letters and sent them to her via a maid. At night, he would play the flute to entertain her. At times, he would joke in the letters that he would one day sneak into her room. She wrote back that Ngoy should be careful not to mistake her mother’s room .
One night, he recalled sneaking into the room of Suganthini, who was only 17, in a house that was heavily guarded by dogs and guards. He stayed in the room for 45 days.
“It was the turning point, my life started with love. If they caught me, they would kill or jail me,” he said, adding that being of Chinese descent at the time was unpopular. The French were more well-liked, Ngoy said.
He knew he would sneak into her room and fall in love with her, and that also through her family connections, he would rise one day.
It was around 2am or 3am and it was raining hard when Ngoy climbed up a coconut tree, crossed a barbed wire wall and sneaked into Suganthini’s room through the roof.
After long talks with Suganthini, Ngoy was able to stay in the room for the next 45 days, eating leftover food like a bird. He would hide under the bed whenever a private teacher came to teach her and the maid came to clean.
After news about the sneak-in reached her parents, the couple fought to stay together. Ngoy was even forced to try and stab himself to prove his love.
The parents then let them stay together but they had to leave Phnom Penh and not wed to avoid her parents losing face.
After they had one child, her parents allowed them to return to Phnom Penh, where Sutsakhan made him a military major. At the time, the country was at war with the Khmer Rouge. He was a military attache in Thailand overseeing military training.
Ngoy fast forwards to the 1990s. As he gained wealth from his donut business, he returned to Cambodia to run in the country’s first post-war elections, bringing with him $5 million.
He added that his Free Development Republican Party was not successful in the 1993 elections or the following election year, saying his vision was to rebuild Cambodia and contribute back to the country.
Despite failures in politics, Ngoy said he helped the country by setting up the first chamber of commerce and brought Cambodia the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status tariffs when he was a government advisor.
“My life should not have been alive until today”
Ngoy was hit with another life struggle in 2018 when he had to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. He was told if he did not fly to Thailand quickly, he would die. He added that a military general also tried to take his land in Kampot. However, the dispute was resolved with help from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office.
“My life should not have been alive until today, starting from fleeing in the aircraft, the surgery and the land dispute,” he said. “There must be some external force that I can’t see, that always helps me, and that is Jesus.”
Ngoy now lives in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and moves around on a motorbike. He advises people not to follow in his footsteps by gambling, to be compatriots and to not be divided.
Today, Ngoy continues to support Cambodians and their culture. He funded the production of a film about the ancient Khmer art of Bokator that uses hand-to-hand combat, which cost $100,000 - more than earlier estimated $50,000. However, the film has not premiered in cinemas yet due to Covid-19.
He said he wants to help preserve the martial art and at the same time help his friend, Bokator grand master San Kimsean, who acted in the film along with his son.
His book, ‘Donut King’, has been published in Khmer and English, and a film by famous filmmaker Alice Gu is already underway. The film is worth $50 million, of which he will receive 2 percent.
“I am not regretful with my life, I am 80-years-old and still healthy and if I have the opportunity, I will serve the nation and society for another 10 to 15 years.”