A Los Angeles native, Alice Gu began her career as a Director of Photography, working with renowned directors Werner Herzog (on his fascinating Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World) and Stacy Peralta. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, a documentary directed by Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy, was vividly, beautifully shot by Gu as the cinematographer. But now she’s taken the lead with The Donut King, Alice’s feature directorial debut. The film captures the rollercoaster of a life’s journey of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy, who arrived in California in the 1970s and, through a mixture of diligence and luck, built a multi-million dollar donut empire up and down the West Coast.
The film is “a dizzying saga of ups and downs.” wrote Alonso Duralde in The Wrap, “and of one of this nation’s most beloved sweet treats, and a fascinating tale of sacrifice, success, and hubris.” Adds film critic Leonard Maltin, “There is nothing pat or predictable about this fast-paced documentary, despite initial appearances. I don’t want to undermine the work of director Alice Gu or her writing partner Carol Martori. They defy expectations in a way no fictional saga would dare to do. For that reason, it would be a crime for me to reveal too much.”
Gu has called Ngoy’s life in this film “a quintessential American Dream story.” She talked to us about how she learned about Cambodian donut shops, how it connected with her own family’s story, how opening this pink box of a story can touch all Americans, her own favorite donut, and how she was able to get a Wu-Tang song in the film’s soundtrack.
What first led you to want to make a film about “The Donut King?”
I learned of Ted’s story after having a conversation with someone about Cambodian Donuts. Not knowing what a “Cambodian Donut” was, I didn’t realize it was a “thing” in Los Angeles, where I live. Upon thinking about it further, I did realize that every mom-and-pop donut shop always had Asian people working in them.
After discovering Ted’s story, I devoured every article and podcast I could find about him. I instantly connected with his story and thought of my parents’ own journey to the U.S. from China. I also realized that my parents probably suffered a lot of trauma that they never really discussed with my brother and me, instead, just wanting us to focus on thriving as young kids in the U.S.
Growing up in Los Angeles my entire life, with all these donut shops under my nose, I had no idea about the deeper story. I sought him out and after talking to him and delving deeper into his, and other Cambodian families’ stories, I got a lot more than I bargained for.
What do you hope PBS audiences take away from the experience of watching The Donut King?
For The Donut King, though we wade into some very heavy waters, it was very important for me to make a film that was palatable. I wanted to take the audience on a ride of peaks and valleys. I want them to laugh, I want them feel connected to the collective human experience, and I want them to walk away with a meaningful experience. It’s an honor that someone will give me 90 minutes of their time to watch my film, so I feel a tremendous responsibility to not only share a very fascinating story with them but also do right by Cambodian donut shop owners in telling their stories.
I hope that the film can help challenge any preconceived notions of what a refugee is, or looks like, and helps put a human face on refugees and their potential if given the chance.
Along those lines, what sort of conversations would you like the film to inspire in viewers about immigration stories, during this contentious moment in history we’re all living in? How can Ted’s (and his family’s) story be a discussion tool for positive change?
I hope that, through the joyful medium of film and donuts, that we can help expand the minds and hearts of our audiences. It feels that this film is premiering on PBS at just the right moment in time—to share the immigrant stories and really humanize the immigrant experience. Given the overwhelming response to the film, “I had no idea! I never knew… !”, I think it is a great tool to open the door for discussion on immigrants, particularly Asian immigrants at this time, as the friendly people who make America’s beloved donuts.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film? And how did you gain the trust of Ted Ngoy and his extended family to tell their story?
The biggest challenge in making this film was just that, gaining the trust of the families involved. Asian people, generally speaking, want to keep a low profile and don’t really trust outsiders.
Another big challenge was finding enough personal archives to cover the story visually. These families didn’t have the money to buy cameras and film, let alone have the time or forethought to be documenting their lives. We had to dig very, very deep and improvise when we simply couldn’t find any archives.
Trust was developed over many, many months and I’m grateful that it did take so long to gain the trust — I feel like I have lifelong friends in the Cambodian donut community.
How did Ted himself feel about seeing his rollercoaster of a life story play out on screen?
I think Ted was in awe and proud to see his life play out on screen. I don’t think it’s anything he ever expected, as he has said many times, he doesn’t think his life is particularly special. I think he is proud of the legacy he helped to create.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We had two wonderful interviews that needed to be cut in the interest of time and relevance to our core story. One was with an esteemed food historian by the name of Michael Krondl, who wrote a book about the history of the donut. Another interview was with Dr. Eric Geffner, a psychologist who specializes in gambling addiction.
How the heck did you get a Wu-Tang Clan song in your indie documentary? Do tell.
Getting “C.R.E.A.M.” into the film was a four-month process. One of our editors temped the track in, and as soon as I heard it, I knew I would accept no substitute! It was pure perfection. I reached out to RZA’s team and wrote a passion letter, stating my lifelong love with Wu-Tang and, in particular, this particular track. Four months later, about a week before our SXSW deadline, the track was not cleared. I wrote another two letters to Wu Music, and pleaded my case, again!
At this point, we had partnered with Refugees International on the film, with a percentage of proceeds to be donated to the organization. Like a miracle, they cleared the track for us the next day. This is something they never do, but the themes of the film resonated with them, and they cleared it for us. No joke, it was one of the best moments of my life!
You talk about this a bit above but as a SoCal native did your family go into these donut shops growing up?
We did go to these types of donut shops growing up. Although, I do have to admit, when Dunkin’ Donuts came into town, we were super excited at this glossy new donut chain. And, without fanfare, it left, and I always wondered why. Now I know!
What’s your own favorite donut? And did you have to resist eating too many donuts while shooting this film? 🍩
I like a good basic, the glazed donut! Although, because of filming, the buttermilk bar may be a tie. Yes, I had to use a great deal of willpower throughout shooting this film.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
My favorite scene would be early on, the Camp Pendleton scene. That particular scene has not changed, not even one frame, since our earliest rough assembly edit. It captures so perfectly the American values that once were and the kindness of American citizens volunteering at the camp and sponsoring refugees.
Can you give us any updates on how the donut families in your film are faring these days?
Everyone is doing well. However, all the donut shops have suffered huge losses in revenue from the pandemic. BC Donuts in Pasadena has been sold to a young couple eager to carry on the BC tradition.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
The Two Escobars, Meru, Delicatessen.
Can you tell us anything about what film/project(s) you’re working on next?
I’m developing a couple of documentaries and films at the moment. One is about a matriarch of a particular genre of music and one about a Spanish chef. I’m also working on a scripted adaptation of the memoirs of a Japanese wrestler.
Further Listening and Viewing:
From Cambodia to Southern California: Telling the Story of a King of Donut Shops | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Craig Phillips for www.pbs.org