Why So Many Cambodians Own Donut Shops | AJ+
What’s your favorite doughnut and why? My favorite is the maple bar. It’s not so sweet, it’s caramel, they’re soft. It’s just one of my favorite thing [of] all time, all-time favorite. The doughnut shop business is Susan Lim’s life. Her Orange County, California, doughnut shop is just one of many that sprinkle the U.S. Combined, those stores and producers make 10 billion doughnuts annually. Every single doughnut I would took a bite and then throw away. I took a bite because I want to see the flavor of each and every one of them. Baked into the backstory of this shop’s glazed, dipped and twisted pastries is a detailed – and sometimes painful – history about Cambodian refugees. See, this doughnut shop isn’t just Lim’s life. It also gave her family a new chance at life after fleeing war-torn Cambodia in the 1970s. My mother’s story makes me feel really proud and honestly very empowered. My family’s background is so rich and so straight out of a movie. Like, these things don’t happen to everyday people. Lim’s experience is only one of many similar stories from Cambodian refugees who settled in southern California and then opened doughnut shops as a way to survive and thrive in the U.S. Hey, fam. I’m Imaeyen. And this Sunday we’re actually doing a story idea that you guys pitched to us. We’re looking at why there are so many Cambodian-owned doughnut shops in Southern California. “Hi Amanda.” Susan Lim says doughnuts have been very sweet to her. Definitely [the] American dream to have a business. It’s the American dream just to do anything here. America has opened up doors to many refugees like myself. Lim bought this doughnut shop from her parents after they retired in 2004. She’d spent years learning up close about the family’s business, because she started working in it as a teenager. But before her family acquired more than a dozen doughnuts shops in southern California, they were literally just trying to survive. When you talk about things like that it kind of brings back memories. The suffering. The starving. Lim’s native Cambodia was thrust into war when communist and anti-communist forces battled for the nation’s postcolonial future, according to professor Richard Kim. The war was an actually an extension of the Vietnam War, which consumed Indochina. All of it rolled up into the Cold War, which was an ideological struggle about the spread of communism. The brutal war lasted for most of the 1970s but the conditions it ignited had been years in the making. It’s the result of decades of colonial rule under the French. And in the power vacuum that was left in the ousting of the king in 1970 power struggles emerged over who had the right to rule Cambodia. Kim says the U.S. wasn’t allowed to step foot in Cambodia because it had been declared neutral ground. Instead the United States conducted an aerial bombing campaign that failed in its objective to destroy the supply line that was the Ho Chi Minh trail. The bombing killed Cambodians and devastated the land. This bombing devastated Cambodia and Laos. And this is probably one reason also why the Khmer Rouge were able to mobilize support from the peasants of Cambodia to win the civil war because many of them turned to more radical ideology as a result of the massive bombing. Khmer Rouge would go on to rule Cambodia with tortuous tactics and cruelty, including what’s become known as the Cambodian killing fields. They were sites were people were murdered, sometimes clubbed to death to save bullets. And a key moment during the war was when Khmer Rouge conquered the capital city of Phnom Penh in 1975. They basically tried to exterminate the educated class. And Lim says her father was one of the people who was targeted. Here’s how he managed to escape a deadly fate. My parents survived by pretending to be dumb — to be not educated — to be farmers, not educators, not teachers. That’s why they left them alone and not kill them. Her parents used their home as a haven for their children during the war. The Lim kids couldn’t go to school. Life was just about surviving the daily stressors of war. I still remember a little bit about it: being hungry; being starving. No food, no water. I honestly don’t know how we survived during the war. You have to wanna live in order to survive. You have to fight. It’s not a matter of choice. In 1979, the family decided to try and escape the horrors surrounding them. Lim was only about 12 years old. Like other families, the Lims paid a man to help guide them to Thailand’s border. Lim’s family walked for four days and three nights amid bombing remnants alongside hundreds of others seeking reprieve and refuge. They really didn’t take much. I mean we only brought maybe a few clothes to change, some food, a little bit of money. There’s not much to carry because there’s so many people trying to get out of the city — on foot, no cars. We basically walked miles and miles and miles. Her family made it out to a refugee camp in Thailand, but many others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Lim’s infant brother is among the war’s casualties. He essentially starved to death. Cambodian civil war would kill at least 1.5 million people, but the real toll could be up to 2 million. And even the bit of freedom Lim found in the refugee camp wasn’t a break from her suffering. In some ways, it was a reminder of what she and her family had lost and lacked. They were watching this lady bought candy for her children and my mom looks at me and she couldn’t afford it. And I just feel bad for my brothers. Lim’s family spent a few months in the Thai refugee camp before her uncle Ted Ngoy sponsored them to come to the U.S. That’s how she ended up here in southern California. She says her family was among the earliest Cambodian refugees to the region. Lim didn’t speak English and the transition was difficult. America, where is America? Didn’t know where and when we got to LAX it was so weird. Big tall people. White people. You know, you’d never seen white people. Her family arrived to an America deeply divided about accepting refugees. One Harris poll taken in May 1975 found that 37% of Americans were in favor of accepting the refugees. 49% opposed it, and 14% weren’t sure. 49% opposed it, and 14% weren’t sure. Even President Jimmy Carter essentially refused entry to 40,000 Cambodian refugees before later taking a more humane approach to the conflict’s victims. This was America’s climate when Lim’s family moved in with her uncle and began working at his doughnut shop. My uncle, he’s the king of the doughnut. His name is Ted Ngoy. Ngoy employed Lim’s parents, teaching them the trade. In fact, the very first night Lim’s family arrived in California, Ngoy took her parents to make doughnuts with him. Without him helping us, recruiting us, I don’t know where most Cambodians would be, including my family. Ngoy continued to sponsor other Cambodian refugees, hiring them; teaching them about the doughnut shop business. The many Cambodians who own doughnut shops are Ngoy’s legacy as are the pink boxes that have become synonymous with southern California stores. Lim’s daughter Amanda Lim Tang says her great uncle chose the pink boxes because they were the least expensive alternative. I honestly could see myself running this and I would hate for this to not be a part of people’s lives anymore. Tang is running parallel to her grandparents’ path. They worked for Ngoy for three to five years before eventually saving enough money to buy their own store. That store became two, and then three – and eventually more than a dozen. Susan Lim says her family’s story is an example of the American Dream. She hopes at least one of her five children will one day join the business – but only after getting a college education, which she says she was unable to do because she had to help her family. Susan Lim’s family is just one of the more than 2 million people who fled the region between the 1970s and 1990s. The United States took in more than 1.52 million of them. Some refugees landed here in Long Beach, California in a place that’s today known as Cambodia town. It’s filled with businesses owned by Cambodians. And now, some of those people – including those refugees who arrived as children or were born in refugee camps – are being repatriated to a nation they’ve never really known. The U.S. and Cambodia signed a memorandum in 2002 that said an average of 35 people would be deported annually. And that was true until 2016. That’s when the Cambodian government told the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh that it would no longer accept deportees until it had a chance to review the issue. The agreement allows the U.S. to repatriate Cambodians who’ve committed a crime – even if that crime is a misdemeanor – and even if they’re married to U.S. citizens. By 2017, more than 500 Cambodians had been deported as part of the agreement. And in the first week of April 2018, the U.S. deported the largest group of Cambodians ever. Immigration officials sent back more than 40 people to Cambodia. Lim says she doesn’t personally know anyone who’s been affected by the deportations. And what she wants is the legacy of Cambodian doughnut shop owners to continue. What I like most about working here is meeting my customers, my clients. Talk to them. Wait on them. Make them happy. That’s why I’m here.