How donut shops became a sweet American dream

The mom-and-pop donut shops dotted with California malls often carry the same mouth-watering treats. But behind the rows of chocolate and glazed nibs lies a different kind of richness, in the stories of Americans behind the counter.

Roughly 80% of cake shops in Southern California – that’s more than a thousand – are owned by Cambodian refugee families. They arrived in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s seeking safety as the communist Khmer Rouge committed genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia. Millions were executed or disappeared.

Many of those who fled settled in California, finding work in donut shops.

About 80 percent of cake shops in Southern California are owned by Cambodian refugee families who came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

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“We emigrated right after the genocide,” said Teresa Ngo, who owns Blinkie’s Donuts in Woodland Hills. Her family has owned donut shops since the 1980s. “First of all, once you get here, you don’t speak the language, you have a family that offers you a job. And the next thing you know, they’ve been doing it their whole life, sometimes for generations at a time.”

Erin Curtis, a Los Angeles historian at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, said the refugees were not given many resources, and they had to figure out how they could support each other. “California has a long history of donut culture,” she said. “And it’s become more famous, I would argue, in the last 40 years or so, and that’s really due to the Cambodian refugees who have kind of come and expanded the donut culture here in Southern California in a big way.”

“It’s fair to say it’s part of American culture then?” asked reporter Elaine Quijano.

“Absolutely yes.”

A culture that now includes a pink donut box. Decades ago, Cambodian shopkeepers bypassed expensive white boxes for cheaper pink boxes, which fit dozens of cakes perfectly. This move not only saved thousands of dollars; It has also created an icon for sweetness.


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“I probably learned how to fold a pink donut box before I learned my ABCs,” said Dorothy Chow, who today runs a donut supply business. The daughter of Cambodian refugees, she grew up working in several of her parents’ stores, and considers herself a “doughnut baby”.

“There were some days where I worked maybe 12, 13, 14 hours a day,” Zhao said. “But then, now that I’m getting older, I can look back with pride. Like, I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of this whole journey our parents took. They came here with nothing. They needed all the help.” that they could get from the cake shop. And we were there to help and support them whenever we could.”

Uncovered story now. Vong Hyun is a Cambodian-American artist who came to America as a refugee. In her exhibition, “A Donut Hole (W)” at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles, she uses a pink donut can instead of a white canvas to capture a taste of the Cambodian-American refugee experience.

“This shared experience with the donut is a very American one,” she said. “Under the donut is actually intergenerational trauma and pain.”

Hyunh’s art places great emphasis on the second generation. She compares childhood photos of the “donut kids” with those of the adults they’ve become. “It’s just this generation born in the United States to say to its parents, ‘Look, we want to honor you. You didn’t even have time to think about what you went through. And we want to take this time to honor your story because you didn’t have time to write about it,” Hyunh said.

One of her photos: Dorothy Chow.

Vong Hyunh’s photos of “Doughnut Kids” have grown up, including Dorothy Chow (above).

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When Chow was asked to describe seeing her picture on a pink donut box, he replied, “I had a sense of pride. I think maybe for the first time I felt like growing up in America and maybe making the sacrifices I made as a kid. I saw.”

Now, as an adult, Chow sees things differently — like the pink boxes she once folded when she was a little girl. “These cookie boxes are an example of resilience and a representation of the refugee experience here in America,” she said.

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Honor production story exists. Editor: Remington Corp.

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