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Regional Interests

Why Donuts + Chinese Food = A Very Californian Combination

Bay Curious listener Jaimie Cohen wants to learn more about the doughnut and Chinese food shops she’s seen around the Bay Area:

“Why are there restaurants that serve Chinese food, doughnuts and burgers all in one location? And why are there so many of them specifically in the Bay Area? What is the history of it happening here?”

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Doughnuts have long been a favorite American treat. But what if you could get some lo mein or fried rice while grabbing a dozen of your favorite crullers? It’s a uniquely Californian combination with an unexpected history.

Inside the Mission District’s ‘China Express and Donut’

Those passing through the 24th Street / Mission BART station may have seen the doughnut shop that first piqued Jaimie Cohen’s curiosity. It sits right on the corner: “Chinese Food and Donuts” in bold red lettering.

The shop’s owner, Jolly Chan, immigrated from Cambodia in 1981. He started off in Los Angeles, where he lived until 1985 when he moved up to San Francisco and started China Express and Donut in 1993. “I continue until now,” Chan says.

The walls of Chan’s shop flash with neon signs spotlighting the two wildly different foods he serves. He points to his daily array of doughnuts: glazed, sugar and sprinkles. A few feet away, he also offers a buffet of Chinese food classics, including chicken fried rice, pot stickers and sweet and sour pork.

People wait for the bus across the street from China Express, a restaurant serving Chinese food and doughnuts, on 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco on March 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“A little spicy, a little sweet,” he laughs.

The beauty of his operation is that regulars can grab their coffee and a doughnut in the morning and a plate of orange chicken in the afternoon — all for under $10, he says.

Chan learned the ins and outs of this deep fried duo when he first immigrated to Los Angeles. While working at a Chinese restaurant, he learned to make doughnuts from friends who had also recently immigrated from Cambodia.

Those friends, he said, learned from one very unlikely entrepreneur: “Ted Ngoy, the king of doughnut.”

Ted Ngoy, the Donut King, Sweeps California

The Donut King is largely responsible for building a doughnut dynasty across California.

Ted Ngoy fled Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge rose to power during the country’s civil war. In 1975, he arrived at Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp in San Diego County, without a penny to his name. Ngoy was working at a gas station in Tustin, California to support his wife and three children when he smelled a sweet aroma from a nearby doughnut shop.

“I remember it was a slow night, about midnight, and there was no traffic,” says Ngoy in The Donut King, a recent documentary about his life by filmmaker Alice Gu. “I ran real fast to come to this window right here. I say, ‘Lady, I would like to buy some doughnut.’ She said, ‘Okay, I’ll sell you a dozen doughnut.'”

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It was love at first bite. Ngoy set out to learn how to make doughnuts himself.

He applied and got accepted to a training program with Winchell’s Donut House, then the leading doughnut chain in California. The company gave him a store to manage, and before long, Ngoy scraped together the money to buy his own shop. Then he bought another and another. Within a decade, he owned 70 doughnut shops across California.

Those iconic pink doughnut boxes were his idea. Before Ngoy came along, doughnuts in the U.S were typically sold in a white box.

“One day I asked the salesman, ‘How about we create some kind of pink box?'” Ngoy says in The Donut King. “The pink box costs a lot less. Even a dime or two dimes. We can save a lot of money.”

Ngoy was a shrewd businessman who shared his fortune with other immigrants. He sponsored over 100 Cambodian families to immigrate to the United States and even welcomed them to stay in his mansion when they first arrived.

Ngoy also taught dozens of Cambodian immigrants to make doughnuts. At one point, there were reportedly over 5,000 independent doughnut shops sprinkled across the state — roughly 90 percent of them owned by Cambodians. Initially, most of these immigrant-owned, mom and pop shops were concentrated in Southern California, but it was only a matter of time before they began migrating up to the Bay Area.

Supporting One Another to Get Ahead

Decades after Ngoy took California’s doughnut scene by storm, these fried sweet treats still represent the promise of a better life. Dorothy Chow of B & H Bakery Distributors, a Cambodian-American-owned company, supplies doughnut ingredients throughout Northern California.

The doughnut case at China Express and Donut on Mission Street in San Francisco on April 16, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Basically [B&H] started to try and create another option to help our own people,” says Chow.

Chow’s dad started running the business decades ago as an alternative to the giant companies that held a monopoly on doughnut supplies, Chow says. As a survivor of the Cambodian Civil War and resulting genocide, his singular motivation was to support refugees like himself.

“My dad is actually one of the first groups that escaped out of Cambodia,” says Chow. “He was caught into the labor camps that were happening at the time. He’s seen really horrific things. And I’m sure a lot of these doughnut shop owners have their own experiences.”

Going to her dad’s warehouse and selling doughnuts in the summer, Chow spent a lot of time with people who had just come from Cambodia. They worked hard to get a better life for their kids. And took advantage of the resources and knowledge around them in their community, learning to cook new cuisines and how to run businesses in America.

“If you’ve gone through war and you’ve been able to escape,” says Chow. “If you’ve lost your family and you’ve seen terrible things, owning a doughnut shop is a piece of cake.”

Adapting to Survive 
and Thrive

Most Cambodian-owned doughnut shops focus on the dessert. However, others have the space, skills and equipment to make high-profit fast foods that cater to American tastes, like hot dogs and hamburgers. Chow says a majority of these doughnut crossover shops are in urban spaces, including San Francisco and Oakland.

For China Express and Donut owner Jolly Chan, the combination of the two tasty treats came out of necessity. Everything in the Bay Area is so expensive, he says, “We have to sell more stuff to make up the rent and the expense.”

Doughnut shops in less expensive areas can afford to close when they’ve sold out, but that’s not an option for Chan. He decided to incorporate another food option to appeal to the lunch crowd. He says he considered burgers, but that would mean competing with the McDonald’s across the street. He thought Chinese food would help his shop stand out on a crowded corner.

China Express employee Kyi Sin Hnin Htet helps a customer at the restaurant on 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco on March 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chan says the majority of his customers are locals and commuters — 80 percent are Latino.

“They love it,” he said. However, he has noticed a drop in business since the Mission District started gentrifying.

Chan says once Valencia Street started changing, younger people moved to the area. And they have different tastes.

“They don’t like the food that we sell, the doughnuts that we sell. They eat different food,” he says.

Chan’s shop specializes in old fashioned treats, like gooey raspberry jelly doughnuts or cake doughnuts with rainbow sprinkles.

“What doughnuts used to be,” he says. “The traditional doughnut.”

Neighboring independent doughnut shops like Dynamo Donut that sell artisanal, seasonal and organic doughnuts at a much higher price point than Chan’s doughnuts are the new trend. And Chan says during the coronavirus shutdowns, his sales dropped more than 50 percent.

His business used to be a 50-50 split between customers who would do takeaway and those who would eat inside. During the pandemic, the takeaway orders didn’t make up for the loss of indoor dining.

As a Cambodian entrepreneur, Chan is no stranger to thriving under difficult circumstances. But, he says that if things don’t look up soon he’s not sure he can continue to adapt. He worries his shop won’t survive the next year.

“We cannot make it,” he says.

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