The Journey to Main Street
How some Cambodian Americans have found success in America through business ownership
Timothy Chhim’s life is far different from the one he could have imagined 30 years ago. Leaving his home country on foot in 1975 to escape the Pol Pot regime, the then 19-year-old man never dreamed that he’d one day own his own small business in the United States. “I would have thought it was just a big dream without frontiers,” says Chhim, who walked about 300 miles over four months. “But I was very ambitious to feel and experience justice and freedom.”
That ambition carried Chhim from a brief life as a refugee in Thailand to the United States. And when he arrived here on Oct. 16, 1976, he put himself through college and then just 10 years later embarked on a true American dream--entrepreneurship.
Today, Chhim, the son of a peasant rice cultivator and student, is a successful independent insurance agent in upstate New York. His remarkable journey from a small village in Cambodia to an independent business owner in the United States exemplifies the reason so many Cambodians risked their lives to escape an oppressive regime. Taking a chance, working as hard as you can and making a better life for your family--it’s an experience unique to U.S. entrepreneurs--and one that’s often even more special to immigrants who arrive at success after a difficult journey.
Chhim is just one of the thousands of Cambodian Americans who’ve participated in our country’s unique free-enterprise system by owning their own businesses. Their work has been productive, too. While Asian firms make up 30 percent of all minority companies, they account for 52 percent of all receipts from minority businesses, according to the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Over 50 percent of all minority-owned businesses whose sales exceeded $1 million dollars were Asian American owned.
Success is sweet for thousands of Cambodians who own doughnut shop throughout the United States. In fact, 80 percent of all doughnut shops in California are owned by Cambodian immigrants. Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian who arrived in the U.S. in 1975, paved the way for the thousands of small-business owners after him who dabble in the fried dough.
While working as a janitor in Long Beach, Calif., Ngoy tasted his first doughnut ever. He was later hired by Winchell’s, a large chain of doughnut shops in California. And two years after that, Ngoy had saved up enough money to buy his own Winchell’s franchise.
“Ngoy is the one who found a way for Cambodian immigrants to become part of the American dream of owning their own business,” said Dennis Wong of the Asian Business Association in this article in the Daily Yonder (a newspaper for rural communities). "Taking a loan from an Asian loaning society, Ngoy was able to buy two stores, operate them for awhile and then sell to someone in the community or a family member who wanted to buy them. That's how they got into it."
Cambodians doughnut makers aren’t confined to the West Coast. Wayne Wright, a professor of educational policy and scholar of Cambodian American culture at University of Texas, San Antonio, estimates that 90 percent of Houston’s doughnut shops are Cambodian-owned as well.
No matter how they find entrepreneurial success--whether by selling insurance or doughnuts or something else--Cambodian American business owners are participating in one of the true American freedoms.
All photos can be credited to "Bill Bishop, The Daily Yonder”
Memphis also has their very own Cambodian run doughnut shop Donald’s Doughnuts, the best doughnuts in Memphis according to many midtowners.
1776 Union Ave
Next to Idlewild Presbyterian Church
Tel + 1 901.725.5595
Open 7 days a week ~ 4:30 am to 6:30 pm