When Talaya Sin met with the landlord of Allstar Donuts to negotiate taking over the lease of the small, troubled doughnut shop on University Avenue in Berkeley, she didn't expect she'd be running the business within twenty minutes. At the end of the meeting, the landlord turned to the previous owner working behind the counter and said, "OK, you can go home now." A shocked Sin started learning the cash register on the spot.
The decision to run a doughnut shop was more complex than this brief business meeting might suggest. Growing up as part of a Cambodian immigrant family in West Oakland, Sin had certainly seen other family members making a living in the business. But laboring in the family business wasn't necessarily anything that Sin had intended for herself. After all, the childhood transplant to the United States had double-majored in Asian American Studies and Psychobiology at UC Davis, later followed by a stint working as post-production translator at Farallon Films. There, she worked with filmmaker Steven Okazaki on The Conscience of Nhem En, a documentary short about Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge that's now short-listed for an Oscar nomination.
So when Sin found herself with a doughnut shop of her own, it was perhaps no surprise that she set out to reimagine the kind of shops that she grew up with. Her efforts to earn a living by embracing one culinary feature of American culture while trying to retain and celebrate some of the traditions of her native Cambodia epitomize in many ways the challenges facing first- and second-generation US immigrants.
"The thing I want to do differently is actually let it be known that we are Cambodians," Sin said. "There's nothing in a Cambodian doughnut shop that says they're Cambodian," she noted, explaining that many immigrant owners, who often sell cigarettes and lottery tickets alongside the Bavarian Creams, don't want to ruin the homey, all-American image of the mom-and-pop doughnut shop. "They feel like then, Americans might question their doughnuts." Yet, anyone with knowledge of the recent history of American doughnut-making knows better than that. "We sort of saved the doughnut-making art," Sin said.
One of the lesser-known facts about the humble doughnut business is that the majority of California doughnut shops are run by Cambodian immigrants, many of whom fled their homeland's political upheavals during the late 1970s and '80s. Sin's brother-in-law, who started the now-closed Lee's Donuts in 1985, was among the first wave of immigrants who perpetuated the trend, helping other immigrants like himself open their own Lee's Donuts.
In Buddha Is Hiding, a study of Cambodian immigrants in California, UC Berkeley professor Aihwa Ong traced the proliferation of Cambodian-owned doughnut shops to immigrants such as Ted Ngoy, who started as a trainee at a Winchell's doughnut shop, and by the mid-1980s had developed his own doughnut shop franchise by training hundreds of fellow Cambodian immigrants eager for jobs. Those trainees, in turn, created their own franchises.
In addition to the convenience of working at a job that required little understanding of English, Ong pointed out that doughnut shops were easy to run because family members often worked for free, thus keeping overhead low. People like Ngoy, she wrote, "become the capitalists who seed new business units that are partially based on exploiting the unpaid labor of relatives and minority friends." This helps explain how Cambodians ended up running a majority of doughnut shops in the state. Ong sees a similar pattern in the flourishing of Vietnamese-run nail salons.
Shortly after taking over Allstar, Sin started running Cambodian barbecue cookouts in the patio dining space. "It's one of my favorite things to eat," she says of the lemongrass-marinated beef skewers and chicken wings that Allstar offers on weekends. Sin may have left Cambodia when she was just a kid, but there are still things she misses about living there. While Cambodian barbecue is available year-round in her homeland, Sin only finds it available during New Year's in Stockton. "I thought, why not have a place where you can serve that year-round?"
Pretty soon, a banner was hung outside Allstar that advertised "Cambodian BBQ" — much to her family's dismay. "They didn't think the taste would be appealing to Americans," Sin says. Sin's boyfriend Ben Hamamoto, a columnist at the Japanese-American newspaper Nichi Bei Times, helps man the grill at the outdoor patio while Sin makes the marinades herself.
The weekend cookouts have generated positive buzz with locals. Commentators on the foodie web site Chowhound have followed the Cambodian menu, which Sin plans to expand beyond just barbecue. One commentator raved of the chicken wings, "The result is the best of home-style cooking. Bold, garlicky, clean flavors and still juicy."
And the fact that there is no culinary connection between Cambodian cuisine and doughnuts didn't stop Sin from tricking out her fried dough rings with Southeast Asian flavors like mango jelly, or experimenting with new varieties, such as one based on sangkaya, a pumpkin flan dessert popular in her homeland.
There are other plans in the works. Sin is looking to upgrade to a gourmet coffee vendor, and once she catches her breath, she'll change the outside sign to reflect her shop's new name: Yellow Brick Donuts. She's also working on improving the doughnut base by making it from scratch.
Landlord Kenneth Le, who leases out doughnut shops to many Cambodian families, says that out of all the business owners he's worked with Sin is certainly the youngest. She's also somewhat of an anomaly. The unglamorous work of selling doughnuts, filled as it is with long, unpopular hours, doesn't usually stay in the family, as younger and second-generation Cambodian Americans tend to look elsewhere for opportunities. The storefronts are then either closed down or sold, something Le said is now happening with many Cambodian-run doughnut shops.
"She really wants to work way harder to start her business," Le said of Sin. "The second generation, they don't want to do that."
In a sense, Sin is retracing the steps of her predecessors by taking on a job in a distinctly American industry. But while she is busting her chops to run a doughnut shop, she's doing it on her own terms: using an all-American icon as a means to celebrate the traditions of her homeland. That's a strategy that Sin's former teacher Richard Kim, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, says just might be a savvy business decision. "With the East Bay area, there's the fetishization of ethnic foods," he notes. "She's playing to a certain market as well. Her clientele might include actual Cambodians, but I'm sure most of it is a non-Cambodian clientele as well. So it's a way of exposing them to Cambodian cuisine."
Sin herself sees a relation between her new line of work and the Asian American Studies classes she took in college. "I'm doing what I've been reading about, in terms of all the Asian immigrants who did doughnut shops, and who slaved and bent over backward," she said.
And as for her family? Well, they work for her now.
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