Stephanie Shih, “Brueghel’s Breakfast,” 2020.
Today is Boxing Day … so let’s talk about boxes. Actual boxes. But let’s go there in a circuitous way. Stephanie Shih’s still-life photograph celebrates doughnuts from DK’s Donuts & Bakery in Santa Monica. The piece is called Brueghel’s Breakfast (2020). Shih says, “This work was inspired by Mayly Tao, second generation Cambodian American and purveyor of incredibly joyful rings of fried dough (via her family’s donut shop, DK’s Donuts & Bakery). I wanted to combine the exuberance of eating a donut with that of Brueghel’s bursting florals, as an homage to cross-sensory experiences that make us happy.”
DK’s Donuts once belonged to a Cambodian-American businessman named Ted Ngoy. In a piece for the LA Times, David Pierson explained the connection between those ubiquitous pink bakery boxes–and Cambodian American donut shop/bakery owners like Ngoy (and Tao). Pierson writes, “Instead of national chains, the Southern California doughnut sector is dominated by mom-and-pop businesses run by immigrants, none more influential than Cambodian Americans.
Landing here as refugees in the mid-1970s to escape the Khmer Rouge, the Southeast Asian community quickly found a lifeline in the demanding doughnut business, giving it an outsized role in the expanding waistlines of countless Angelenos — and the spread of an unsung culinary icon.”
But what about those pink boxes?
Pierson: “According to company lore, a Cambodian doughnut shop owner asked Westco some four decades ago if there were any cheaper boxes available other than the standard white cardboard. So Westco found leftover pink cardboard stock and formed a 9-by-9-by-4-inch container with four semicircle flaps to fold together. To this day, people in the business refer to the box as the “9-9-4.”
“It’s the perfect fit for a dozen doughnuts,” said Jim Parker, BakeMark’s president and chief executive.”
Peter Yen, the son of Ning Yen, “a protege of Ngoy who went on to open [his own chain of] doughnut shops,” thinks that his father might have been the one to call Westco. According to Pierson, “[Peter Yen] remembers his dad saying, back in the 1980s, he wanted red boxes to bring some much-needed good fortune to a community traumatized by war.
“I know they wanted to do red boxes,” said Peter Yen, 32, a sales manager at Santa Ana Packaging, “but the mills kept sending it back pink.”
Learn more about Stephanie Shih and her Asian American Still Life project on Lensculture.
P.S. Mayly Tao sold DK’s Donuts in 2022. She has a new venture, which you can read about here.