Walk into Sunshine Bagels in Ardsley, and you’re bound to see owner Su Meng Ngan helping his staff with everything from making sure there is a continuous stream of coffee to waiting on customers when the crowd gets too big. But Ngan’s life wasn’t always so blissfully suburban.
A Cambodian refugee, Ngan is a survivor of the ruthless Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s violent ruling party from 1975 to 1979. Instead of helping customers and making coffee, Ngan lived in the jungle, ate snakes, and lost one sister before escaping.
Many Americans are familiar with this era in Cambodian history through the 1984 Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields, which Ngan saw at a local movie theater. “He was talking throughout the whole movie,” Bonnie Franks, his friend of 35 years, says, remembering the experience of watching the film with Ngan. “He thought it was a documentary, and didn’t realize it was a movie.” During one scene, a radio is playing, and one of the characters moves to change the dial. “Su Meng started yelling, ‘Don’t touch! Don’t touch!’ in the theater,” Franks recalls. “Of course, the radio exploded.”
Bonnie and Sidney Franks met Ngan, now 59, when he came to Croton-on-Hudson on August 17, 1979, with another family sponsored by the Croton Lay Interfaith Council (CLIC). “You remember dates and places that are important to you,” Ngan explains, eyes twinkling. Aided by Temple Israel of Northern Westchester through its Social Justice Committee, Ngan, together with his five brothers and sisters; his mother; his wife, Torsiem; and their 4-year-old daughter, Vivian, came to their new home through a refugee center. (His father didn’t want to leave his rice-field business in Cambodia and stayed there.) He has since helped 38 family members come to the United States.
Su Meng Ngan with his wife, Torsiem, outside their first shop, Sun Fresh Donuts in Ossining in 1984.
With no formal primary or secondary schooling, and despite his language barriers, Ngan secured work, with CLIC’s help, as a machine operator with Hudson Wire Company in Ossining. “I was a car and truck mechanic in Cambodia, so working at a wire company was easy,” he says with a smile. “No language required.” His skills earned him recognition and promotions; eventually, he managed 25 employees.
English lessons coordinated by volunteers from Temple Israel in Croton-on-Hudson were a help, but he learned the language largely “by watching television,” he says. “You have to speak to survive.”
Yonkers resident Joan Volin said her husband, Bob, was one of the volunteers. “Su Meng was hardworking and determined,” she recalls. “He held two jobs sometimes, and always wanted to learn more.”
With no driver’s license, he traveled by bicycle to work in Ossining. “One night, I got home from work at 11 pm, and the next morning it had snowed,” he says. “I had to carry my bicycle uphill to work, and, when a friend commented, I told him, ‘It’s what I have to do.’”
Ngan had bigger aspirations, however, and, when his best friend opened a donut shop in California, he asked, “What is a donut?”
“He was scrimping and saving to take care of his family,” Franks says, “and one day he said, ‘I have to see the donuts,’ and flew to the West Coast to see his friend. When he came back, he was excited about this new way to make money.”
Every day, Ngan went to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 6 in Peekskill seeking work. Finally, he said he’d work for free. After two weeks of volunteering, he was hired for pay, eventually becoming baker. “I got up at 4 am to make donuts,” he says, “because baking has to be done in the morning,” and worked afternoons at Hudson Wire.
Aspirations afire, he approached The Bank of New York in Croton-on-Hudson for money to open his first donut shop, Sun Fresh Donuts, in Ossining in 1984. “I saw names of products with ‘sun,’ like orange juice, and thought ‘sun’ was a good name,” he remembers.
Ngan with friend Bonnie Franks after his citizenship and naturalization.
When he applied for a loan, “Sidney Franks asked the bank manager why he said ‘yes,’” Ngan recalls. “The bank manager said, ‘Because I know he will pay me back.’” Ngan’s policy was simple: “I told customers if they didn’t like what I had, they didn’t have to pay,” he says. Everyone paid.
Opening his first store was financially rewarding; becoming a United States citizen, however, brought him to tears. He announced his new citizenship via a big sign on his store.
Less than 10 years later, Ngan, now a father of three daughters, sold the business and opened Sunshine Bagels in Ardsley in 1994. “I didn’t know how to make bagels, but I do know it’s not good to buy someone’s product,” he says. “I had to learn how to make them myself.” He followed with an additional bagel and pizza store in Elmsford in 1998, but sold it five years later. He tried again in 2010, opening another Sunshine Bagels in Thornwood. Two years later, Ngan transformed space vacated by a Dunkin’ Donuts on Central Avenue in Hartsdale into yet another Sunshine Bagels. Finally, he sold the Thornwood location in December, 2013, when he found running three shops overwhelming.
If life presents adversity, then Ngan responds by trying harder, like when he applied for a driver’s license. “When I was 27, I took the written test in the Chinese language, because it was easier [than in English],” he laughs, noting that he “passed the road test on the fourth try” after “taking it twice in Yorktown and twice in Peekskill.”
The first thing he did after obtaining his license was get lost in New York City. “I was given a 1972 station wagon, so I drove to Chinatown to learn to find my way back,” Ngan explains. “The way to find a way back is to first get lost.”
Using his intuition, Ngan designed the layout for all four of his stores “with help from the Board of Health,” he says. “If I made a mistake, I went back, and someone there explained how to do it.”
A “work-hard, chin-up, do-the-best-you-can” attitude encouraged him to work seven days a week, year-round without a vacation, and put three daughters—Vivian, now 36, who’s in banking; Sara, 31, an architect in New York City; and Diana, 30, involved in real estate—through private college.
“I wanted the American dream, and I have it,” he says, crediting his wife, family, and the numerous supportive friends who aided him. When asked about Cambodia, his face clouds. “I’m here,” he says. “And I’m grateful.”
Janie Rosman, freelance writer and enterprise reporter, believes everyone has a story and needs someone to tell it. She chronicles the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project at Kaleidoscope Eyes (www.nykeypad.wordpress.com).