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Encore: Artist portrays kids of Cambodian-American refugees on pink donut boxes


Los Angeles is home to hundreds of mom-and-pop doughnut stores run by immigrants from Cambodia. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited one with an artist who has found a new way to use them in her work.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Donut Star, tucked away in a Southern California strip mall, is an unpretentious oasis of cheap coffee, lottery tickets and a staggering array of freshly baked doughnuts.

PHUNG HUYNH: Twisty, glazed doughnut, sprinkles and blue and pink.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And chocolate bar.

ULABY: Artist Phung Huynh is here for a little sugary pick-me-up and artistic inspiration.

HUYNH: Onn (ph), what is the orange one?

ULABY: Huynh is a painter with a show up now in Los Angeles. Instead of traditional canvases, she uses the distinctive pink boxes these doughnut shops are known for.

HUYNH: I mean, it's a beautiful color, right?

ULABY: Bubblegum pink - and, she says, surprisingly easy to work with.

HUYNH: It's such a forgiving surface. And it grabs - it grabs the ink. It grabs the pencil, 'cause I've drawn - I made portraits.

ULABY: Huynh's doughnut box series portrays young people who grew up in their families' doughnut shops. They're children, she says, of boat people and refugees. She silkscreened their smiling faces in doughnut-flavor colors - maple, chocolate, banana, maraschino cherry. They look directly at the viewer.


HUYNH: This is of Andrew Hang (ph), Bandy Andy, the rap artist. A lot of his work is about assimilating the immigrant experience.


BANDY ANDY: (Rapping) Ay, Asian boy, Asian kid, I am sorry when they said that you ate your dog's ribs. Asian girl, Asian kid...

HUYNH: So I'm third generation refugee.

ULABY: Artist Phung Huynh's family fled Cambodia in 1975, Vietnam in 1978 and, before that, China during World War II. Her immigrant community has seen a frightening uptick in racist stereotyping, deportations and attacks over the past few years. While her family's story could be framed as the American dream, its critical, Huynh says, not to let their hard work and determination obscure other truths that come with their success.

HUYNH: There's a lot of guilt for being able to survive. There's a lot of guilt for being able to come to the United States and leaving some - you have to leave family. There are a lot of family back home who weren't able to come.

ULABY: Right now, Huynh says, as she looks at the faces of Ukrainian refugees and those from Afghanistan, Central America and so many other places around the world, she thinks about the flash of pink boxes being carried out of doughnut stores all over California as a signal, she says, of strength, of hope, of survival.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "DEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.