Haing S. Ngor Biography

In a twist of Fate almost too cruel to be believed, Dr. Haing S. Ngor survived the killing fields of Cambodia only to become a victim of Los Angeles street crime. The son of a Khmer mother and ethnic Chinese father born in Samrong Yong, Cambodia on March 22, 1940, Ngor became a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. After medical school, he set up his own clinic in the capital city of Phnom Penh while serving as a medical officer in the Cambodian army. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, Maoist guerillas led by the dictator Pol Pot, assumed power in Cambodia. Dedicated to a radical Communist ideology intent upon ridding Cambodia of all Western cultural influences, the Khmer Rouge "evacuated" millions of people from the towns and cities to perform manual labor in the countryside. Concurrently, the group unleashed a wave of cultural genocide targeted at the intelligentsia, i.e. any person with the slightest degree of education, or, even those who wore eyeglasses. Until the Pol Pot regime collapsed in May 1979, the Khmer Rouge was estimated to have murdered two million Cambodians either through forced labor, starvation, or execution. As a bespectacled doctor, Ngor was at the top of the Khmer Rouge's hitlist. Hiding his glasses, he was imprisoned and tortured repeatedly on suspicion of being a physician. Somehow he managed to convince his captors that he was an illiterate taxicab driver. In June 1978, Ngor was forced to standby helplessly while his beloved wife (in actuality, his fiancee), Chang My Huoy, died in childbirth. As a trained gynecologist, Ngor could have saved her, but would have been instantly killed as a member of the outlawed intellectual class. Before his flight with a niece across the Cambodian border to Thailand in 1979, Ngor had lost both parents, two sisters, and two of three brothers to the Khmer Rouge. Besides the clothes on his back, the only other possession the one-time doctor owned was a treasured photograph of Huoy. Ngor wrote movingly of his harrowing experiences in his 1987 autobiography, A Cambodian Odyssey, co-written with journalist Roger Warner. For the next 18 months, Ngor worked as a doctor in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border while awaiting permission to immigrate to either Australia or the United States. In October 1980, he was admitted to the U.S. arriving in Los Angeles with $4.00 in his pocket. Barred from practicing medicine in the States (the American Medical Association refused to recognize his French credentials), Ngor landed a job as a night security guard for a company near the outskirts of Chinatown. In November 1980 the former doctor became a counselor for the Chinatown Service Center, an organization dedicated to helping Cambodian refugees find jobs in their new country. If Ngor had done nothing other than serve as a caseworker at the CSC he would have fulfilled his commitment to helping those displaced by the Khmer Rouge. However, in March 1982 the he became involved in a project that would forever place a human face, his, on the Cambodian Holocaust. Friends had to convince Ngor to audition for a part in film director Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, the true-life story of the relationship between New York Times columnist Sydney H. Schanberg, posted to Cambodia from 1972 to 1975 during the Khmer Rouge's toppling of the government, and his translator and assistant, Dith Pran. The motion picture told the story of Dith Pran's imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge and his escape from the war-torn country; in essence, an almost mirror image of Haing Ngor's experiences. Ngor was on location in Thailand when he was told he was cast to play the co-lead as Dith Pran opposite Sam Waterston. Viewing the role as a chance to honor his deathbed commitment to Huoy to inform the world about the horror in Cambodia, Ngor was riveting in the film. In 1984, he was given the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, the first time since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) that another nonprofessional, Harold Russell, was so honored with the Oscar. Other films in which Ngor appeared include The Iron Triangle (1989), Vietnam, Texas (1990), Ambition (1991), director Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth (1993), Fortunes of War (1993), and The Dragon Gate (1994). On series television, he did guest shots on Miami Vice (1984), Highway to Heaven (1984), China Beach (1988), and Hotel (1990). Acting, however, was only the means for Ngor to realize a twofold purpose: focus world-wide attention on the plight of Cambodian refugees and to generate income for his human rights concerns. By 1996, the Academy Award winner had organized at least two international aid organizations targeted at alleviating the suffering of refugees in camps near the Thai-Cambodian border- the Aides aux Personnes Deplacees (Aid to Displaced Persons) based in Brussels, and the Paris-based Les Enfants d'Angkor. Dr. Ngor also served as an advisor to the Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge (CORKR). In addition to establishing a medical training center on the Cambodian border, the human rights activist was also involved in numerous business dealings (operating hotels, exporting rice, timber harvesting) in his former country. On the evening of February 25, 1996, Ngor (after delivering a lecture on Cambodia) pulled his late-model Mercedes-Benz into the carport of his modest two-bedroom apartment building near the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. As he was getting out of the car, three young gang members high on crack ordered him to hand over his valuables. Ngor, 55, was willing to give them his wallet and the $6,000 Rolex on his wrist, but categorically refused to part with the gold chain and locket around his neck containing the photograph of wife Huoy he had smuggled out of Cambodia. If the doped up gang members thought they could intimidate a man who had been systematically tortured by the Khmer Rouge over a period of years, they were mistaken. First, the hoods beat him to the pavement with a baseball bat, and when Ngor still refused to part with the locket, one tough shot him in the leg. Still, Ngor refused to surrender the beloved object. Gang members shot the award winning actor once in the heart and took the locket off his corpse. In their haste to flee the scene, the thieves overlooked a wallet in Ngor's jacket pocket containing nearly $3,000 in cash. Initial speculation that the human rights activist was murdered in retaliation for his crusade to bring Pol Pot and others responsible for the Cambodian Holocaust to the bar of international justice was quickly discounted after police charged three members of the L.A. street gang Oriental Lazy Boyz (OLB) with the crime in April 1996. Suspects Jason "Cloudy" Chan, 18, and Indra "Solo" Lim, 19, were already in custody on unrelated robbery charges when police arrested their 19-year-old accomplice, Tak Sun "Rambo" Tan. The Oriental Lazy Boyz, a Chinatown gang notorious for "follow-home" assaults, specialized in carjacking and home invasions to finance crack buys, not in terrorist activities aimed at eliminating political dissenters. According to prosecutor Craig Hum, "Dr. Ngor ... died on the cold pavement of a carport in Chinatown gunned down by these men for a few lousy rocks of cocaine." Sadly, like the victim, parents of two of the accused killers had also escaped Pol Pot's reign of terror. Tried for first-degree murder under the special circumstance of killing a person during the commission of a robbery, the three gang members faced a possible death sentence as their trial opened in Los Angeles in February 1998. While the three men were tried simultaneously in the same courtroom, three different juries (each designated a specific color-coded badge) were impanelled to hear the case. Prosecutor Hum eloquently argued that Ngor was murdered because he refused to give up the gold chain and locket containing the photo of his martyred love, Huoy. The three OLB members pleaded innocent to the crime, but did admit they were high on crack when they "found" Ngor's Rolex and heart shaped locket. They were too stoned, however, to remember where they sold the items. On April 16, 1998, all three were convicted of first-degree murder and second-degree robbery following a nearly two month trial. Ironically, the verdict was announced one day after Pol Pot's death from a reported heart attack. The D.A.'s office breathed a sigh of relief. The defendants had all changed their stories on the stand, and potential witnesses had refused to testify out of the very real fear of gang reprisal. The case against the men had been built almost entirely on tape recordings of police interviews with gang members who fingered the defendants fleeing the scene of Ngor's murder. Still maintaining their innocence, the OLB members were sentenced on May 19, 1998: Indra Lim, 26 years to life; Tak Sun Tan, 56 years to life; and Jason Chan, life without the possibility of parole (the longer sentence meted out because of his lengthy list of prior offenses dating back to when he was 13). Then on April 26, 2004, the unthinkable happened when a federal judge gave final approval to a magistrate's November 2003 decision to overturn the conviction of Tak Sun "Rambo" Tan. The magistrate found that prosecutor Craig Hum unfairly played upon the jury's sympathies when describing in moving detail the horrors Ngor suffered in Cambodia. The prosecutor further muddied the legal waters (i.e. arguing facts not in evidence) by maintaining Ngor struggled to retain the gold locket because it contained the only surviving photo of his dead wife, Huoy. In reality, Ngor had another photo in his bedroom as well as the negative for the locket photograph. Should the ruling stand, "Rambo" Tan must either be given a new trial or released. On July 7, 2005, however, a federal appeals court in San Francisco reinstated the life terms and convictions for all three defendants ruling the evidence against them was "overwhelming." Dr. Ngor is buried in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California under a flat burial marker bearing a smiling photograph of him holding the Oscar for The Killing Fields above the inscription in Cambodian letters, and in English, "Haing S. Ngor-Beloved Brother & Uncle-March 22, 1940–February 25, 1996."