Haing Ngor: From Surviving the Khmer Rouge to Winning an Oscar and Beyond

Dr. Ngor was a Cinderella story in Hollywood, but he mostly took acting jobs when he needed money to pay for his charitable works in Cambodia. When a CBS reporter asked about his choices, Dr. Ngor bluntly retorted:
“I’m a star in Hollywood, right? But what for? Star? What for? Did you see my people suffering? That’s my people, that’s my heart, that’s my nation. In Hollywood…what for? Mean nothing to me. Nothing.”

Haing Somnang Ngor was a Cambodian-American gynecologist, obstetrician, actor, and author who lived a remarkable life. Ngor was born on March 22, 1940, in Samrong Young, Bati district, now Takeo province, Cambodia, and trained as a surgeon and gynecologist. However, his life changed when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, and he was compelled to hide his education, medical skills, and even the fact that he wore glasses to avoid the new regime’s intense hostility to intellectuals and professionals.

Ngor was expelled from Phnom Penh along with the bulk of its two million inhabitants as part of the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” social experiment and imprisoned in a concentration camp with his wife, My-Huoy, who subsequently died giving birth, along with their unborn child. Ngor survived three terms in Cambodian prison camps, using his medical knowledge to keep himself alive by eating beetles, termites, and scorpions. He eventually crawled between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese lines to safety in a Red Cross refugee camp.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand and left with his niece for the United States on August 30, 1980. However, he was unable to resume his medical practice in America and did not remarry. Instead, Ngor turned to acting, despite having no previous experience in the field.

In 1984, Ngor was cast as Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields. Despite his lack of acting experience, he delivered a stunning performance that won him numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He became the first Asian to win Best Supporting Actor in debut performance and the second Asian actor to ever win an Oscar. He was also one of two amateur actors to win an Oscar, the other being Harold Russell.

Ngor continued acting for the rest of his life, appearing in various onscreen projects, most notably in Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (1993), where he portrayed spiritual healer Mr. Ho opposite Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. However, Ngor’s life was tragically cut short when he was murdered in a robbery outside his home in Los Angeles in 1996.

Despite his short acting career, Ngor’s legacy lives on. He played an important role in raising awareness of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities and the struggles of Cambodian refugees. In 1988, he wrote Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, describing his life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the second edition of Survival in the Killing Fields, Roger Warner, Ngor’s co-author, adds an epilogue telling the story of Ngor’s life after winning the Academy Award.

Ngor was also a humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help his fellow Cambodians. He founded the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation in his honor in 1997 to assist in raising funds for Cambodian aid. As part of his humanitarian efforts, Ngor built an elementary school and operated a small sawmill that provided jobs and an income for local families.

Haing Somnang Ngor was a remarkable individual who lived an extraordinary life. He survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and went on to become an Academy Award-winning actor, raising awareness of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia. He was also a humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help his fellow Cambodians. Ngor’s legacy lives on through his work and the Foundation

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