It’s cold and rainy tonight in L.A. Around this time eight years ago, it was even colder. A more bitter cold, bone-chilling, I remember. So does a former neighbor of Haing Ngor, the beautician who lived two doors down on the same floor of the apartment complex. She remembers it was so cold, she had to turn up the heat, and then it was so warm, her family was afraid the garbage would smell. So the neighbor put on her coat and took out the garbage.
It was dark in the carport behind the apartment building,. The neighbor lady was surprised to see Dr. Ngor’s car parked in his usual spot. When she’d passed his apartment, it was dark, so she thought he wasn’t home yet. She was shocked to find him on the ground next to his Mercedes, shot to death, another homicide victim in Los Angeles, on the outskirts of Chinatown.
Since that night, every February around this time, it’s hard for some of us not to recall that cold, windy night, the night of Feb. 25, 1996, when Dr. Ngor was murdered.
What I remember more, though, is when we met. Even if I were prone to dwell on the last days of Haing S. Ngor, even then, the first days I spent with him would still be more memorable in my heart.
Was there ever anyone you could have easily met, like at a big function during the glory days of “The Killing Fields’” movie success, but you for some strong, instinctive feeling, decided that – if you couldn’t get to know that individual intimately -- you’d rather not meet him at all, rather than just shake his hand in a greeting line and not have an opportunity to say more – if any -- than a few fleeting words, like “Congratulations on your Oscar”?
That’s what I felt, twice, at separate functions where Dr. Ngor accepted awards and accolades after his big Oscar success. His new celebrity had made his the face of the then- little acknowledged Cambodian holocaust, and you could tell this was a man with a mission. I couldn’t bring myself to meet him at all in those circumstances. No one before had ever stirred such instincts inside me, and no one has since!
So imagine my delight eight years after “The Killing Fields” on the bright afternoon of January 3rd, 1988. I’m high in the sky, flying to Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India. Sri Lanka’s jungles are subbing for Vietnam. I’m going to the jungle to play a Vietcong. It’s a two-week gig in “The Iron Triangle,” and you know actors are flown first class, right? Part of the contract. We have to go first class. Awwww. So I was delighted indeed. Furthermore, my character didn’t have all that much to say or do, so I had my part memorized already.
In a chat en route with “Iron Triangle” producer, Angela Shapiro, I said, “I know Beau Bridges is starring in this movie. Who else?” She mentioned Haing Ngor. I knew my life was about to be changed.
And that’s more or less what I told the charming Dr. Ngor, who was eagerly waiting at the top of the ancient stairs of the Hotel Suisse in Kandy; he was anxious to meet and greet the “new blood” just arrived from Hollywood.
I waited till the rest of the gang had gone in to register before I approached Dr. Ngor, who was still all smiles, hand outreached.
“Dr. Ngor,” I said boldly, “I believe it is my destiny and your kama that we meet today.” His face brightened even more. “You say two favorite words!” he said. “You say destiny and kama!” Then he asked, that wonderful accent running amuck, “Do you read fast?” I said fast enough to read a whole novel on the flight over, and within minutes, the still very excited Haing S. Ngor was back in the lobby where I was still checking in, and he handed me a package wrapped in brown paper, still unopened. It was the printer’s proof of Dr. Ngor’s autobiography, Ä Cambodian Odyssey (written with Roger Warner). Haing said Tony Scotti, “Iron Triangle” executive producer, was due on location in a couple of days, but wanted me to read it first. I did. It was at once dramatic, painful, enlightening, educational and thrilling. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed it “one of the most important biographies of our time.”
So this year, at the approach of the eighth anniversary of Dr. Ngor’s tragic death on February 25, it is made a particularly significant anniversary with the publication of a new edition of Dr. Ngor’s acclaimed autobiography. The 2004 publication, titled Survival in the Killing Fields, features a fascinating epilogue by Roger Warner – an insider update on Dr. Ngor’s life, from Oscar winner to human rights activist to homicide victim.
Survival in the Killing Fields is an important volume for students and those interested in Asian-American, Cambodian, Vietnam War, and genocide historical literature. A book this important belongs in every school and library.
It is, in addition, a fitting remembrance of the legacy of Dr. Haing S. Ngor.