Home > Local News > Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor [ Haing S. Ngor ]

Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor [ Haing S. Ngor ]

Won his Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
” The Killing Fields” (1984)
Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor (Traditional Chinese: 吳潤漢, Wú Rùnhàn March 22, 1940 – February 25, 1996) was a Cambodian American physician, actor and author who is best known for winning the 1985 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his debut performance in the movie The Killing Fields, in which he portrayed Cambodian journalist and refugee Dith Pran.His mother was Khmer and his father was of Chinese descent. Ngor and Harold Russell are the only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award in an acting category. As of 2010, Ngor remains the only Asian to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Life under the Khmer Rouge
Born in Samrong Young, Cambodia, Ngor trained as a surgeon and gynecologist. He was practicing in the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized control of the country and proclaimed it Democratic Kampuchea. He was compelled to conceal his education, medical skills, and even the fact that he wore glasses
to avoid the new regime’s intense hostility to intellectuals and
professionals. He 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 along with his
wife, My-Huoy, who subsequently died giving birth. Although a
gynecologist, he was unable to treat his wife who required a Cesarean section as he would have been exposed and both he and his wife (as well as the child) would very probably have been killed. 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. Ngor was not able to resume medical practice in the U.S. He never remarried.

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.
The “Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation” was founded 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. Ngor’s niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri, who testified at the trial of his
murderers and with whom he arrived to the U.S., is the current
President of the Foundation.
Acting career
Ngor, despite having no previous acting experience, was cast as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, a role for which he later won three awards, including a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ngor also appeared in other movies and TV shows, most memorably in Oliver Stone‘s Heaven & Earth and the Vanishing Son miniseries. He also appeared in the Hong Kong film Eastern Condors, which was directed by and starred Sammo Hung. He also appeared in a supporting role in the 1989 Vietnam War drama, The Iron Triangle. He guest-starred in a two-episode storyline on the acclaimed series China Beach (episodes “How to Stay Alive in Vietnam 1 & 2“) as a wounded Cambodian POW who befriends Colleen McMurphy while under her care. He also guest-starred in an episode of Miami Vice called “The Savage / Duty and Honor”.

Foundation and legacy

The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation was organized in 1990 by Ngor and Jack Ong.
The two actors met in 1989 while filming “The Iron Triangle” and soon
after, Pastor Ong’s church (Venice Christian Community in Venice, CA)
launched Project Cambodia to raise funds to care for orphans and help
rebuild the devastated country’s infrastructure. Project Cambodia was
the original foundation for The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, which was
incorporated in 1997 after Ngor’s homicide (Feb. 25, 1996) as a 501 (C)
(3) charitable organization. The goals of the Foundation include
preserving the legacy of Ngor’s accomplishments and human rights
endeavors as well as the promotion of Cambodia’s history and culture
through education, activism and the arts. Ngor’s niece, Sophia Ngor
Demetri, who testified at the trial of his murderers and whom he
brought to the U.S., is the current President of the Foundation; Ong
serves as Executive Director.

Murder
On February 25, 1996, Ngor was shot dead outside his home in Chinatown, in downtown Los Angeles, California. Ngor was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
Many Cambodians claimed they had a stake in his estate, with one woman
claiming he had married her after coming to the United States. Most of
Ngor’s Cambodian assets went to his brother, Chan Sarun, while his American assets were used up in legal fees staving off claims to his estate.
Charged with the murder were three reputed members of the “Oriental Lazy Boyz” street gang
who had a prior history of snatching purses and jewelry. They were
tried together in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, though their cases
were heard by three separate juries. Prosecutors argued that they killed Ngor because, after handing over his gold Rolex
watch willingly, he refused to give them a locket that contained a
photo of his deceased wife, My-Huoy. Defense attorneys suggested the
murder was a politically motivated killing carried out by sympathizers
of the Khmer Rouge but offered no evidence to support this theory. Kang Kek Iew,
a former Khmer Rouge official on trial in Cambodia, claimed in November
2009 that Ngor was murdered on Pol Pot’s orders, but U.S. investigators
did not find him credible.

Some criticized the theory that Ngor was killed in a bungled
robbery, pointing to $2,900 in cash that had been left behind and the
fact that the thieves had not rifled his pockets. Why the thieves would
have demanded his locket has never been answered; Ngor typically wore
the locket next to his skin under his clothing, so it would not have
been in plain sight. As of 2003, the locket has not been recovered.

All three were found guilty on April 16, 1998, the same day Pol Pot’s death was confirmed in Cambodia.
Tak Sun Tan was sentenced to 56 years to life; Indra Lim to 26 years to
life; and Jason Chan to life without parole. In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted Tak Sun Tan’s habeas corpus
petition, finding that prosecutors had manipulated the jury’s sympathy
by presenting false evidence. This decision was reversed, and the
conviction was ultimately upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July 2005.

After the release of The Killing Fields, Ngor had told a New York Times reporter, “If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years.”

Dith Pran, whom Ngor portrayed in The Killing Fields, said of Ngor’s death, “He is like a twin with me. He is like a co-messenger and right now I am alone.”
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