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Cambodian Expatriate Longs to Return Home

October 24, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

Life has been good for Edward Chey since he came to the United States from his native Cambodia in 1972.

Chey lives in a comfortable home in Norwalk with his wife, Katherine, and their 11-year-old daughter. The 39-year-old social worker has a job with the county Department of Children's Services, a post he has held for more than four years, and is attending night classes in hopes of getting a law degree.

He has even had a taste of working in that most glamorous of American institutions--the motion picture industry. In 1983, Chey was cast in a supporting role in the critically acclaimed film "The Killing Fields," the story of the fall of Cambodia to the communist Khmer Rouge.

Wants to Return to Homeland

Nonetheless, Chey would trade all of it--the stability, the dreams--for a chance to return to his homeland.

"The United States is my adoptive mother, but Cambodia still remains my natural mother," Chey said in his accented English as he sat for lunch in a crowded Cambodian restaurant in Artesia. "Of course I have a job, I have a good life here. But I left behind my mother, my country, which has been hurt by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese."

Memories of Cambodia haunt Chey. In recent years, he has served as general secretary for the Khmer League for Freedom. The group, composed of about 200 expatriate Cambodians living in Long Beach and other nearby cities, is working to raise money and spark support for rebels fighting an uphill battle against the current regime in Phnom Penh, a government installed by Vietnam.

For Chey, the ongoing fight has a decidedly personal side. His father, mother and seven of his siblings were killed after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

During that period, the new rulers emptied Cambodia's cities, forcing the entire population to labor in the countryside. Experts estimate 1 million people, roughly one-seventh the country's population, either starved or were killed before the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge was cut short by the Vietnamese invasion of December, 1978.

"The Khmer Rouge killed my people. The Vietnamese have killed my nation," Chey said, staring into a steaming bowl of soup. "The most painful thing is the Cambodian people losing their nation to the Vietnamese."

It was mostly luck that kept Chey from being caught in the madness that overtook his homeland. On the advice of his father, Chey had come to the United States 13 years ago with his wife to attend college. They had planned to return to Cambodia, but when the Khmer Rouge took over the couple was granted refugee status by the U.S. government.

A stocky man, Chey has a ready smile and a hearty laugh. It was that peaceful appearance that helped him land a role in "The Killing Fields" as Sarum, the ubiquitous driver for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian translator and assistant, Dith Pran.

Selected From 2,000 People

Chey was at a wedding in Norwalk when he first learned that the film's producers were searching for native Cambodians for nine different roles. On a whim, both Chey and his wife decided to audition a few weeks later. After reading for a casting director, the couple was selected from among 2,000 people to appear in the film. Katherine Chey played Dith Pran's wife.

In April, 1983, they took time off from work and traveled to Thailand, where the picture was shot. The two-month experience had a profound impact on Chey.

"Thailand is very similar to Cambodia. I became very nostalgic," he recalled. "I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw the coconut trees, the rain drops. It made me feel, for a moment, close to my hometown, Phonm Penh."

When the film was released last year and Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who played Dith Pran, went on to win an Oscar for best supporting actor, the entire Cambodian community was delighted, Chey said. "It is a great source of pride for the Cambodians to get this award," he said.

Fact-Finding Mission

In July, Chey returned to Thailand on a fact-finding mission for the Khmer League for Freedom and visited several refugee camps housing the more than 500,000 Cambodians who fled their homeland in recent years.

It was like a nightmare, said Chey. He said he toured several camps where he saw scores of refugees--many of them children--suffering from malnutrition and disease.

The visit only heightened his fervor to see Cambodia free.

"People must see that the Vietnam War has not ended," Chey said. "The children of the killing fields are still suffering."

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