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The Many Lives of Haing S. Ngor : Doctor/Actor Turns Author With Autobiography That Recounts Barbarism in Cambodia

February 15, 1988|DAVID DEVOSS | Times Staff Writer

The tiny, two-bedroom apartment just east of Chinatown is not the sort of place one expects to find a best-selling author, much less an award-winning actor. Blistering plaster and threadbare carpets complement furniture best described as "serviceable." Only a large temple rubbing from Angkor Wat and a wall covered with awards bespeak the occupant's origin and accomplishments.

Dwarfed by a statue of a standing Buddha, his 1985 Oscar for best supporting actor is accorded no special place of honor. It stands, almost as an afterthought amid a jumble of less valuable mementos. But the apartment is not without treasures.

"I still have my wife's clothes that I brought out from Cambodia," Haing S. Ngor says, standing on a chair to rummage through a cabinet above his refrigerator. The box he is after contains clothes from "the Khmer Rouge times." A green sarong, ripped and frayed, a yellow hammock big enough for two and a single blouse. One by one, Ngor carefully unfolds, then silently stares at these frail links with the past.

"I carried these out of Phnom Penh," he says with a smile, holding aloft some unused corduroy trousers. "My friend, Som, had an identical pair. We saved them to wear once the Khmer Rouge were defeated. But he was executed and I . . . ," Ngor stammers, "I . . . never got back home."

Five years ago, Ngor, a Cambodian refugee earning $400 a month job counseling at the Chinatown Service Center, was plucked from obscurity and given a lead role in called "The Killing Fields," a movie whose graphic depiction of life under the Khmer Rouge brought home to many Americans the full horror of the Cambodian holocaust.

Ngor's portrayal of New York Times interpreter Dith Pran earned him an Academy Award. But in the wake of his instant celebrity, Ngor says, he realized that the critically acclaimed film had one major flaw: its happy ending.

"Pran escapes and is finally reunited with his family in New York, but his is just one story," Ngor says. "What about the 4 million Cambodians who died? They remained in the killing fields along with my wife and family.

"Life under the Khmer Rouge was much worse than what we were able to show in the movie. I realized I could never be content until America knew the full truth about the killing fields. I wanted to describe the horror of being ruled by communists who enjoy killing so that Americans, who know nothing about bombing and torture, might appreciate their own freedom more."

"Haing Ngor, a Cambodian Odyssey" is the fulfillment of that vow. The autobiography is a chronicle of terror; an odyssey that begins in a tranquil nation at peace and ends with the brutal extermination of Cambodia's Buddhist religion and culture. It is also an overnight success. Published last week, the book is already in its third printing, and Warner Bros. has optioned the story for a television movie.

Though some might deem his surroundings austere, Ngor is quite comfortable. "No one ties me up anymore, and I can walk outside without having to worry about bombs," he says, reclining beneath a bank of laminated tributes from various cities and motion picture societies. "A decade ago I was in danger of starvation. Now my only worry is getting fat."

Though he claims to be content, Haing Ngor does not seem capable of complacency. At least not on the subject of Cambodia. When discussing his broken homeland, he burns with an intensity common to sole survivors who have passed beyond the realm of common experience.

"Of the 350,000 Khmer refugees living along the Thai border, 60,000 are homeless children," Ngor says.

"The children need food and medicine if they are to survive. At present, their skin is their clothes, the jungle is their house and paddy straw is their blanket."

After winning his Oscar, Ngor left the Chinatown Service Center to publicize the plight of Cambodian refugees. Since then, he has spent almost two-thirds of his time collecting funds for Cambodian relief. His goal is the construction of a hospital at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai-Kampuchean border where he worked as a doctor after escaping from Cambodia. Toward that end he donated most of the royalties from "The Killing Fields," plus more than $150,000 subsequently earned on the lecture circuit. Acting fees from "Iron Triangle," a Vietnam War movie Ngor recently filmed in Sri Lanka, are pledged to the cause. So are the eventual profits from his autobiography.

Over the coming four weeks, he will travel from London to Bangkok, then back to Geneva and Paris on yet another talk-show tour. Between trips to the border and benefit fund-raisers, he will play the role of successful author.

If he seems born to the part, it's because he's had plenty of practice adjusting to dramatic incarnations. "I was a barefoot trader in the jungle who became a scavenger trying to survive before I became a refugee and Hollywood actor," he says.

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