Spotlight On Actor and Activist Haing Somnang Ngor

Camille Keo, Young Adult Librarian, Benjamin Franklin Branch Library,
Haing Somnang Ngor receiving an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985
Photo: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection

Haing Somnang Ngor (1947?-1996) was a Cambodian doctor, a refugee, an actor, and an activist. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dith Pran in the biographical film The Killing Fields (1984). Dith Pran was a Cambodian photojournalist who saved the life of U.S. reporter Sydney Schanberg, who won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Cambodia. Ngor is still the only actor of Asian descent to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

Ngor was born in Samrong Yong, Cambodia, hailing from a privileged Chinese Khmer family. Instead of following the family business, he became an obstetrician and gynecologist, as well as a medical officer in the Cambodian Army. He met his wife, Chang My Huoy while he was in medical school. She would later die in labor during the Khmer Rouge while Ngor was helpless to save her. Ngor was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime from 1975-1979. The Khmer Rouge, a group of Maoist-Marxist guerrilla fighters that gained the power of Cambodia’s government, forced everyone to evacuate from the cities to relocate to the countryside for hard labor. It was estimated that approximately two million or more Cambodians, about a third of the population, died due to starvation, disease, hard labor, torture, and executions. Ngor survived three instances of torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge by pretending to be an uneducated taxi driver.

In 1980, he immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, becoming a counselor at a resettlement agency for refugees. While attending a Cambodian wedding, he was scouted by Pat Golden, casting director of The Killing Fields. At times during the filming of the movie, scenes would trigger his own post-traumatic stress; Dith Pran’s experiences mirrored his own. Ngor published his memoir, A Cambodian Odyssey (1987), written with journalist Roger Warner. Ngor went on to act in guest starring roles on television series, as well as other films, Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth. He primarily used his fame and money to advocate for others. In 1991, he founded the Haing S. Ngor Foundation and funded many projects in Cambodia. His life was tragically cut short when he was killed outside his home in Chinatown.

Suggested Activities:

  • Visit Cambodia Town in Long Beach for Khmer New Year festivities; Start at Anaheim Street and Cherry Avenue and make your way towards MacArthur Park to celebrate Cambodia Town’s Parade and Cultural Festival; Attend a screening of the Cambodia Town Film Festival in April; Check out restaurants, such as Hak Haeng, Sophy’s, or Phnom Penh Noodle Shack; Explore the murals along the Anaheim corridor, starting at the United Cambodian Community building, titled The Spirit Within by Sayon Syprasoeuth; Community members, scholars, and students can also make an appointment with the Long Beach Historical Society to view the CamCHAP Archives (Cambodian Community History and Archive Project) that contains thousands of English and Khmer newspapers, documents, and manuscripts.
  • Visit your local library branch to request a copy of Voices of a New Generation: Creative Cambodians in the Creative Arts by Dr. Christine Su.
  • Check out documentaries on Kanopy, such as The Donut King (2020) to learn about Cambodian donut shop owners in Los Angeles or discover Cambodian music and dance in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014) or Seasons of Migration (2008).
coloring book page of Haing Somnang Ngor

Coloring page