When Oscar winner Haing Ngor gave an interview in Bangkok about our film project, The Man From Year Zero, to The Nation, on 16 September 1994, I was ecstatic. This original screenplay was about a resettled Cambodian dance teacher whose past and present fuse together when the former Khmer Rouge officer responsible for butchering his dance class and family in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, runs into him unsuspectingly in the United States in an Asian grocery store. Haing Ngor’s character was to be Penn Savath, the traditional dance teacher. Although the story’s central theme was revenge, it also explored a man who had lost his art through war, and through a weird twist of time, fate, and geography, finds it again. Although the story is fiction, it is based around real events. On 25 February 1996, I was in Bangkok working on the script rewrite, when I was told that Haing Ngor had been murdered outside of his apartment in Los Angeles.
Kaing Guek Eav, Comrade Duch, sentenced to life for participating in Cambodia's Khmer Rouge atrocities, claimed in a Los Angeles Times article on 21 January 2010 that "Haing Ngor was killed for appearing in the movie, 'The Killing Fields." Even as a conspiracy theory, there was no logic for the Khmer Rouge to kill Haing Ngor, especially in California. Only one month before his murder, Haing had told me that he was planning to run for office in Cambodia, and I knew he had business and property interests there, so for several years, I also doubted the official “robbery” version of Haing's murder. It was hard to fathom that such a familiar Cambodian icon, could be killed, resisting a crack-fuelled robbery attempt by fellow Cambodians. There seemed to be more questions, than answers. It was also hard to fathom that all the years of pain and uncertainty would finally be put to rest in a small Phnom Penh bar on Street 51, called, Victory.
Victory (Home of Champions) has an unusual clientele - hip-hop raised, tattooed, former Cambodian/American gang members, male, and female, forcibly exiled from their American homes to Cambodia. At the Victory, old gang rivalries are set aside, and new arrivals can find help, advice, and even hope. In the culture of honesty at the Victory, more of a sanctuary than a bar, the deportees do not gloss over their past, or anyone else’s. At the Victory, with veteran photographer, Al Rockoff, the conversations range from gang violence in the school system, injustice, the struggles of readjusting to a foreign country, and the broken hearts of Cambodian families left behind in America.
Most of the exiles feel betrayed by their punishment, and speculate on why these deportations have increased under the presidency of US President, Barack Obama. "He just uses minorities to get votes," exclaims a deportee. But what also emerges is a startling history and insight into the daily robberies, extortion, shootings, and home invasions that shaped the Cambodian communities in California, and created the gangs. In hindsight, resettling war-traumatized Southeast Asian refugees into poor, violent, black and Mexican, urban ghettos, was probably not a good path to the American Dream, although it did work for some luckier Cambodians, like Haing Ngor.
"OG Dicer" (not his real name) is an articulate, former Cambodian gang shot-caller, with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980's and 90's, gangland America. Dicer, was "kidnapped" by US Immigration from his home in Long Beach, California, and exiled to Cambodia "against his will" in March, 2004. Dicer tells me that he lived in the 3200 block of the Los Angeles County Jail's gang module, in a jail cell beside Haing Ngor's killers, Oriental Lazy Boyz, Jason Chan, Tak Sun Tan, and Indra Lim, where he spent two and a half years. "I knew "Silent" and "Solo" since they first hit the streets. Somebody told them that Haing Ngor had a suitcase with a hundred thousand dollars in the trunk of his Mercedes, and they knew he wore a gold chain, locket, and a Rolex watch. They went there to jack (rob) him. There wasn't nobody big behind it. I know, because I asked them when I was the shot-caller in the gang module - they wouldn't lie to me or the other homies."
According to Dicer, Haing Ngor's killing did not go down well on the streets, or with the other Cambodian gang members in the over-crowded, LA County Gang Module. "We were all pissed off they'd killed a Cambodian icon. They told me they was all cracked out when they did it. Those fools didn't even know who they killed until after they was arrested." Sometimes, the authorities do tell the truth. Violent death in America is often random, and mindless. And thanks to Dicer, the death of my friend, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, is now put to rest.
Update: 10 January 2014: The Victory bar is now gone, the victim of an avaricious landlord. And many of the deported Cambodians still struggle to reunite with family in the US, or struggle to make a life in Cambodia. And I now have a better screenplay than The Man From Year Zero, The Poorest Man, based on a true story. In it’s own mysterious way, life has come around full circle.
(photo: Haing Ngor and Praiwan Walker posing with Oscar. © Dave Walker)
“That must be Chantrea Village,” says Binh, a 63-year old former Viet Cong guerrilla as we watch the Oliver Stone movie, Platoon. Binh had spotted the Khmer statue just before Charlie Sheen’s first enemy contact in the jungle. He then explained that Chantrea village is a Cambodian village in Svay Rieng province located near the border with Vietnam. Beginning in 1964, and ending in 1973, Chantrea had been attacked repeatedly by American planes. “The planes sprayed defoliant to destroy the jungle and dropped cluster bombs on the village to destroy us.”
Binh, then 17 years old, had been pressured into joining the Viet Cong in 1970 after the CIA-backed coup deposed Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihanouk, and installed General Lon Nol. “In 1970, different armies would come to the villages and force people to join.” The villagers believed that if we didn’t fight the Americans, that the Americans would kill us anyway. So we decided it was better to die fighting. Even the children shot at the American airplanes.”
“We walked everywhere back then,” recalls Binh. “If you rode in a vehicle, you would be attacked from the air.” Binh smiles during the scene where Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris, confesses that he joined the army because he thought it was unfair that only the poor should fight wars. “The rich always find a way to run away from war.”
During the village scene, where Sergeant Elias fights Barnes over his murderous treatment of the villagers, Binh nods knowingly. “Wartime is difficult. Everywhere there are always cruel people, and kind people. I believe the Americans lost the war because of their cruelty to the people.” While explaining that Elias wanted to charge Barnes with murder, Binh states, “in the Viet Cong or Khmer Rouge, our leaders would just shoot us if we did this to innocent villagers.”
While watching the drop-short artillery scene where the Lieutenant’s fire mission map error kills his own men, “That happened to us too,” Binh nods grimly. “Sometimes the Viet Cong accidently killed their own men who were fighting at the front of the attack.” And when the helicopters landed to evacuate the wounded, “all we had for our wounded was a hammock and a bamboo pole. We had to leave our dead behind.”
Binh chuckles when seeing the US base camp. “They always had very big bases – and they were very easy to attack. They had everything, tanks, artillery, helicopters, and airplanes. We had nothing - very little food or ammunition. The camps were too big for us to occupy so we would just attack their bases, and then go back into the jungle to sleep. But the American and Lon Nol soldiers would stay awake all night, often shooting for hours at nothing.”
“Sometimes, our leaders would show us black and white Chinese and other communist films. There was nothing like this (Platoon). The North Vietnamese uniforms are very authentic, and they looked just like that. They did wear the leaves on their helmets.” And what about the accuracy of the battle scenes? “Yes. I’d say they are 70% accurate.”
By Dave Walker & Sonny Chhoun
(photo © Dave Walker)
Today, the lake is as smooth as glass as the lower water marks the end of the rainy season. Sum Bo, our boat driver, points to a flock of flying pelicans and smiles. “There are now more birds on the lake because people have been taught not to eat the bird’s eggs,” claims Bo. a veteran conservationist who knows the area intimately. We continue to observe the wildlife on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake,. He then points to some partially submerged trees in the distance, “we have monkeys over there.” Living close to nature all their lives, the local fishermen can tell what kind of fish they will find by the color of the water, and even by the smell. Catfish, Snakehead fish, and various kinds of Perch and water snake, are abundant in the Tonle Sap. There are also many species of birds, some of which are still close to extinction. The sight of so many birds raises our spirits.
Most villagers who make their living from the lake either boil their drinking water, or drink it straight from the lake. “ Drinkable water has always been a problem for the villagers – until now. This week, (25 November 2013) four Canadian volunteers from CANISAR, an international disaster response and rescue organization based in Oshawa, Ontario, are delivering Sawyer water filters to 100 families. “With proper use and maintenance, these filters will last up to 17 years,” the team tells the happy villagers, as they are instructed in the assembly of the filters. “The filters will give each family about 4 million liters of clean drinking water. Our teams comes from all walks of life and we are all volunteers,” explains team member Dean Wood, a paramedic. “We are a registered charity, and raise money mostly from private donations and fund-raisers.” Life has never been easy for the fishermen who make their living on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. The village of Pek Kan Tel is unregistered with the government, who would rather the village not exist at all. “The village was first settled in 1964,” explains Sim Dov, a fisherman with a wife and five young daughters. It has now grown to 200 families, including 30 Vietnamese families. Ten years ago, there were no Vietnamese. There is now more fish in the lake since the government began to regulate commercial fishing. The government can impose fines of 50 to 75 US dollars if your net is over 100 meters long. But our biggest problem is corrupt officials from different government agencies who come around and demand money, up to 70% of our earnings. We have been trying to register our village for the past ten years, but without success. Hopefully we can register in the near future.”
By Dave Walker & Sonny Chhoun
(photo: a villager assembles a water filter. © Dave Walker)