Keeping A Promise: Haing S. Ngor's Harrowing Truth

January 25, 2022 | Sarah Ng

Keeping A Promise: Haing S. Ngor's Harrowing Truth

The history of Asian representation in Hollywood has been undeniably bleak. But despite this, there have been brief flashes of overwhelming excellence. Out of the few brilliant Asian actors to win an Academy Award, one man stands out—not only for his acting but for his heartbreaking life story. His name is Haing S. Ngor, and his rise to fame followed close on the heels of unspeakable tragedy.

The Nightmare Begins

Born in Cambodia in 1940, Haing S. Ngor never imagined that he'd one day be striding across a glittering stage to collect his Academy Award. As a practicing surgeon and gynecologist, acting was the furthest thing from his mind. Everything seemed to be going well for Ngor. Not only was he following his dreams, but he was also completely in love with his lovely wife, Chang My-Huoy. He had everything he ever wanted—but it was all doomed to a horrifying end.

In 1975, Ngor's life changed forever. Revolutionary politician Pol Pot and his communist party, Khmer Rouge, seized Cambodia and transformed it into Democratic Kampuchea. It was a nightmare right from the start. Because the regime despised intellectuals, Haing S. Ngor had no choice but to disguise his identity. In fact, he hid everything: his profession, his education, and even his glasses. But this was only the beginning.

Haing S. NgorGetty Images

Khmer Rouge forced two million people out of the capital Phnom Penh, and Ngor and his wife were among this displaced and terrified group. As part of a social experiment called "Year Zero," Ngor faced a horrifying new reality: a brutal concentration camp. But his troubles didn't end there. You see, Ngor's wife was pregnant, and although he was excited to be a father, he must have feared for the baby's future.

An Immeasurable Loss

Ngor faced his worst fears when his wife went into labor. Alarmed, he realized that My-Huoy desperately required urgent medical attention; she needed a Caesarean section. Although this was Ngor's area of expertise, he couldn't lift a finger to save his own wife. If he revealed his true identity, it was likely that the regime would end both of them. Devastated, Ngor held his wife in his arms as she passed. In the years that followed, his grief and suffering were only mirrored in the ravaged lives of his fellow people.

In 1979, Khmer Rouge finally fell and Ngor became a free man once again. But it was a bittersweet liberation. He had started this ordeal with a partner and now he stood alone. He had lost his wife and his unborn child, and nothing would ever be the same again. In the wake of his trauma, Ngor returned to his practice, working as a doctor in one of Thailand's refugee camps. But he didn't stay here for long. In 1980, Haing S. Ngor was ready to make the biggest move of his life.

Keeping A Promise

Ngor and his niece decided to head for the United States, but there was one problem. He couldn't practice medicine in America. He had to look elsewhere for work—and fate brought him to the most unexpected place possible...Hollywood.

Although Haing S. Ngor had never acted professionally a day in his life, he managed to land a role in 1984's The Killing Fields. Even more surprisingly, he took home gold. Even now, Ngor has been the only Asian to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a debut performance. However, his road to accepting the role of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran had a heartbreaking backstory.

Haing S. NgorGetty Images

You see, Ngor wasn't chasing an award when he joined the cast of The Killing Fields. In fact, the part didn't interest him at all. It wasn't until Ngor sat down with the filmmakers that he changed his tune. After all, the film was about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. But even more importantly? He'd promised the love of his life that he'd spread the word and share Cambodia's haunting story with the rest of the world: "I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."

Yet Haing S. Ngor never got the happy ending he deserved.

A Controversial Ending

In 1996, while outside his home in Los Angeles' Chinatown, Ngor was shot, making him the victim of a horrible murder. He was only 55 years old. However, the circumstances surrounding his demise remain controversial to this day.

On paper, Ngor was the victim of a holdup gone horribly wrong. Authorities brought in three members of the street gang "Oriental Lazy Boyz." Apparently, during the confrontation, Ngor had refused to give them his treasured locket, which held a picture of his late wife. For his defiance, they took his life. But not everybody agrees with this theory.

The defense attorneys looked to Ngor's history and argued that the incident was politically motivated by Khmer Rouge supporters. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any evidence to back this up—only some unusual details. Here are some things to consider: If Ngor's murder was really a robbery, then why had the burglars left $2,900 behind, and why would they have demanded a concealed locket (Ngor usually kept the locket underneath his clothes); they hadn't even bothered to search the victim's pockets. To this day, the infamous locket has never been found.

Haing S. NgorGetty Images

The Question Remains

The loss of Haing S. Ngor came to a somber close on April 16, 1998, when the judge found all three defendants from the Oriental Lazy Boyz guilty. Coincidentally, Pol Pot passed on the very same day. But although justice had supposedly been served, rumors still ran rampant. The mysterious circumstances surrounding this tragedy intrigued people for years. Then, a little over a decade later, new evidence surfaced.

In 2009, a former Khmer Rouge official came forward and fueled the fires of controversy even more. According to Kang Kek Iew, Pol Pot had ordered Ngor's murder. But in the end, this claim wasn't enough to change the story. US investigators dismissed its credibility.

A Golden Legacy

Despite his heartbreaking end, Haing S. Ngor overcame unbelievable hurdles. He faced loss, pain, and prejudice, and even broke into Hollywood on his first try. But for a survivor like Ngor, fame was never the end goal. It was far more personal than that. It was about his own history and his love for one woman. He raised awareness and kept his greatest promise. After his film debut, Haing S. Ngor told the New York Times, "If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years."

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4,

More from Factinate

Featured Article

My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.

Dark Family Secrets

Dark Family Secrets Exposed

Nothing stays hidden forever—and these dark family secrets are proof that when the truth comes out, it can range from devastating to utterly chilling.
April 8, 2020 Samantha Henman

Featured Article

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.

Madame de Pompadour Facts

Entrancing Facts About Madame de Pompadour, France's Most Powerful Mistress

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
December 7, 2018 Kyle Climans

More from Factinate

Featured Article

I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.

These People Got Genius Revenges

When someone really pushes our buttons, we'd like to think that we'd hold our head high and turn the other cheek, but revenge is so, so sweet.
April 22, 2020 Scott Mazza

Featured Article

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.

Catherine of Aragon Facts

Tragic Facts About Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Wife

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but very few people know her even darker history.
June 7, 2018 Christine Tran

Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team

Want to learn something new every day?

Join thousands of others and start your morning with our Fact Of The Day newsletter.

Thank you!

Error, please try again.