The script was about a resettled Cambodian dance teacher, Penn Savath, whose past and present merge when the former Khmer Rouge officer responsible for butchering Penn’s family and dance class in April 1975 walks into his grocery store in the United States.
Even though the story is fiction, it is based on real facts. The main theme was revenge, but it was also about a man who lost his art and then, through a weird twist of time and geography, finds it again.
When Dr Haing S Ngor gave an interview about our film project, The Man From Year Zero, to The Nation newspaper in Bangkok on September 16, 1994, I was ecstatic. I was in Bangkok, working on the script rewrite, when he was murdered in Los Angeles on February 25, 1996.
In a Los Angeles Times article on January 21, 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, recently sentenced for his participating role in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge atrocities, claimed: “Haing Ngor was killed because he appeared in the film The Killing Fields.” Even as a conspiracy theory, there was no logic for the Khmer Rouge to kill the Academy Award winner, especially in California.
But I also doubted the official 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. 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.
There seemed to be more questions than answers. But all the years of pain and uncertainty would 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. And it is here that I would learn more about the murder of a friend, that has haunted me for almost two decades.
“OG Dicer” (not his real name) is an articulate, former Cambodian gang shot-caller, with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s and ’90s, 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.”
At the Victory, with veteran photographer Al Rockoff, the conversations range from gang violence in the school system, injustice, the struggles of re-adjusting 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-traumatised Southeast Asian refugees into poor, violent, black and Mexican, urban neighbourhoods was probably not a good path to the American Dream, although it did work for some luckier Cambodians, like Haing Ngor.
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. Crime, and a violent death, can often be random, and mindless. And thanks to Dicer, the death of my friend, Dr Haing S Ngor, finally makes sense.