Golden Leaf – A Khmer Rouge Genocide Survivor by Kilong Ung, KU Publishing, 203 pages.
Golden Leaf: A Khmer Rouge Genocide Survivor is an inspirational story about the experiences of Cambodia genocide survivor Kilong Ung who spent nearly four years as a slave laborer under the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime which killed nearly two million civilians, or over 20 per cent of the population between 1975 and 1979. A graduate in mathematics and statistics who studied at some of America’s most prestigious colleges and handled some of the largest clients in his consultancy and I.T. experience, Kilong has painstakingly composed a chronicle of his life over countless hours, testing the limits of his emotions. Much of this book was written in an unlikely environment; Starbucks café, whom Kilong publicly thanks for “providing power outlets, public restrooms, soft music, and Americano-inspired recoveries from writing blocks.”
Kilong’s right to a peaceful existence disappeared on April 17, 1975, the day when the Khmer Rouge declared that Cambodia should start fresh and bury its corrupt past. The teenage boy’s first open exposure to brutality occurred when witnessing the militant group’s peace restoration plans; the prolonged public torture of a man on the streets before being shot in the chest, followed by the mass evacuation of Battambang’s entire population to the countryside, part of the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian revolution to start from Year Zero. For close to four years, Kilong nearly starved to death working on the construction of irrigation sites for thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, in return for morsels of watery rice porridge.
Deprived of his youth, Kilong became the head male in his family following the deaths of his father and brother-in-law and is forced to steal whatever food he could find to aid the survival of himself and his family, chiseling the previously naïve city boy into a hardened man at a premature age. In a time where expressing feelings was strictly against the rules and risked torture or even death, he battles endlessly with his emotions, racked by anger, fear and sorrow over the deaths of his grandmother, parents, and younger sister.
As we delve deeper into this book, Kilong’s the more impressive Kilong comes across. Speaking about imprisonment, starvation and being helpless as family members die under the Khmer Rouge requires incredible conviction, moments which Kilong refers to as “winds ruthlessly crushing his tree into lifeless pulp.” Recalling the severity of encountering frequent hunger pains, being forced to refer to his parents by the title of “comrade”, and arrested and nearly executed by child soldiers for climbing a tree in the hope of stealing a coconut, Golden Leaf puts a human face on the process of dehumanization. Kilong’s cold-blooded honesty, when recalling the time when summoned to appear before a top leader named Mit Bong Mok, is gripping. His torment is chillingly revived in describing how he faced Mok, the man with “murderous eyes”, requesting permission to conduct a simple burial for his father:
“His (Mok’s) cold response still lives within me today. He gave me the most simplest and most practical, uncompassionate, and unsympathetic answer possible. I was told that I need not go to the burial because I did not have the magical power to bring my father back to life. I was neither granted nor explicitly denied permission. The bastard simply advised me that it was not productive for me to be at the burial.”
In a touching and eloquent manner, Kilong tells readers of his troubles in making the life-changing decision to flee for Thailand en route to the United States. He does not withhold from speaking about his difficulties of integrating into American life as the spectre of his past experiences, combined with concern for his remaining family members in Cambodia, continually haunt him. Once again, we see a changing of Kilong’s character as a competitive student, toughened by his experiences of near extinction. Although he possessed natural academic talent, the pressures of being regarded as a model member for Portland’s Cambodian community come at a heavy personal price during his college years, with one emotional moment while attending the prestigious Reed College. With just one reassuring line when he needed comfort the most, it becomes apparent that all the sacrifices and accolades would shape his future aspirations as a leader.
Upon his emotional return to Cambodia 20 years after fleeing the country which he described as “heaven and hell”, Kilong speaks like a combat veteran struggling to deal with an inner war to drown the bitterness, sorrow and anger. The poignant moment of kissing the dirt comes at an enormous price of having to consider a painful moral dilemma. In making this gut-wrenching decision, Kilong releases his true compassion, like a graceful butterfly emerging from a cocoon, making peace with himself. A respected leader of the Cambodian-American community and committed Rotarian, knighted member of the Royal Rosarians, he exemplifies the spirit of the “Yes We Can” mantra because he has successfully achieved the American dream and deserves to be honored with the keys to the City of Portland, Oregon.
Golden Leaf wonderfully depicts the struggles and subsequent victories of a remarkable human being, and will inspire readers because it reaches deep into our souls. When Kilong speaks of crying alone while reliving moments of immense distress, we want to be there with him. Just like Haing S. Ngor, Kilong is one of the best storytellers to have emerged from Cambodia. In commemorating one of the worst genocides in the 20th century, Golden Leaf is provocative and speaks truly for survivors of one of the worst carnages in recent history who wish to maintain their dignity through silence. We can be thankful that one man, a golden leaf, refused to perish, and invites us to laugh, cry and celebrate his life journey.