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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

Fearless, Now

Kilong  Ung '87

Kilong Ung ’87

Kilong Ung ’87 was born in Battambang, Cambodia, some time around 1964. He and his parents and seven sisters lived very near the market place, about a mile from downtown. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city in 1975, Ung was marched—three days of solid walking—to a labor camp for boys and young men.

At the camp he worked 13-hour days, digging, plowing, clearing woods, and farming rice. Meals consisted of two tablespoons of rice with water twice a day. His parents, taken to different camps, both starved. “To this day I don’t know where they are buried,” he says. His youngest sister also died of starvation.

Under the Khmer Rouge regime, an estimated two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died from execution, starvation, and forced labor.

Ung and the other boys caught and ate rats, mice, and caterpillars to supplement their diet. One day he shinned a palm tree to grab a coconut and on his descent found himself facing a young Khmer Rouge soldier wielding an AK-47. “The Khmer Rouge soldiers were also young boys,” he says.

“The boy with the AK-47 was probably no more than 14.”

He survived four years in the labor camp. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, he and one of his sisters escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. He describes their harrowing journey through a war-torn landscape in his memoirs, which he is still writing. (He has posted an excerpt at

Anaka Narananan

Kilong Ung with his sisters in 1975

In 1979, when he arrived in Portland, he spoke no English and there were no programs for learning English at his high school. “At that time Oregon wasn’t well equipped to handle refugees,” says Ung. He was assigned to a special education class with teacher Clara Buck, who notes that he wasn’t in her class for long. “He was an extraordinary student,” she recalls, and he was soon transferred to a regular class.

She remembers, too, that for a multicultural celebration, he brought to school the clothes he had worn during his escape from Cambodia. “He had this pair of ragged shorts and some sandals made out of tires and this thing that looked like a dishcloth—he showed us how it could be worn on your head, or as a belt, or to carry things. He was the hit of the show. After that he had lots and lots of friends.”

Ung graduated from Cleveland High School, where he met his wife, Lisa, and it was while he was a student there that he attended his first Rose Parade.

“I had never seen anything so spectacular,” he recalls. He was particularly dazzled by the Royal Rosarians. “These white men, with white hair, white suits, white teeth, white shoes. I turned to my American foster parents and said ‘When I grow up, I want to be one of those guys. I never gave up that dream.’”

When Ung applied to Reed, he knew he was good at math and physics, but his interview was with someone interested in literature. “He asked me about Fahrenheit 451 and I said, ‘it’s a terrible book.’ Then he asked me about Animal Farm. That was my moment. I had just come out of Animal Farm. I could talk about each character. I gave him a verbal dissertation that got me into Reed College.”

Reed was a challenge. “I think I’m the only person ever to have taken Humanities 110 twice,” says Ung. “I slept about two hours a night on average.”

He completed an M.S. at Bowling Green State University and currently works as a software engineer. He is also an adjunct instructor at Portland Community College.

Ung, who for four years was president of the Cambodian–American Community of Oregon, serves on the Portland Immigrant and Refugee Task Force. His civic involvement has also included volunteering for the radio documentary series Crossing East, petitioning local politicians to support a de-mining organization run by a former Khmer Rouge soldier, and working with the Wholistic Peace Institute to bring the Dalai Lama to Portland.

He is a proud Rotarian, and in 2007 was inducted into honorary knighthood as a Royal Rosarian—he has since marched in several parades.

Weekends, in coffee shops, Ung continues to work on his memoirs. “I need to be in a public place to help control my emotions. Writing the book has changed me.” He plans to finish by December. “I can say I am fearless, now. I am willing to try anything.”

—Rebecca Koffman

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008