Loung’s red dress represents her family and life before the Khmer Rouge. Years before the takeover, Ma made three identical red dresses for Loung, Chou, and Geak to wear during New Year’s celebrations. Loung packs her beloved dress when her family leaves Phnom Penh. Upon their arrival in Ro Leap, Loung looks on in horror as a Khmer Rouge soldier then tosses her dress onto a pile with the other new villagers’ clothes and lights it all on fire. He has not simply destroyed a happy memory, but also Loung’s sense of hope. However irrationally, Loung packed the dress with the dream of one day being able to wear it again—and more broadly, with the dream of being able to return to her life as it was in Phnom Penh. The destruction of the dress, then, signifies the sudden, shocking destruction of a life she knew and loved.
Even so, Loung spends much of the book reminiscing about the dress, which remains an indelible symbol of her family and past. While doing laundry for her foster family in the Vietnamese refugee camp, for example, Loung remembers the joy of twirling around in her dress with her sisters on New Year’s morning, before joining the rest of her family for a delicious feast. She also vows to one day obtain a new red dress—to recreate what was taken from her. Only when she eventually does get a new dress does she realize that certain things—her old life, her family members—are irreplaceable, and that she must accept their loss: “I am sad thinking I have finally replaced the other red dress that the soldier burned,” she thinks. “Staring at the dress I realize it will never be the dress Ma made for me. They are both gone.”
With this acceptance, however, comes the opportunity for Loung to move on. Indeed, the red dress is not only a symbol of dreams destroyed, but of hope reborn. Loung wore the original dress for New Year’s celebrations—a time of fresh starts, and, in Cambodian culture, the time when people become a year older. While the dress Eang makes for Loung can never replace the original made by Ma, it is what she will wear for her journey to America—where she has the chance to finally build a new life.
Loung’s Red Dress Quotes in First They Killed My Father
My first red dress, the one Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration. I remember Ma taking my measurements, holding the soft chiffon cloth against my body, and asking me if I liked it. "The color looks so pretty on you," she said, "and the chiffon material will keep you cool." Ma made three identical dresses for Chou, Geak, and me. ... I grind my teeth so hard the pain in my throat moves up to my temples. My hands clench in fists; I continue to stare at my dress. I do not see the soldier's hand reach into his pocket and retrieve from it a box of matches. I do not hear his fingers strike a match against the side of the box. The next thing I know the pile of clothes bursts into flames and my red dress melts like plastic in the fire.
Then I lift and smooth my dress once again before laying it down carefully, making sure it will not be wrinkled tomorrow. I am sad thinking I have finally replaced the other red dress that the soldier burned. This is my first dress in five years, and tomorrow I will wear it and show off to everyone. Before the giggles can escape my lips, a feeling of sadness pushes them down. Staring at the dress I realize it will never be the dress Ma made for me. They are both gone.