Mayor Sokhary Chau honors his late mother at City Hall – Lowell Sun

LOWELL – Saturday marks 100 days since the death of Hem Hay, Mayor Sokhary Chau’s mother.

To celebrate her life, Chau held a 100-day ceremony at Lowell City Hall in the mayor’s reception room. He was joined on the occasion by his closest friends and family members. The ceremony is a tradition in Cambodian culture that stems from Buddhist tradition.

Hay died on November 15 at the age of 89. Her death came days after her son was elected to his second term on the city council and before he was eventually elected by his fellow councilors as the country’s first Cambodian American mayor.

The ceremony was conducted by Rev. Heather Doss of the Eliot Presbyterian Church, of which Hay was a member. The church’s lay pastor, June Taing, translated the message into Khmer.

“I can’t remember a time that I met Hem Hay when she wasn’t just radiating love, caring and joy for those around her,” Doss said. “She was a light in our community, I think of her as a matriarch in our church.”

Church choir members performed “Amazing Grace” in Khmer and Doss read from the Gospel of John.

After the ceremony, the mayor and his sister, Sandy Chau, brought the photos of Hay and her father, Samoeun Chau, to the mayor’s office. Both photos hang behind his desk, separated by an artist’s rendering of City Hall.

The photo is the only one owned by the Chau family of Samoeun Chau.

“When the Khmer Rouge came in, marched through the streets and where our house was, everyone was scattered. This was the only photo he had before he was promoted to another strip,” said Sokhary Chau.

For some reason, a soldier under the command of Samoeun Chau hid a small copy of the photo underground. Had he been found with the photo, it would have cost him his life.

“What happened after the Vietnamese army came in and ousted the Khmer Rouge and we returned to our home, the soldier found my family and gave us this photo,” Sokhary Chau said. “It’s the only photo we have of him, it’s the only memory I have of him before he was killed.”

Samoeun Chau was a member of the army trying to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, rose quickly through the ranks and became a three-stripe captain. Before his military service, he was known as a village doctor, farmer and later a rice trader.

Sokhary Chau said his father was recruited because he was well known throughout the Battamong region and was instantly respected by the troops. Before Samoeun Chau was killed, Sokhary Chau said there was an incident in the middle of the night when the Khmer Rouge shot at the family home.

“It was like midnight and his soldiers were probably near the house, but (the Khmer Rouge) broke through nearby, within gunshot of the house. He just walked out and started firing back from the balcony and he got shot in the arm. That was the only injury I’ve heard of in his career other than him being killed,” said Sokhary Chau.

Before Hay and the family fled Cambodia, his two older brothers were beaten, tortured and put to death. They escaped to the “11. hour,” Chau recalled.

Hay guided her seven children, two girls and five boys, through the Killing Fields. They escaped bullets and landmines on their way to Thailand.

At one point in their journey, Chau recalls a makeshift camp where his brothers took up arms to protect themselves against the looming Khmer Rouge threat.

On the first leg of their journey from Cambodia, they were accompanied by Hay’s younger brother, Chamroeun Hay. However, he would turn back to protect his younger siblings and his parents. For nearly 40 years, they did not hear from him or any family members who were still in Cambodia – until 2017.

“We were having Thanksgiving dinner at my house and there was a knock on the door,” Chau said. “Opened the door and it was him. For the first time in almost 40 years. Can you believe it? Finally he made it to the USA”

Chamroeun Hay was among those in attendance on Saturday, celebrating his late sister.

When the family first arrived in the United States in 1981, they were sponsored by the Catholic Church in a rural town outside of Pittsburgh. His two adult brothers would move to Iowa, where Hay would also eventually relocate to reunite the family. In 1986, Hay and the family came to Lowell in search of better employment opportunities.

Through the photos of both parents sitting behind his desk honoring his mother at City Hall, Chau believes this ties his family’s history to that of the city.

“I think it’s important to the rest of the Southeast Asian immigrants who came to Lowell and came to the United States that our history is now one with the history of other immigrant groups who came to Lowell to build a city to… contribute to the city and be part of the city,” Chau said. “I think that’s why I wanted to do it here at City Hall, in the mayor’s parlour. We are together, we are one with the city.”

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