lowell, Massachusetts, USA – Lowell is probably the only town in the US that draws tens of thousands of people to a traditional Khmer Water Festival.
The faded mill town, the fourth-largest town in the US state of Massachusetts, is home to 100,000 people. Up to 35,000 of these are Cambodian, and they have brought their culture and influence with them across continents, to this corner of the Northeast US. The festival is just one the of many ways Lowell’s Cambodian population is keeping Khmer culture alive amid the distractions of the US.
“What Americans and other foreigners see is the bad image of the Killing Fields that has been painted on us,” said Samkhann Kheoun, director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, which provides social and cultural services to Cambodians in Lowell.
To offset the image of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, Samkhann Kheoun and others turned to Khmer culture. Since 1997 they have held a Water Festival in Lowell.
“I want to build this festival from the perspective of Cambodian-Americans,” Samkhann Kheoun said. “It is not to resemble the one held [in Cambodia]. We just make it a symbolic one that shows Cambodians and foreigners about our rich traditions.”
Instead of a three-day national holiday, Lowell’s “Southeast Asian Water Festival” is a one-day event, held this year on Aug 18, about two-and-a-half months before its Cambodian couterpart. Instead of the Mekong, eight 30-meter racing boats— each carrying 56 people —will fly down the Lowell River. Laotians and US citizens will join the Khmers in the race. Two of the boats have been donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The festival will also celebrate Khmer dance and food.
Efforts to preserve and promote Cambodian arts, culture and history in Lowell have extended to plans to build a Cambodian Cultural Museum. The museum would also “preserve the memory of the of those lost between 1975 and 1979, and the suffering of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge,” Samkhann Kheoun said.
But keeping Cambodian culture alive isn’t always easy when the language is lost to the younger generations born in the US, said Ratha Paul Yem, executive director of the Cambodian-American League, based in Lowell. The league created the Bayon Business, a Khmer-language newspaper, and started a one-hour television news program, also in Khmer.
“We are working hard to improve social and cultural relations with Cambodia,” Ratha Paul Yem said. “We want to keep [Cambodian culture] alive for good.”