From when she was 12 years old, San Sreylai did everything she could to raise money for her family. Sok Sarom’s voice chokes as she describes her cousin’s generosity at the young singer’s funeral on Wednesday, and she pulls out a tissue.
“She always tried to make life better for others,” Sarom said.
San Sreylai, who was fatally shot by her ex-husband on Monday afternoon, was remembered by family and friends as a woman who smiled and laughed through a challenging climb into fame and the threat of domestic abuse.
Her family, friends and celebrity colleagues gathered at the humble Wat Sen Sok on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Dozens of motorbikes stalled in front of the pagoda on Wednesday morning as mourners dressed in traditional white marched inside.
San Sreylai’s father, Nov Phala, said she was a great student and worked hard to pass classes, but she was a spectacular singer. Growing up in Poipet city, San Sreylai sang all the time, Phala said. She aspired to be a talented singer like her idol, Pich Sophea, a singer with Hang Meas Production. She had the chance to meet Sophea when she was young, and she cherished a photo with her, Phala said.
San Sreylai found her own fame last year, when she competed in the second season of the Voice Cambodia. Under the mentorship of her childhood idol, the 23-year-old candidate shined in her blind audition and made it all the way to the competition’s final round.
Since she made her name as a singer, she starred in a few advertisements and gained a lead role in Kao Seiha’s upcoming movie, The Queen of the House. She released a new music video teaser with Hang Meas last week.
When many celebrities put their dreams aside to take care of their children, San Sreylai showed her fans that she did not have to give up her fame to pursue a traditional family life, Seiha said.
“If a singer has a kid or a husband, people think that she cannot be famous,” he said. “But when she became a candidate on The Voice, Sreylai showed the world that she can [be famous] with a husband and kids.”
Her mother, Long Chanthy, described San Sreylai as the family’s breadwinner, providing money for her siblings and parents, as well as supporting her two young children.
San Sreylai saved money for her youngest sister to fund a good education for the young girl, who wants to become a singer like her successful sister.
The singer tried to shower her mother with luxuries, which Chanthy could not afford through her job selling porridge. During the Pchum Ben holiday last month, San Sreylai used the $2,000 she made from an advertisement gig to surprise her mother with seven new tubes of lipstick and a bottle of perfume, all of high quality and price.
Now that she’s gone, Chanthy must support her daughter’s two young sons by herself. San Sreylai’s children still think their mother is taking a long nap, her mother said.
Seiha said the singer’s husband, Prey Veng customs officer Chey Rin, supported San Sreylai early in her time on the Voice Cambodia, but changed his mind as her fame progressed.
San Sreylai had told Seiha that she was afraid her husband would kill her, he said. Seiha interpreted her statements as jokes because she would laugh while talking about her husband.
Her husband’s threats became actions this week. Chey Rin shot her in the entryway of the Vita Longa health and beauty clinic in Phnom Penh’s BKK1 commune just before 4 p.m. on Monday. He shot and killed himself moments later.
San Sreylai’s death resounds with Chanthy, who escaped domestic violence before she could meet the same fate as her daughter. Chanthy wears two thin scars across her forehead and cheeks, and she turned her hands to show the lacerations between her thumb and fingers.
The scars come from Chanthy’s second husband, who attacked her six years ago. She was able to escape the man before he could kill her, but police never caught Chanthy’s abuser. Chanthy would not reveal where she lives now because she fears her ex-husband will find her.
Seiha said he now realizes San Sreylai feared her husband underneath the joy and laughter she brought to filming sessions. San Sreylai would cook delicious meals for the film crew, and she would always bring spicy roasted chicken for Seiha. She was one of the few celebrities who would spend time with the crew, he said.
“She did everything to make everyone around her smile and laugh with her, but inside she was sad.”