The dim interior of Sharky Bar and Restaurant in Phnom Penh shows every one of its 20 years, and every corner holds a story that its Chinese-American founder and proprietor, Michael “Big Mike” Hsu, is happy to tell with a Marlboro Light in hand.
Though in many ways a classic American-style dive, complete with Lynyrd Skynyrd Confederate flags and a “Cheers”-esque wooden bar bang in the center, the space was actually laid out by a feng shui master.
“We shaped [the central bar] as an octagon for one reason: because an octagon in Chinese and in Asian culture is a very lucky symbol,” said Mr. Hsu, a heavy-set man with long black hair and a matching Fu Manchu. Before the Street 130 stalwart opened its doors in December 1995, he explained, a ceremony was held to chase away evil spirits that inhabited the Chinese discotheque that occupied the space in the 1980s, and where a reveler was murdered on the dance floor.
While Sharky—named for the female “sharks” who circle and strike its mostly male patrons—has had its ups and downs, the ceremony seems to have worked: The only spirits evident now are of the liquid variety.
This weekend, a motley mix of musical artists that Mr. Hsu befriended and mentored will perform for the bar’s 20th birthday. Live music starts at 9 p.m. both nights, with a mix of Cambodian and expatriate artists taking to the modest stage.
The past and the future of Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll will be on display Saturday. The three surviving members of the legendary band Drakkar, formed in Cambodia in 1967, will play first, followed by the popular Kampot Playboys.
Then, on Sunday, American singer-songwriter Conrad Keeley will kick off the evening with an acoustic set, with punk band Bob Passion and the Schkoots seeing the audience into the night.
Born in Shanghai, Mr. Hsu grew up in New York City after his father—a senior intelligence officer in China’s National Revolutionary Army who was captured by the Red Army—escaped from prison.
Ms. Hsu worked in the U.S. as a venture capitalist and in the music industry—he claims he was onstage with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock as a teenager—before taking a job with the Asian Development Bank in Thailand in the early 1990s.
While there, he visited Phnom Penh and noticed that the U.N. peacekeepers and other foreigners in the city were desperate for somewhere to spend their time and money.
“I saw an opportunity,” Mr. Hsu said. “What did they want during their time off? They wanted women and they wanted liquor and they wanted music. R&R: rest and recreation. So we provided that.”
This was the bar’s “bordello” era, during which U.N. troops would check their AK-47s at the door before swimming with the sharks inside, he said.
But one day in the early 2000s, Mr. Hsu was strolling down the riverside when he noticed a group of well-dressed foreign women in high heels. Phnom Penh was changing, and Sharky would have to evolve.
“Wealthier tourists and common tourists [were] coming in and the military [was] being pulled back as the situation began to die down,” Mr. Hsu said. “More NGOs were coming in, more teachers were coming…. They were sort of turned off by all the women and the antics of what was happening over here.”
This realization, coupled with an explosive fight between Khmer and Vietnamese staff in which guns were drawn, led him to replace all but a few employees with a less “free-spirited” staff.
Mr. Hsu attributes Sharky’s survival to his willingness to adapt to changing tastes, and he has watched as similar establishments have closed their doors in recent years.
“It’s the ability to read demographics, to read different changes in music trends, and to go with it and to not be afraid,” he said.
This year, Mr. Hsu said, he decided to play more than just the rock ‘n’ roll the bar is known for.
“I made the decision to branch out into classical music, jazz, ska, reggae, hip-hop infused jazz,” he said. The only requirement is that the music is “esoteric and experimental,” he added.
And while the bar’s name was well earned in the past, the women who shoot pool and chat up customers these days are decidedly tamer than their predecessors.
“These are all independent girls. Nobody’s on the payroll and you know I can’t stop them coming in—there’s no reason to stop them coming in,” Mr. Hsu said. “And as long as they behave over here, and they’re not aggressive…it does add a bit of spice.”
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