As a live venue, Sharky Bar enjoys its own unique status and standing in the Cambodian music scene. Wholly unpretentious, unapologetically rough-around-the-edges and with a brazenly hedonistic drinking culture, the bar has been prevented from sliding into anachronistic irrelevance by the sheer force-of-will of principal owner and operator Michael 'Big Mike' Hsu. Mike knows, perhaps better than anyone, that the demographics of the food, beverage and entertainment market in Phnom Penh have changed beyond recognition since the post-UNTAC days of the mid-1990's. In those early days of Sharky Bar - when foreign jeeps fitted with M60 machine guns were still rolling around the streets of the city - the customers were almost entirely military guys and live bands were rare.
|The Shabbab rock Sharky Bar, 2015 – pic: Steve Porte|
Back in 2002, Mike knew that big changes were coming when he saw two beautiful Italian women walking along the Phnom Penh riverside – immaculately dressed in designer clothes, jewellery and high heels. Such a sight was unheard of back then but is part of daily life today. Even five years ago, says Mike, it would be impossible for a bar or restaurant to charge $3 for a draft beer or $8 for a cocktail. Now, the streets of Phnom Penh are lined with salubrious, boutique watering holes and restaurants, packed with 'millenials' ordering highly-priced food and taking 'selfies'. Sharky Bar does not fit in to this picture:
“The new people coming over [to Cambodia] are not interested in a 'blue-collar' music bar. They are a different breed from the expats of ten or fifteen years ago. You don't have the NGOs coming over now... and there is a decline in the number of teachers willing to come over. The strength of the US dollar has impacted the Euro, Australian dollar... the rich people can still come but they want to go the high-end restaurants. If they like live music its acoustic in the background. If they want to see a band they'll go to Naga World, FCC, sometimes Sharky.”
|A decade ago, Sharky Bar celebrated their tenth anniversary – pic: Mike Hsu|
This weekend, Sharky Bar, 'the longest running rock'n'roll bar in Indochina' will celebrate its 20th anniversary. During those two decades, countless bars have opened and closed in Phnom Penh. In the last few years, several other medium-scale, expat-oriented live music venues have tried and failed to retain a firm and profitable foothold in that changing market. Big Mike and his partners are still standing. A conversation with the New York City native reveals why Sharky is still going strong, where others have failed. Mike has a huge drive and determination to find the next cool band, to create the next big event, to enjoy the next memorable night at Sharky Bar. While he may not be ebullient about the future prospects of the expat rock'n'roll scene in Phnom Penh, Mike is never afraid to try something different and experiment with his live music schedule... sometimes even going so far as to book a DJ!
|Tiger in 'The City' : New York, New York|
“I'm not an idiot, I'm a businessman. My background is as a researcher and investment banker. My job was to do research and study trends. As they say on Wall Street, “don't fight the tape” - go with the trend, the trend is your friend. I live and breathe Sharkys when I am in town. I get up in the morning and think what am I going to do today, in terms of something creative. I start jotting down notes and sending out messages. Who do I have to call? You have to make things happen in this town!'
Big Mike, thanks for talking to Leng Pleng and best wishes for the celebrations this weekend. We know you will have one helluva party!
For full details of the Sharky Bar twentieth anniversary schedule (and all the other great gigs happening this week), click on the weekly gig guide below. The ten-strong roster of artists is an impressively varied and high-quality blend of both expat and Cambodian talent. Highlights include a DJ vs live metal guitar mash-up (Thursday), the debut of a new iteration of the hottest swing band in town (Friday), a dream double-header of two psychedelic Cambodian rock bands (Saturday) and a solo set by Cambodia's most famous expat musician (Sunday).
Whatever you're up to over the next few days... stay safe out there and... see you around the traps!