Michael “Big Mike” Hsu, the longtime owner of Sharky Bar on Phnom Penh’s Street 130, died suddenly at his workplace on Sunday. He was 68. Hsu was found in his office. Friends believe he suffered a heart attack although an official cause of death has not been determined.
Hsu, who was born in Shanghai but raised in New York City, first came to Cambodia in the mid-1990s, while working with the Asian Development Bank in Thailand. During that visit, he saw a demand for a bar catering to expatriates in Phnom Penh, which had been flooded with UN peacekeepers and development workers in the run-up to national elections. He opened Sharky Bar, more commonly known as Sharky’s, in 1995.
Over the years, the often raucous bar took on its own legend, becoming a Phnom Penh institution. Sharky’s celebrated its 20th anniversary last December. Throughout the last decade, Hsu had worked to turn the bar into a quality live music venue. He had once worked as a talent scout in the US and brought live music, including a full band open-mic night, into Sharky’s each week.
“The change . . . to a live-music bar was the best one for us,” Hsu said in an interview with the Post last week, adding a characteristically bold claim. “We are after all the longest running rock ’n’ roll club in Indochina.”
hose around him remembered him for his signature strain of rousing rhetoric.
“Mike loved to talk and lived to talk, which is why he was so successful as a host and bar owner,” said Joe Wrigley, a Phnom Penh-based musician who performed frequently at Sharky’s.
“I don’t know what proportion of Mike’s words was fact: he kind of wrote his own story. Mike had the ability to make something happen. If he believed it, you believed it. He could talk up an idea from nothing into something,” he continued.
Anthony Mrugacz, who ran the now-shuttered Equinox bar and live music venue for nine years, expressed shock at Hsu’s sudden passing. “He was my main competition, but we had high respect for each other,” he said.
Al Schaaf, a close friend of Hsu, called him “the driving force that . . . helped develop Phnom Penh’s music scene”: “Rock ’n’ roll will never die and neither will my memories of Big Mike," he said.
Friends of Hsu gathered nearby at the Exchange bar on Sunday evening and a Buddhist ceremony in memorial to his life was held at Sharky’s yesterday morning. Some shared their grief on social media.
“RIP Big Mike . . . thanks for the intro last night. You are indeed a loss to Phnom Penh’s music industry . . . You will be missed by many,” wrote Chuck Erz, whose band Moi Tiet played at Sharky’s on Saturday night.
“Larger than life. RIP Big Mike,” wrote local musician Robin Narciso. “What you did for the rock scene in Cambodia is unmatched, we shall remember you.”
US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman spoke highly of Hsu as a Phnom Penh cultural figure. “The US Embassy expresses its condolences on the passing of Mike Hsu, the owner of Sharky Bar. Mike was a fixture in the Phnom Penh music scene for many years and a true original. He will be missed,” he said.
Yesterday afternoon the Sharky’s Facebook page shared a moving post on Hsu’s passing. “It’s been brutal, a truly large flame has been extinguished. Heartbreaking, utterly heartbreaking. Big Mike walked up those steps to Sharky Bar like he did everyday and in the end they had to carry him out. He never walked back down those stairs. His spirit will live in that bar until the end of time,” it read.
Tonight there will be a gathering at Sharky’s in honour of its former owner.
Mike Hsu is survived by his brother, Robert Hsu.
Additional reporting by Audrey Wilson