The New Phillies and the Expat Life of a Myanmar Refugee in Seoul

The New Phillies and the Expat Life of a Myanmar Refugee in Seoul

By Scott Liam Soper

It’s the new again Phillies opening night Saturday, April 2 and I have plans to show the place to John Thang. John’s a political refugee from Myanmar living on the fringes of Seoul. I have known him for about six months and we’ll meet tonight at a place I have been coming to for about six years.

There is a lot of local history in the making tonight. My notebook reads:


— (circa 2004) The original Phillies owned by Dave Larocca and his stormy blond wife were known for their public shoving contests and doing first-rate Philly Cheese Steaks.

The “old” New Phillies. (stock photo)

— (circa 2005-2009) To when Todd (New Zealand) owned Phillies as a commonwealth bar where  native English speakers (more or less)  came for soccer and the jollification that they were not from North America.

— (circa 2009-2011) To the cool guy  Mr. Y version of Phillies which was often low on manners and service with a predictability of any Chinese melodrama.

— (Spring 2011…) The new again Phillies owned by Canadian expats: Aaron, Mario (nickname) and Scott.

And not to leave out John Thang. We met at the offices of The Seoul Times where he spoke in ‘task-master-for-the-boss’ low toned English while I began to find out about his history.  My notebook reads: “The Korean government granted me political refugees status in 2008, so here is as my exiled home. But my poor Korean language and lack of Korean cultural I am still greatly struggling with my life in here.” John Thang.

And this Saturday night is not constructed for anyone: there’s no showing off at Phillies that I have friends in low places or showing my friend how I live close to the new bar down on the dung slope drag of Haebangchon. Saturday night is the night that John can come into town and this Saturday was Phillies opening night. That’s it. That Phillies cooked up 100’s of free cheeseburgers and Polish sausage didn’t hurt for at the end of his stay at Phillies,  John later confided to me that it was the first hamburger he ever ate that wasn’t from a fast food restaurant and I replied to him that it was the best onion and black pepper ground hamburger I ever had in any pub in Korea.

The congregation at the new Phillies. (Eris V. Andal)

Phillies is now smoke-free but there is a puffing stand out on the porch and with the recent summers I have spent in Dublin, New York and Bangkok, I have actually joined the herd believing that outside smoking/ designated smoking is the way to go. Looking from outside the porch in is sort of Canadian Frat-astic. Meaning a lot of people in the pub I would guess are hockey players and their female admirers, and yet the more autonomous are certainly made to feel welcomed to. The thick wood bar is a comfortable lean on to get fluthered and is about three feet out from where it was, but, somehow the floor with the tables and chairs at the new again Phillies is more spacious. The  inside is covered with a boasting kind of sun-glow gold that for the moment will keep patrons to a certain respectable behavior. To some it might seem like you are staring into an expensive toaster oven but inside the again new Phillies makes me feel like it is a bright place for bright people. As a veteran drinker who finds Itaewon as occasionally worth the 15 minute walk, Hongdae as preposterous and Shinchon as the nostalgia trip where I DJ’d for three years:  uptown-and -toney is exactly what the HBC hood needs. Besides a good night should always start with the lights on.

My notebook reads: While jotting down these attributes of Phillies, I notice I am copying them on an email I have printed out from John Thang:

A Myanmar Diaspora activist life

–I’m belonged to the ethnic Chin; we stay in western part of Myanmar close to India boarder.

–Since I was a teenager I was inspired by democracy’s concept, because of the long sophisticated livelihood under military rule. I made teenage friends and we took more inspiration after I joined a rally democracy movement in 1988.

–However, there was no more chance to promote democracy activities in Burma. The ethnic chin just tried to survive anyway possible and do Christian church building. Later, in 1998, I secretly delivered exiled democratic armed forces publications books and pamphlets in the Chin province back and forth and back and forth again on the border of India. Following now, there was high restrictions and surveillances of anti-government activists in the region, I was losing my friends and I had now leave the country in order to safe my life.

It is clearly shown that I cannot able to do democratic activity, neither I can do my Christian freedom activity. People always disappear , so there is no safety for living in there, so I go to exile.

John got up to use the bathroom and as I had used it before he got here I can vouch that it’s not hard to improve on what were reputably the worst gag-reflex bathrooms East of China in the previous Phillies to the airport-of-the-year toilets now standing.

When John Thang,  a quick change survivor who would have seen many kinds of toilets and used them for many kinds of services in his outlawed status, came back to the table I thought he might want to go into high gear and offered him a whiskey but he didn’t seem to understand what I meant until finally he remembered to remind me about his “Christian Activist” status.

The new again Phillies prides itself that it is an OB bar– “We don’t serve no stinkin’ Cass,” was the first thing I heard and wrote down in my notebook that night. And next:, Gin and tonics for 3500 won and Vodka juice for 4000. There are subtleties to Phillies now like there is no absurd propaganda, paraphernalia, or pamphleteering on the clean walls. The waist-high real brick work should help the walls last forever and with new working space behind the bar as the kitchen, the new-again Phillies is very unlikely to become just another Ghetto-hood restaurant with passable but overpriced food.

The Phillies basement bar. (Eris V. Andal)

Downstairs is a smoking bunker with its nightmare of suburbanite art stained walls, a  pool table and enough leftover space for the usual suspect local bands.  I felt no need to show John Thang that.  He talked about how his father died from cancer while he was at university. But the tough thing for John was he was not even sure if it was cancer that his father had. John believes that his father would have lived if medical and health facilities were anything other than the Junta-guarded  bandage posts for ethnic Chins  who were hurt working in the fields of the Chin state. John watches me taking notes in my notebook and explains to me that the Chin ethnic group is the lowest one on the Myanmar totem-pole and how his father made him read newspapers every day as a kid, and now John is a natural journalist for it. He took out a press-release he issued shortly after the Nov. election in Myanmar :

The election is a sham. Nobody trustworthy was monitoring it. It is clear that the Myanmar military’s attitude has been shown to be deceitful with regards to its country’s people and before the international community.   The protesters, members of All Ethnic Democracy and Human Rights Network, demanded four points to the Myanmar military junta: Stop the military rule and do not interfere with any civilian rule, to restore and bring back the Panglong agreement and build the country according to a federal democratic system, immediately cease its human rights violations and religious repression and immediately relieve the people from political and economic repression. This election was a sham.

John only has a Korean passport now; he was forced out of the Chin Province/India border and in 2008 was issued a one way ticket that eventually dropped him in Gwangju, S Korea.

It’s very interesting that John Thang goes at great lengths to keep his identity a secret while the expats who flaunt themselves in Haebangchon will do anything to come up with any sort of identity for themselves. As I stood alone out by the grill to carry back into the pub a couple of sausages, I listened to significantly more fortunate people than John Thang talk about their lives. They were talking about being members of a movement called,

“Church of the sub genius.”

And, how they were not sure if they preferred being a yeti or Jedi?

Or, where they thought that their polymorphous sexual appetite came from.

I didn’t want to eat any more. I put down the plates and pulled out some paper to write down their concerns.

John knows the trade school/college/ university that he and his family members went to,  but cannot mention any of these to me as it might mean prosecution of his family. After declaring to me that Myanmar intelligence has his name, and that he contacts his oldest sister once a month but has lost touch with his other sister who he believes has two kids but is not sure…he finally decides to go up for a beer. I offered to get it for him but it was like he wanted to go up there on his own.  Phillies is happily packed; everyone there senses that they have arrived somewhere.   It will take John a few minutes to cut through the glare of the crowd and get his one beer.  I look down and my notebook reads to again remind me to read the second part of his email.

In exile, I participated exiled Myanmar democratic activity, and as a students’ leader and a human rights activist based in India and Thailand.  And I taught Myanmar young people at All Ethnic International Open University (a Burmese exiled university) in Thailand.   All of my works were volunteer based there is nothing of earning money.  Since all the students were the same situation like me, this is in the moment of our crisis situation.  So I have to understand the situation and sacrificed my self for society.

As I was a freelance writer and a Burmese journalist, I used to contribute to various Asian newspapers and magazines in Malaysia and South Korea.

I hope many good peoples will support for the causes of our democracy and human rights movement in Myanmar.

This last part of the email was kind of in the I-need-money-so-I-can-survive code. And it’s for real that John Thang has no paying job and I wonder how close he is to going into the factories for work? His long-term goal is to get into school, somewhere that will offer him academic sponsorship. His preference is New Zealand than Australia and he was also hoping that some school in Japan might come through for him but not now after the Earthquake; we both know that can’t happen. He says, “It depends on chance.”

The opening night overflow at Phillies. (Eris V. Andal)

I want another beer but it is getting too loud to talk much anymore and John decides to head out of Seoul. This is when he told me today’s free hamburger was the first he ever had coming out of a real and not fast food kitchen. I felt like he should be taking at least two more home with him. Then he asked me a funny thing:  how much had I paid for the beer? I told him 3000 won and he looked down to the floor and said, “She charged me 5000 for mine.”

I heard right I’m sure, but he wanted to go and the new again Phillies was maximum capacity for people and noise so I just let that go and walked him out halfway down the Haebangchon Boulevard of slapdash dreams. We shook hands and as he walked away, the night seemed to rapidly lose all of its earlier quality and I wondered WTF? How could this be? The new again Phillies seemed to be ready to bring the neighborhood another place for happiness. I mean everybody around here this night including John Thang and myself was some sort of ESL refugee. And Phillies could be another reason to stay around a place that felt both global and local.

The new Phillies staff. (Eris V. Andal)

Calm but feeling serious I went back in under the sign and what looks like a straight rip of the Vancouver Canucks emblem for another drink and asked why had John been charged 5000 won for a 3000 won beer. Was it his looks? Because he never held a hockey stick in his life like in the same way he never had a real cheeseburger before? The alcohol I drank was doing what it’s supposed to and I was about to remark,

“Look around closely everyone in here is some kind of refugee.”  But I thought better of that and then the bar staff explained,

“He pointed to Krombacher and that is a 5000 won beer.”



I made a note of this in my notebook:

“Turns out he just pointed to the Krombacher tap that was in front of him.”

When I see John next, I don’t think I’ll ask him if he wanted the premium beer, or was he too nervous to ask the price so he just ordered what was right in front of him.  I will have to tell him though that he was not overcharged and if he had any deep down fears of being in a bar like this, that those are unnecessary. I think the best time and place to do this is soon when we are both at the new again Phillies.

Phillies facebook…

John Smith Thang is Executive Director of All Ethnic Democracy and Human Rights Network. He is a political refugee in Korea.

He can be reached at:

Click here for a recent op-ed by Benedict Rogers on what it’s like for writers in Myanmar.

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