Joy Southern: A harrowing beginning, a happy ending

Published 4:44 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Joy Southern sits and quietly describes her hopes for her new Landrum business, Getfitted Boutique, just up the street from Soulisa’s Dining and Music House, her fine dining Thai restaurant on Rutherford Street in downtown Landrum. She’s thinking of wedding dresses. After prom season, she’ll expand her shop and offer bridal gowns in addition to her bridesmaids, mother of the bride, pageant and social occasion dresses.

The shop’s freshly-painted pink and white walls are lined with colorful sparkling evening gowns—the kinds of dresses dreams are made of.

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Joy and her husband Mike share the work of running two successful businesses, and appear to have the perfect life living in Tryon and building their Landrum restaurant and dress shop.

Joy beams when discussing their 2011 wedding and honeymoon in Hawaii, a place she had always wanted to visit. Now Joy and Mike are planning a trip to Paris in the fall and a cruise out of Rome.

Seeing her contented in her life here, it’s hard to imagine her dangerous and narrow escape from Laos thirty-five years ago when she and three friends jumped into the Mekong River on an inner tube in an attempt to flee communist controlled Laos to find sanctuary in Thailand across the river.

“I’m going to die in the river—that’s what I thought,” she says as she recalls the terrifying experience. “We could have been shot. A lot were shot,” she adds soberly.

After the Vietnam War, Laos was ruled by a communist regime, and ten percent of the population risked death or imprisonment to leave their homes in the most bombed country in the world.

Joy—then named Phimpha Soulisa (Phimpha meaning “mother of the Buddha”)—was only twenty years old and one of twelve children in her family. Everyone was left behind except her older brother who had been killed in combat while fighting with the U.S. against North Vietnam in 1972.

Joy and her companions—two other girls and a boy—rode the inner tube down the river because the girls couldn’t swim. If she survived the trip across the river, Joy’s plan was to go to the United States.

When she was ten years old, Joy had wanted to study English and asked a monk in a nearby Buddhist temple in Laos to teach her. Her brother had given her an English dictionary before he left for the war, and she was determined to learn to speak the language.

After her perilous river crossing, Joy was placed in a refugee camp for six months in Thailand. She applied to go to the U.S., and spent an additional six months in another camp in the Philippines before arriving in Chicago on May 11, 1981. Joy was among a quarter of a million Lao refugees who were resettled by the U.S. through Thailand between 1975 and 1996.

Joy’s husband Mike calls her the “pioneer of the family,” as she has sponsored several relatives and aided them in their journey to the U.S. since her own arrival. Joy and Mike originally bought Kyoto restaurant in Tryon—which became Soulisa’s when it moved to Landrum—in order to employ her family members who had come to America. Joy and Mike still support her three siblings and their families who were left behind and remain in Laos, a country Joy describes as “without a middle class.” One third of the population lives below poverty level.

After arriving in the U.S. and while living in Illinois, Joy met and married a boy from her home, the Lao capital city of Vientiane, and both began their new lives working at McDonald’s.

Soon after, Joy was able to put her sewing skills to use at a new job making caps and gowns and choir robes. “I’d been sewing since I was fourteen,” she says. “I was good at sewing and cooking.”

In 1993, Joy (which means “shining” in Lao) became a U.S. citizen. “Believe me, I had to do my homework,” she says.

After twenty-four years in Illinois sewing caps and gowns, Joy’s marriage had ended, and she had two sons. She began dating a man from the refugee camp in the Philippines, and moved to Gastonia with him, getting work doing alterations at Dillard’s and Poffie Girls, a bridal boutique. The couple started a restaurant in 2009 on Main Street in Forest City called House of Asian.

The relationship didn’t work out, and the restaurant was sold before Joy returned to Illinois alone, taking jobs in two bridal shops.

It was at this time that Mike Southern, an accountant and financial advisor from Charlotte, spotted Joy’s photo on a dating site, Senior People Meet, for singles over fifty. Joy’s profile “was the first one I came to, and I kind of liked her,” Mike says with a smile, clearly understating his interest.

Joy wasn’t so certain the match would be a good one. “I’m boring. I’m working,” she told him.

But Mike was intrigued and visited Joy in Illinois. Six months later, they had two weddings—a traditional American one in Charlotte with Mike’s family and a week later, a Buddhist ceremony with Joy’s friends and family in Illinois.

An old family friend of Joy’s was selling Kyoto’s restaurant in Tryon, and Joy and Mike were interested. In April of 2012, they bought Kyoto and commuted from their home in Gastonia for two months before moving to Tryon.

Then in August, Joy was able to realize her lifelong dream and open Getfitted Boutique in the downstairs portion of Shops of Tryon. She moved it to Trade Street in October of 2013. A little over a year later, the Southerns were able to buy a bigger building on Rutherford Street in Landrum, and the shop found a permanent home.

Prior to moving the dress shop, Kyoto had become Soulisa’s (named for Joy’s Lao family) and relocated to Rutherford Street in Landrum in May of 2014. Before the Southerns purchased Kyoto in Tryon, it was considered a Japanese hibachi grill that also served some Thai food, but now Soulisa’s is more focused on Thai cuisine with some Japanese dishes in keeping with Joy’s family legacy, and the décor is more upscale—more in line with fine dining.

“We see all kinds of new customers every day,” Joy says since moving the restaurant to Landrum. “We see much more traffic here and draw from the Upstate.”

Mike has “caught the restaurant bug,” and loves running Soulisa’s while Joy pursues her dream in Getfitted Boutique, planning how she’ll expand the shop to provide beautiful gowns to brides soon.

Family is important to the Southerns. They keep many of their relatives employed in their businesses as well as support other members of Joy’s family back in Laos. In addition to Joy’s two sons, Mike has four children, and between the couple they have eight grandchildren and one on the way.

Joy’s life as a young adult couldn’t have been more challenging, but with determination, hard work, and a dream in her heart, she has found a happy life here in the Foothills and looks to a hopeful future.