Tiki & the Cultural Appropriation Debate: Pt. 2

“Taken out of context, I might seem so strange.”

-Ani DiFranco

If anyone had told me the last article I wrote would inspire a lot of reactions, I’d have probably laughed. I don’t write for any other reason than to express my own feelings; changing people’s minds about stuff is folly and not something I’m interested in.

However, given what’s happened since then, I felt I need to delve a little deeper into some of the topics I discussed. Buckle up, because this one’s longer than the last one, folks.

Pop Culture vs. Authentic Culture

One of the things that inspired some negative feedback was why I would say Tiki was “inauthentic”. So, let’s start by unpacking that statement.

When I think of American pop culture in general, authenticity doesn’t come to mind. And Tiki is known as Polynesian Pop because it was a creation of American pop culture (which is usually inauthentic) that had Polynesian cultural elements. So this is what we’ll call it in this article, to avoid confusion. Polynesian Pop as a singular facet of pop culture may have not itself been authentic, but that doesn’t mean the cultures that inspired it weren’t authentic. 

Donn Beach is credited as the “Father of Tiki culture” in a lot of contemporary media, as if he concocted the notion in his head (which is false). The bar he opened in 1933 was a actually a nautical-themed bar, rather than what many people know to be a “Tiki” bar. He filled his bar with real objects he collected in his various travels, the hallmark of pre-Tiki “beachcomber style” of decorating with found objects.

The writer of this article back in March of 2019 asked if anyone really knew what “Tiki” (Polynesian Pop) is. And this indicates to me that there’s a lack of understanding of what it is among contemporary cocktail culture/food writers (there are many other examples). Maybe people don’t realize that real “Tiki culture” doesn’t revolve around cocktails – I’m not really sure.

Polynesian Pop’s history is important if we’re to understand what it is or begin to contextualize it. But research is necessary in order to do that, and I feel some people who have recently attempted to write about it have failed in this respect, even though there are resources out there that discuss and define it in depth.

Colonialism and Characterizations

Let’s get this out of the way: Colonialism by Europeans and Americans absolutely was responsible for a lot of suffering, hardship, and loss for many Pacific Islanders. A lot of people in our community, especially those who have been a part of it for a long time, are very conscious of this and acknowledge Polynesian Pop would likely not exist had it not been for the U.S. military occupation of the islands in the Pacific.

I also agree a result of this is the inaccurate characterizations of its people. Personally, I don’t go for imagery of the noble savage or the island girl as they were portrayed in the past. The island girl was either a submissive flirt or a temptress who led you to your doom with a swivel of her hips. As a woman, I find these examples of island girl iconography to be unappealing, as they closely mirror how I’ve experienced characterization of women in my own culture.

Someone asked me if my use of the word “primitive” didn’t feed into the stereotype of the “noble savage”. There are several definitions for the term “primitive” with different connotations, depending on how it’s used. The one that most closely aligns with how I define it is “Not derived” (meaning it is original), so I just wanted to clarify this. Nonetheless, I recognize the concept of Pacific Islander men as “savages” is an incredibly dumb stereotype.

Both characterizations were designed to appeal to bored housewives and wound-up husbands to titillate their senses. They don’t do anything for me, so I don’t consume them. Curiously, the island girl remains popular, which may be because her characterization has changed a bit as women gain a higher level of empowerment. Not saying I know this for sure – just hypothesizing.

The Tiki Consumer, Then and Now

I had a discussion with some peers recently, and I reiterated a statement I made in my last post – that Tiki/Polynesian Pop was a product of its times. And yes, I realize “Nazis were a product of their time” too, but that assumes I’m making a totally different point. My point is the consumer landscape isn’t the same today as it was in the mid-20th century. During that time, our nation wasn’t exactly known to consider how marginalized groups may have felt enough to be conscious and responsible in their choices.

Polynesian Pop was born out of a desire for escapism. Mid-century folks escaped from the shackles of expectations to be good Americans, married with 2.5 kids, living in tract housing, and keeping up with the Joneses. Fast forward to now, and you’re seeing a lot of people escaping from an increasingly divided and volatile nation where conflict of some kind is all but inevitable. It’s a very human reaction. 

It’s the addition of the vintage mid-century art and design aesthetic that makes Polynesian Pop unique. And while many of us, like those that came before us, enjoy that very much, it doesn’t mean we blindly accept the cultural insensitivity from those times that led to exploitative characterizations and stereotypes.  

Being Constructive to be Productive

“Cancel culture” has been a big buzzword over the last couple of years, and I recently read an article about how the move toward censoring certain things deemed problematic potentially strips us of our ability to both understand and interpret culture in various forms. In it, the author offered an analysis of the “implications” of HBO’s decision to air a disclaimer before re-adding Gone with the Wind to its rotation:

“First, the simple fact of the material power of platforms to remove whatever book, film, image or piece of music is deemed ‘problematic’ at any time; second, the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to read the cultural products that we are permitted to access; and, third, that the consumers of culture cannot be trusted to think for themselves, but must be told or shown how to understand images, words and sounds.”

The third one struck a nerve, because I read Gone with the Wind as a teenager and saw the film, and fully understood their mistreatment of Black people and glamorization of the “plantation life”. No one had to tell me how to consume or process them for me to come to that conclusion. So I wonder: Is this what awaits us all before we’re presented with any thorny pop culture piece? 

I think we build more good will, empathy, and unity when we trust each other more with respect to this. As I previously mentioned, we have awesome people in the Polynesian Pop community who are open, welcoming, and aware. But not all of them feel comfortable with dialog, for fear they will be promptly asked to take several seats for saying anything at all. Can’t say I blame them.

Borrowing and Giving Back

The idea of Polynesian Pop giving back to the cultures it drew inspiration from is completely reasonable. I think this is something newer generations can certainly do that prior generations didn’t do. And it can still be done in a way that maintains the unique Polynesian Pop art/design aesthetic, but also benefits Oceanic cultures and lifts their voices. But saying things need to change isn’t enough – tangible solutions are needed.

It would be great for people who represent those cultures to have forums to share the various aspects of said cultures that makes them unique. These discussions can be held at Tiki-themed events or bars and be sponsored by a spirit company. Inviting indigenous artists to share their art at some of our shows is another thing I’d enjoy. There are also various charities that work to lift up Pacific Islanders that could benefit from some of raffles we like to put on from time to time.

Note: I’m NOT offering some sort of prescription to a problem. These are just small ideas that might spark further ideas that can come to fruition down the road.

Why Critical Thinking Matters

As we create dialog, I think it’s important to remember we’re individuals capable of critical thinking and rational decision-making. Being part of a group we identify with is great and part of a life well-lived, but there will be those within our groups whose feelings differ. Otherwise, it’s just an echo chamber. If Polynesian Pop has community members who are Pacific Islanders and enjoy it for reasons only they can provide (because there are), will their voice matter, too? Or as much?

Someone recently asked me if someone’s comfort in enjoying something popular is more important than the exploitation of another culture. As far as Polynesian Pop is concerned, I can’t answer those questions. Those are for Pacific Islanders in both camps (for and against) to discuss. So instead, I’ll answer as it applies to me.

When I see interpretations of my culture, I don’t take them at face value. Instead, I consider context. I’m not very easily offended by interpretations of my own culture, because in spite of all the racism my family has been subjected to, my mother taught me to ask questions first, and draw my own conclusions after really gaining an understanding of the whys and hows. And if I don’t like what someone is doing, I won’t give them my time, attention, or money.

The Litmus Test

If you read my last article, you might remember the question I posed about whether or not it would be acceptable for me to open a Chinese restaurant as a non-Chinese POC. One person asked if I did this and featured only “random Asian food”, if I wouldn’t be playing into the stereotype (though I’m not sure exactly which stereotype – there’s a lot of them).

It seems a more acceptable route would be to open a Sichuan restaurant, use indigenous ingredients and cooking methods, donate to a relevant cause, and educate the public about that culture.

At face value, I don’t have a problem with this at all whatsoever, and I think it’s a great idea. What does concern me is the idea of establishing a cultural litmus test that measures one’s moral compass. Logically, what I’d imagine is there’s an agreed-upon, established list of rules that must be adhered to, and that there’s also an agreed-upon authority enforcing them. But because there are others in a culture who may disagree on the validity of an act of cultural exchange/expression, then who gets to administer this test? What happens if I don’t “pass”?

The People and Future of Polynesian Pop

When people say “Tiki jumped the shark”, I emphatically agree. As real examples of Polynesian Pop become more popular (and harder to come by), it seems like just about anything that’s tropical-themed passes as Tiki. And yes, I definitely feel this is a huge part of the problem, because it’s caused the whole thing to become muddied with Parrot/Geeki/Clown/Party City Tiki. Most of that is very far removed from the original Polynesian Pop aesthetic. When something becomes popular, you don’t have to try as hard anymore.

There seems to be a perception that Polynesian Pop’s longest-running enthusiasts are just a bunch of gatekeeping white men who think Oceanic peoples should be glad the white man came around to give them visibility. That’s a pretty broad brush to paint with. When I look at the people that make up the world of Polynesian Pop, that’s not what I see. I see a myriad of diverse, compassionate and culturally conscious individuals, young and old, who appreciate the vintage aesthetic without the more troubling vintage mindset and values.

As a centrist, I feel this is not a debate or argument to be won. But I believe it’s up to consumers to critically think in the face of cultural interpretation to find context and meaning. Do I think we can support the issues that Polynesian people continue to face? Definitely. Do I feel it requires Polynesian Pop to be totally remade or burned to the ground? No. There are too many gray areas and voices at play to simplify this topic to where people feel forced to choose a side. I’m in favor of a balanced approach that doesn’t attempt to erase a part of pop culture history and educates consumers simultaneously, so we can think for ourselves and make better decisions than those who came before us.