About this time last year, I honestly wasn’t sure which direction Tiki would go in light of so much unrest in this country. A seemingly growing choir of voices was questioning Tiki’s existence as a subculture/aesthetic, and the pandemic threatened many of our favorite destinations’ existence, too.
Those of you involved with discussions about Tiki and cultural appropriation may remember they spiked a bit last year, which led me to pen my thoughts in a blog post, where I mostly asked questions and cautioned against unintended consequences of “canceling” it, so to speak. I wrote a follow-up after seeing the conversations the post provoked (as well as after getting some unkind, unconstructive feedback from opposing parties). Tikiphiles were also up in arms at the thought of Tiki being canceled after articles came out in publications like Punch and the New York Times essentially calling it out for insensitive racist, colonialist tropes.
History repeats itself—this is the same kind of backlash Tiki got starting in the 1970s, which led to its de-evolution in the 1980s. And I think a few people (including myself) really thought Tiki would be headed that way again. I mean, we’ve all retreated to our home bars at some point, so it didn’t feel so far-fetched that it could happen again if bar owners felt it would turn off patrons to go full-on Tiki and own it.
I’ve never been more glad to be wrong. Tiki is showing its resiliency.
The New Tiki Kids in Town
Since the pandemic began, numerous new Tiki destinations have opened up, inviting patrons into immersive, exciting experiences that go far beyond just a kickass Mai Tai.
The great Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach may be gone, but new Tiki speakeasy Secret Island opened in nearby Long Beach September 30th and already has acts like the Hilo Hi-Flyers, The Hula Girls, and Tikiyaki 5-0 lined up to play shows. Tiki Tom’s in Walnut Creek took advantage of their pandemic closure to fulfill a desire to transform their bar into a true Tiki destination and reopened on August 24th to rave reviews. The crazy beautiful Sinking Ship at Tiki-Ko in Bakersfield is finally open and is a Tiki lover’s dream come true.
And while you still could never pay me to live there again, I’m incredibly happy that many new Tiki bars are located in of all places, Texas—my previous home. Nice to know I can escape the big hair, big egos, shitty drivers, and awful politics in the comfort of a fabulous nearby Tiki bar.
Swizzle in Dallas, Tarantula Tiki in Ft. Worth, and Hugman’s Oasis in San Antonio have all opened within the last 18 months. And on the horizon is the VERY long-awaited Tiki Tatsu-Ya in Austin, scheduled to open in early October. How cool is this place going to be, you ask? As co-owner Tatsu Aikawa said to the Austin American-Statesman, “I’m not building a restaurant-bar this time. I’m building Disneyland.”
That’s how you do it, folks.
How Tiki Weathered the Storm
It amazes me how many of Tiki’s dearly-loved locations have stood the test of time despite challenges ranging from pandemic closures to labor/supply shortages and of course, the weather.
The mighty Mai-Kai, despite closing their kitchen due to structural problems, is still chugging along, offering drinks to go and even putting on a Tiki marketplace to keep that Aloha spirit alive. They recently announced they will be able to reopen after securing investors who can provide the financial backing they needed to rebuild.
An ongoing global shortage of supplies, labor, and common sense (I’ll let you guess which one is more prevalent) is hampering the hospitality & restaurant/bar industry, and many Tiki bars have had to pare down or change their menus depending on what they’re able to get. Some have to adjust their hours or put expansion plans on hold because of lack of staff. But it’s great to see they’re still open despite the challenges.
Think about some of the most popular Tiki bars we know that experienced pandemic-related closures and have since reopened: Latitude 29, Inferno Room, Max’s South Seas Hideaway, Lei Low, Tonga Hut, Tiki-Ti, Trader Sam’s, Trader Vic’s…the list is quite long! We get to still enjoy these incredible places, and I think it’s a testament to Tiki still being relevant, especially now.
The Return of Tiki-Themed Events
As someone who really looked forward to flying out for Tiki events when I lived in Texas, going to Tiki events is one thing I’m really excited about getting back to doing.
This year, Tiki Oasis in both San Diego and Scottsdale made a comeback, and in October, Tiki Caliente will be back after an 18-month hiatus. There are also smaller-scale events like Makahiki, Inuhele, and Tiki Fever that have happened or will happen this year. The events still generate a lot of buzz and excitement, and although travel restrictions prevent some regulars from attending (for now), I feel events will still be just as popular, and we may even see more of them.
One of the neatest things about Tiki events is the art. Carvings, mugs, illustrations…all of these are still very much alive and well. Our beloved Tiki artisans saw events, a major source of income, taken away during the pandemic, but they’re still making art and still lining our walls and shelves with beautiful creations.
Preventing a New Tiki De-Evolution
Most of us who truly love Tiki know keeping its unique aesthetic authentic in its original inauthenticity is key to preventing it from turning into the hot mess it became in the 80s (Hello, day-glo colors and Mai Tais made with grenadine). It’s up to us to lift up and celebrate the places and people that are carrying that torch. So far, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.
In addition, it’s been really nice to see that Tiki is more accessible than it used to be. I love seeing people from all walks of life feeling much more welcome in our community and comfortable being their authentic selves, and that definitely needs to continue. But it should happen organically and out of true sincerity. “White guilt” is definitely a thing, and it often results in temporary, insincere attempts to elevate DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion), similar to what I see in the corporate world right now. Virtue signaling has become a bit trendy, but it’s not a good look, and as a POC (person of color), I find it more patronizing than helpful.
Tiki is also going to have its persistent detractors who will bash you up and down for things like drinking out of a mug with an actual Tiki on it. I don’t think anything will change their minds, so why bother? The fact I love Tiki doesn’t make me bad, misguided, ignorant, or racist. If people don’t agree, that’s their problem. They don’t owe me niceness when discussing this issue, and that’s fine, too. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but that’s just my opinion.
The last 18 months have been an emotional ass-kicking for me and for many of you, I’m sure. I’m trying to remain optimistic, so I’m focusing on things I enjoy, which is one reason I unfollowed nearly all the Facebook groups. I recommend all of you focus on the Tiki things you enjoy, too—remember, Tiki was born out a desire to escape, and if there was ever a time to escape, it’s now!
No question, it may be slightly adjusting for modern times and modern minds, but Tiki is definitely not canceled. And that’s a very good thing.