Culture Over Cocktails: Going to the Heart of Tiki

This year, my body decided to let me know it doesn’t care for alcohol like it used to. I still love a good spirit or a cocktail—don’t get me wrong. Many of us Tiki folks do. But I don’t enjoy being drunk, and though I used to enjoy watching other people get drunk, it just messes with my anxiety now. And this lead me to realize I don’t really find fulfillment in Tiki-themed events that center around drinking.

Let me dive into a little of my own personal history with Tiki. When I first got into it in 2008, Texas was a complete Tiki desert, with the exception of Trader Vic’s, which had reopened at the time after being originally shut down in 1987. I only heard about it when a man I was dating took me there for happy hour, telling me it was his new favorite place in town.

Trader Vic’s Dallas—I spent many a happy moment here. (photo by Tiffany J. on Yelp)

When I think back to what it was that captivated me about Trader Vic’s, the cocktails are not the first thing that comes to mind. Or the second, even. Granted at the time, those cocktails were better than anything else I had in Dallas. But they took a back seat to the beautiful decor, the delicious food, and the feeling like I had just escaped the drudgery of Dallas and gone to another land.

I feel like this is what’s missing in a lot of the modern Tiki scene. It’s become a really cocktail-centric world, which probably suits some people well. It’s not what I mainly seek from it, though. The things I care about—the overall aesthetic, the art, the fashion, and Tiki as a piece of American pop culture history—no longer take center stage, it seems. It’s all about the drinks.

I feel a lot of this is because of changing attitudes concerning Tiki as being culturally insensitive and the rise of craft cocktail culture in general. I’ve also noticed many of Tiki’s naysayers work in the industry, and even if it’s not intentional, it’s…kind of convenient. Perhaps if the cocktails are the star of the show, the things they find “unsavory” about Tiki can be tossed away, where future generations and newer Tiki fans don’t see them. It’s a form of indirect, subtle censorship, if you will, and it usually results in (for me) a sterile and uninspired vibe.

I’m sure the now-defunct Polynesian in NYC likely had great drinks, but for a bar touted as a “Tiki” bar, its aesthetic was ho-hum. (photo by Noah Fecks of Michelin Guide)

Of course, a big part of the Tiki revival was the discovery of the drinks and the fascinating and complex history behind them. And we have the great Jeff “Beachbum” Berry to thank for that. One of my favorite things in many of Jeff’s books is reading about the people he talked to and what he did to acquire so many of those lost recipes. And I really enjoy a delicious tropical cocktail, especially in a true Tiki space (sorry, nautical/pirate bars aren’t Tiki). But I also believe the drinks were (and still are) an embellishment to far more meaningful and special things.

The authentic Polynesian floor show is what I loved most about visiting the Mai-Kai. The drinks took a back seat. (photo by me)

I’m grateful there are still people out there who care about Tiki as a pop culture entity and either work to educate others about it or embrace it as consumers. Sure, we may not have all the same resources that were available during the original revival, but fear not—there are people out there working hard to pick up where others left off. I’ll include some of these resources at the end of this post.

I hope to delve further into Tiki and experience it through a slightly less rum-soaked lens moving forward. I know there’s a lot I could learn from those who have studied it from a historical standpoint, as well as about the regions and cultures that inspired it. I intend to be a steward for authentic Tiki and what it encompasses, and I feel like in order to do that, the cocktails should play a supporting role rather than the starring role.

Educational Tiki Resources

  • This website hosts a comprehensive catalog of user-generated info, some aggregated from other Tiki sites which are now defunct, such as Critiki and Ooga Mooga.
  • TikiCentral: The old classic is finally back from the dead! It’s a treasure trove of information dating back a couple of decades.
  • Sven Kirsten’s Books: OK, so I know The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern have become prohibitively expensive (try borrowing from a friend who has a copy or check your local library). BUT you can actually buy a smaller-sized version of Tiki Pop—his third book—from Amazon for under $30!
  • Sippin’ Safari & Potions of the Caribbean: These incredible books by Jeff Berry detail not just cocktail recipes, but cocktail history.

Nope, Tiki is not Canceled.

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.

Just one small section inside Tiki Tatsu-Ya (photo by Mark Matson for Austin American-Statesman)

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.

I know many of us want to see the Mai-Kai’s magnificent floor show again. (Photo by me)

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.

I can’t wait for the next vaxxed and relaxed Tiki Caliente! (photo by Caliente Tropics)

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.

20 Years of The Book of Tiki – Reflections with Author Sven Kirsten (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part interview with The Book of Tiki author Sven Kirsten. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 here. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

RM: Nowadays, finding a copy of The Book of Tiki is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, and it’s looked at as the source most people consult when looking to learn about Tiki. How do you feel about its exalted status among Tikiphiles today?

SK: My whole goal to find the right publisher for The Book of Tiki was that Tiki culture gets recognized and becomes, you know, accepted in pop culture. And so I’ve always been a populist in the sense that I wanted the stuff to be available. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the say with my publisher to say, “Republish The Book of Tiki,” because whenever I did that there was already another book of my books out, the last one being Tiki Pop. I wish I had a new edition of The Book of Tiki for the 20th anniversary, but they (Taschen) just put out this great compact version of Tiki Pop

In a way, yeah, it’s not The Book of Tiki, but it [Tiki Pop] tells the complete history of Polynesian Pop and how it started before Tiki was around and then how it evolved into Tiki. And to have that available for 15 or 16 bucks –  it’s amazing, and I’m so happy about that. 

The Book of Tiki is really the initial charge that got that whole thing going, but I’m saying if you really want to know about what Tiki is and where it came from, Tiki Pop is just as good.

Tiki Pop, 1st edition

RM: In recent years, Tiki has become almost cocktail-centric, with much of the actual style that made it what it was relegated to the background. Originally, the cocktails were more of a complement to the experience rather than the focal point. What do you think can help the aesthetic stay relevant in modern times?

SK: Let’s go back to how the Tiki revival started: It was artists who picked up on the power of the forgotten Tiki image first. In the 90s, the “lowbrow” artists of the Pop Surrealism movement started to incorporate Tikis in their paintings, leading to several purely Tiki-themed exhibitions. Also, animation artists picked up on the theme, with shows like SpongeBob Squarepants.

The art is also what inspired me to dig deeper and unearth American Tiki culture. When I discovered the supplier Oceanic Arts in Whittier in the late 80s, it was their collection of menu covers, with their incredible Tiki graphics, that blew me away and made me think for the first time, “Someone should make a book about this!” In my books that followed, I have strived to reveal the incredible horn of plenty of American Tiki art, design and architecture.

Sven photographing the Kahlua Apartments, 1994 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

In that manner, the Tiki, the Polynesian god of the artists, manifested itself anew. He inspired a new generation of creatives to remake him in a myriad of forms and styles.

But pure art only goes that far in this world, one has to have a vein for it to begin with — not everybody does. Along came the craft cocktail revival, and, although snobbishly laughing off Tiki cocktails in the beginning, it eventually latched onto them, and they became its darling. 

Sven Kirsten and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry holding up Tiki mugs
Sven mugging it up with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who pioneered the discovery of mid-century Tiki cocktail recipes (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

Again, a new generation of mixologists arose,  inspired by the intricacies of Tiki cocktails. They got so fixated on that one facet of Tiki culture, that eventually the word “Tiki” meant cocktail, nothing else, with the main core of its art and design becoming secondary accoutrements. Booze won over art.

Consequently, this not-understanding of the true spirit of Tiki makes it easy for some of them to now zealously recant and abandon Tiki style as offensive, the accusers ironically being ignorant of an art form that they accuse of ignorance.

RM: I know you’ve unearthed quite a bit of Tiki in the urban jungle that made it into the book. Did any one of those “A-ha!” moments stand out to you, or is there a favorite discovery you’ve made that you’re fond of?

SK: One of my most memorable discoveries in my Tiki research was the defunct “The Tikis” amusement park. It was a sunken civilization, with overgrown and toppled Tikis, just like what had happened to the ancient Polynesian Tiki temples. It was an urban archeologist’s dream come true.

Its builder, Danny Balsz, was a self-made man who built the whole lava land moonscape by hand, in his own vision. He had heard that the more Tikis you have, the more luck you have. The failure of it mirrored the fall of mid-century Tiki culture.

Sven and Otto von Stroheim at “The Tikis” in Lake Elsinore, 1994 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

I want to give a huge, heartfelt thanks to Sven for being willing to sit down with me for this interview. The world of Polynesian Pop is forever indebted to him for his tireless work in unearthing a very important piece of mid-century Americana. Congratulations to him and to The Book of Tiki!

Sven with The Book of Tiki 20th Anniversary mug

If you are on social media, be sure to keep an eye out for the new 20th anniversary Book of Tiki mug, a special collaboration between Sven, SHAG, and Holden Westland of Tiki Farm. And for those of you who are interested in Sven’s books, check out Amazon, as occasional copies of The Book of Tiki, Tiki Modern, The Art of Tiki, and the 1st edition of Tiki Pop (which are out of print) do show up from time to time. The smaller 2nd edition of Tiki Pop is available for a mere $16, though!

20 Years of The Book of Tiki – Reflections With Author Sven Kirsten (Part 1)

It’s hard to have a conversation about Tiki without bringing up Sven Kirsten. An integral figure in the modern Tiki revival, Sven helped bring an artistic style to the forefront that hadn’t really been given a name or even a place in American pop culture history. Through years of immersing himself in urban archaeology, Sven carefully documented Tiki in the mid-20th century and laid out his findings in the now-famous tome, The Book of Tiki, released 20 years ago this month.

The Book of Tiki with the 20th anniversary mug designed by SHAG

Sure, we all love the cocktails and have all likely enjoyed a Mai Tai or two (or three) from time to time, but the cocktails are only one small part of Tiki. Escapism wasn’t achieved through the drinks alone. There was art, architecture, advertising, media, music, and so much more that captured the American imagination. During a time when air travel wasn’t accessible to everyone, Tiki allowed people to travel to a faraway land without having to go very far at all. 

Sven at the Tiki Apartments, 2013 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

Tiki nearly disappeared completely during the 80s, with many Polynesian Pop destinations meeting with either all-out closure or the wrecking ball. Others were renovated by proprietors eager to distance themselves from the style. But diehard fans unearthed it through underground meetups and urban archaeology. Thanks to the work of Kirsten and notables such as Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Otto von Stroheim, Tiki slowly began to re-emerge. And in September of 2000, The Book of Tiki was published.

Sven Kirsten and Martin Denny with The Book of Tiki
Sven and Martin Denny, the King of Exotica, 2003 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

I sat down with Sven recently to talk a little bit about how the book came to be, and ask a few burning questions of my own in a two-part series. Enjoy!

RM: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned you shopped The Book of Tiki to various publishers and were turned down left and right. Taschen eventually took you up on it — do you know or can you speculate as to why they bit when no one else would? 

SK: Well, my attempts to find a publisher came in waves. I have this quote-unquote famous rejection letter from Chronicle Books from 1992. At that time, Chronicle Books did a lot of cool things on Americana. 

I think they were the first to publish Jim Heimann’s California Crazy and they did Googie [by Alan Hess]. These are books that were influential to my generation of urban archaeologists and mid-century modernism lovers. So I tried Chronicle, and they turned me down. Then I tried Abrams and several other – at the time – happening art book publishers on the East Coast, and there we go. 

At that point in time, the whole publishing business and world was really concentrated around New York. And again, we had the problem that people in New York had Trader Vic’s, they had the Hawaii Kai stuff, but it was not like on the west coast — they didn’t get it. They didn’t get that it was a whole culture. Actually, Chronicle, I remember — the editor that rejected it said there was too much on too small of a subject. They just didn’t see how pervasive it had been even though I think I showed that in my proposal. The proposal, by the way, had the complete lineup of chapters very much the same way that it actually was published in the Book of Tiki years later. So, you know, I had it all together in my mind. 

Beginning in the late nineties, Taschen books were in stores all over Germany already. And I really liked their stuff, and my friends started telling me, “Why don’t you try Taschen Books?” But in the late 90s, they still were a European publisher — they hadn’t come to the United States. And I always felt like, I want this pop culture to be rediscovered in America first, and then it will, like all other kinds of pop trends, spread out to Europe and to Japan and stuff. So I said, “No, yeah, Taschen does great books, but…” And then when I heard that Benedikt Taschen [Taschen’s founder] was moving to Los Angeles, that’s when I decided maybe I should try it. 

It just so happened that Pete Moruzzi knew the Swiss architect Frank Escher, who was renovating the Chemosphere for Benedikt Taschen. So it was a shoo-in. I gave Pete my proposal, he gave it to Frank Escher, and Frank gave it to Benedikt, and you know, it was the beginning phase of Taschen in America. They were actually looking for material, so it was just the right time and the right place. 

I always tell the story of how Benedikt came over just to show what a workaholic he is. He actually called me and said, “I want to come over and look at some more of your stuff on January 1st.” I mean, who’s working on January 1st? [Laughs] I said, “Of course, yes, that’s no problem,” and I pulled out all my files and all my slides and I had stacks of them, and he actually leafs through everything. 

Chicago expedition for The Book of Tiki (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

You could tell that he was scanning everything and he was not only looking for quality; what he was looking for was quantity, because that really is a mark of his books — they’re not only beautiful books, but they’re so full of stuff…they’re so thick. So he was basically checking [to see] if I had enough material to make a book. And then he said, “Yeah, I think we can do this.”

RM: Part of understanding and identifying certain elements of Tiki style depends on having knowledge of the art of regions that inspired it. Where have you traveled in the Pacific Islands that helped you gain some of that knowledge?

SK: I have to backpedal from that, because people used to ask me that about when I wrote for Tiki News before the book came out. Like, “Where in Polynesia have you been?” The whole point I was trying to make is, “I haven’t been to Polynesia.” Actually, until the 90s, when I was deep into the whole subject matter, I had not been to Hawaii yet.

So I was saying as kind of a joke that you don’t need to go to Polynesia, because it’s all here. And that’s what I’ve tried to explain to people, because during the heyday of Tiki there was complete confusion about it. It wasn’t recognized as an American art form. People were left in the belief that these Tikis actually came from the islands, and carvers like Milan Guanko, because he was Filipino as you know, were from the islands.

Of course, it was all make-believe – supposed to be a Hawaiian or a Polynesian paradise, but confusion persisted even when I was collecting Tiki in swap meets or flea markets. Dealers did that to try to talk up the value of their Tikis – kept on saying they’re from the islands. [Laughs] I didn’t correct them because nobody had realized that this was an art form in its own right. 

In the late 90s and early 2000s, I went to Hawaii for a while almost every year. It was just mind-blowing, and I did go to existing temple sites, but I also noticed that there was very little American Tiki culture left in Hawaii, and what I could find was often very authentic, because in the birthplace of the culture, people had to be more careful about how they produced carvings and stuff.

Here on the mainland, people were freer and not so chained to the originals, and that’s what made it interesting to me. I have no interest in seeing exact copies of ancient art. That’s not creative. What was creative to me was how Americans on the mainland reinterpreted the culture, and that’s where I saw the artistic genius.

Sven Kirsten beside a Tiki at Oceanic Arts
Sven discovers Oceanic Arts, 1989 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

One of the greatest rewards of my publishing of the Book of Tiki was in 2001, I think, or 2002. I got a job as a lecturer on the freighter Aranui that went from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. I put together five lectures on Gauguin, Marquesan culture. At the time, to get back to your original question, I started studying the different Tiki styles, and one of my best guides was the Covarrubias map of the art styles of the Pacific. And that made me realize that each island group had their own style, and they were not necessarily all called Tikis – only in the Marquesas and in New Zealand. 

But in America, they all got sort of thrown together into this happy family of the Tikis, being from any island.

Art Forms of the Pacific by Jose Miguel Covarrubias

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of my interview with Sven Kirsten, which will go up later this week. Thanks so much for reading!

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.

Tiki And The Cultural Appropriation Debate

As we push to reform the way we handle the systemic racism that continues to plague our country, one of the most prevalent topics right now is cultural appropriation, a topic to which Tiki is no stranger.

This conversation has come up several times, with eager Eater writers publishing articles about it here and there that people would get into heated debates over. But rarely would the discussion go much deeper than that.

The reason I’m writing this is to ask some important questions and offer a slightly different perspective on Tiki. I spent many years hopping from one “scene” to another, trying to find one that aligned with my identity as a person and where as a POC, I’d feel welcome and free to be myself.

In the end, I found Tiki was for me, so much more than a scene. It was a truly fascinating culture I felt inspired me and brought out the best in me, even. And it also gave me a desire to learn more about the authentic cultures that inspired it, which has enriched my life even more. So I thought I’d take a moment to respond to some of the debate surrounding Tiki, referring to what I know about it and how I experience it.

The Purposeful Inauthenticity of Tiki

Tiki, or Polynesian Pop, is a manufactured culture. It never really tried to be authentic, because that wasn’t the purpose of it. It can’t be equated with authentic cultures that actually exist, because there really is no comparison.

Tiki is a product of its times, and many contemporary social justice warriors are calling its entire existence into question, with some even saying it should be eradicated in order to make up for its past transgressions.

It’s easy to paint Tiki with the cultural appropriation brush because of some of the iconography it uses. But let’s ask a few questions first.

Do we have a true understanding of what it is and what it isn’t? Do we understand that the “authenticity” people say it lacks was never meant to be there? Do we understand the reason Tiki has an amalgamation of artistic styles is because of this? And do we understand the unintended consequences that could happen if we just take Tiki and try to make it something it’s not?

Before we make arguments about Tiki, we must be aware of the fact that it, unlike other world cultures, has no realness to it because it is a different culture all its own that borrows from primitive art as well as modernism. In The Book of Tiki, Sven Kirsten offers the following quote by Pablo Picasso:

“You don’t need to get the masterpiece to get the idea. The concept or component of a style is entirely accessible in second-rate examples and even fakes.”

Not everyone is going to understand this or agree with it. But this statement embodies the very spirit of what makes Tiki as it existed in the mid-20th century, what it is.

How Being a POC Impacts my View of Tiki

I honestly wonder if, in general, some people assume that a POC will get offended when they see any representation of their culture somewhere outside of where they might traditionally expect to find it (such as in their country of origin or in their homes and communities). I say this, because with so much backlash against cultural appropriation, it seems as if even appreciation now means you’ve crossed the line of appropriation and is therefore, inappropriate.

I’m a left-leaning immigrant who’s lived in a conservative border state nearly all her life. I’ve seen examples of both appreciation and appropriation and learned to look at them critically over time. If we look at cultural appropriation as a totally black and white issue, then a lot of the things we’ve come to enjoy might not be allowed to exist anymore.

I’ve gone to who-knows-how-many Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants and bars, and a lot of them play Latinx music, have employees with uniforms that contain Mexican or South American-style embroidery, and are festooned with papel picado, terra cotta pottery, and even statues with images of Aztec or Olmec idols. 

None of this really bothers me when it’s presented tastefully. I rather enjoy it, actually. I understand that sometimes, these places are inspired by true Latin culture and cuisine, but aren’t authentic and weren’t really meant to be. That doesn’t make me lose sleep at night.

I tend to look at Tiki the same way. My personal preference is to see examples of Tiki that I find more aesthetically pleasing and true to what it is. This is why I’m greatly annoyed with “Clown Tiki” or “Party City Tiki” or whatever you want to call it. When I see cheap day-glo representations of Polynesian idols, I cringe. As inauthentic as mid-20th century Tiki is, you’d be hard-pressed to find garbage like some of the stuff out there today.

White Proprietorship and Cultural Stewardship

Many of the great Tiki establishments of the mid-20th century were run by white men. Donn Beach, Vic Bergeron, Stephen Crane, Bob and Jack Thornton…the list goes on. Sadly, back in those days, it was even harder than it is now to be a POC and own a business (and we all know it’s still hard even today). But even they managed to give real Oceanic art a prominent place in their bars and restaurants. Their menu descriptions of the decor, cuisine, and drinks were fanciful to the point of cheesiness, but the cheesiness was the point.

There have been instances where businesses that serve non-American cuisine get called out even today and shamed simply for being non-POC business owners that serve ethnic cuisine instead. Many of their critics claim POCs should be the only ones profiting off their cultures, not white people. And again, I get it. When you have such a well-documented history of non-POC who have profited off of other cultures in some way, I can totally understand why this can be problematic and why there is a call for more support of POC-owned endeavors.

But that leads me to the following questions. For example, if I didn’t really care for Mexican food and was in love with Chinese food instead, would I get the same backlash if I opened a Chinese restaurant and installed artistic elements of Chinese culture in my establishment? At face value, would I be appropriating too if I was inspired enough to do this? Or would people give me a pass because I’m a POC even though I’m not Chinese? 

I worry about us going down a slippery slope by forbidding others of another culture from expressing their inspiration in ways such as the one mentioned above. If we end up playing keep-away with any culture just because we weren’t born into it, how do we appreciate it?

Are we going to ask people to be mere observers like in a museum? Or are we going to take active roles in helping others experience our cultures in a meaningful and positive way? I would hate to see authentic cultures become commodities we possess like objects.

Personally, I don’t feel your color or ethnicity matters if you wish to create something that’s inspired by another culture. What matters most to me is how you execute it.

Mid-century Tiki and its Contributions

Sven Kirsten’s books do a marvelous job of cataloging Tiki’s history, timeline and contributions. In these books, I’ve discovered that from architecture to wood carvings to artwork, there is no denying some pretty amazing things came from it. In addition, there were plenty of artists who were influenced and inspired by Oceanic art. Eli Hedley, Barney West, Milan Guanko…most of us know their names and their work. Their work adorned places like the Mai-Kai, Aku-Aku, and Trader Vic’s, to name a few. And I’m only scratching the surface here. 

Exotica and Hawaiian music also took center stage during the mid-20th century, with many artists creating sounds using unorthodox instruments and sometimes their own voices to create a truly unique experience outside the mainstream. Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Les Baxter are the ones most Tikiphiles know, but there are SO many others. For me, Exotica was a gateway to learning more about real, authentic Hawaiian music.

And then, there’s the cocktails. Although it was mainly white men who held proprietorship status, the cocktails were the work of their bartenders, who were mostly Filipino. These wonderful concoctions are still celebrated today for their balance, complexity, and taste. These drinks live on, and so now does the legacy of men like Ray Buhen, Mariano Licudine, Tony Ramos, and “Popo” Galsini, who documented these treasured recipes that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry eventually helped re-introduce. 

When I hear some people say Tiki needs to be “cancelled”, it makes me sad, because to me, it feels like a knee-jerk reaction that could have unintended consequences. Does cancelling it mean that revival artists like Bosko or Tiki Diablo can’t carve Tikis anymore or use Polynesian iconography no matter how tastefully done? And if not totally cancelled, what exactly is the goal, then? What is the solution here, and is there one?

Looking Toward the Future

Even without the debate over cultural appreciation, Tiki is currently experiencing a de-evolution of sorts, and we’ve gotten to the point where every bar with palms and monstera leaves is a Tiki bar, and every sculptural vessel you can drink out of gets passed as a Tiki mug. Clown Tiki is easy to get and cheap to buy, which some people love because it gives them the illusion of being a part of the latest fad without really learning anything. And when everything is Tiki just because “it’s fun and whatever you want it to be”, then nothing is truly Tiki anymore.

I love to refer to a certain South Park episode (which you might remember if you’re late Gen Z or an early Millennial) called “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo”. In this episode, the citizens of South Park are up in arms over the elementary school Christmas pageant because it excludes other religions. After each person who complained got their way, the pageant was rendered a meaningless, bland production with weird Philip Glass music that everyone absolutely hated, leading to another fight, with everyone blaming one another because everything was totally ruined.

As an atheist, I find it funny this episode sticks out to me so much, but it outlines my point that political correctness, when taken too far, ends up scrubbing our cultural landscape and rendering us a gray, flavorless society.

All this having been said, here are my most burning questions:

  1. Is it understood that Tiki was never meant to be correct from a historical standpoint?
  2. If yes, why make it “correct”? What purpose will that serve?
  3. Should an authentic culture exclude anyone outside that culture from a stewardship role and/or dialog exchange about it? Why or why not?
  4. If we accept that all Tiki is cultural appropriation and should be gotten rid of, what precedent does that set for other cultural interpretations?
  5. How should others who are inspired by other cultures proceed if it spurs their creativity? Is there a litmus test they are going to be subjected to when that creativity is manifested in some form?
  6. What should Tiki enthusiasts do with their collections and at a larger scale, their love and passion for Tiki as a pop culture?

I’m not opposed to educating people about indigenous Oceanic cultures, their history, and their struggles. In fact, I welcome it. Without these cultures to draw inspiration from, Tiki would have never existed. Frankly, I think some people could use a little history lesson at some of these Tiki events so at the very least they can correctly identify some of the idols whose faces adorn their carvings, mugs, and art. Education also builds empathy, which is important if people are going to be taught to care about anyone or anything other than themselves.

However, I feel it’s still important to demarcate true, authentic Polynesian cultures from the artificial, exaggerated culture that is Tiki. There are various individuals that can speak to this difference VERY effectively, and I think most of us in the Tiki community know who those individuals are.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for giving a shit about this girl’s opinions. All I’ve provided here are my own feelings and perspective as a non-Oceanic POC. We don’t have to agree on how to view Tiki, but we should at least agree to disagree respectfully when those views don’t align.