Abolish the Tiki Bar
At the tiny high school I attended in Honolulu, Hawai’i, it was customary for the graduating class to take a celebratory trip off the island. After much fundraising, my fifteen-student group flew to San Francisco for a week of mainland tourist-ing. On the last night, we visited one of the city’s historic cultural sites: The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. As we shuffled into the sprawling tiki-themed restaurant, we gawked and laughed at the ridiculous renditions of Pacific Islander life — the bamboo plants, thatch-roofed huts, rattan furniture, hanging canoes, and massive, illuminated pool featuring a band floating in a boat playing “tropical” tunes.
Taking us to the Tonga Room was a mysteriously surreal, and perhaps intuitively enlightened, decision on the part of our high school chaperones. That night, they implicitly ingrained in us a potent lesson about the mythologizing of the place where we grew up — one that could only really be learned on the mainland. And for those who, like me, moved to California for college mere months later, it would prove a useful primer for frequent questions about whether all pizza was topped with pineapple in Hawai’i, what it is was like to grow up in a grass shack, and why being born in Hawai’i didn’t make you Hawaiian.
After living in California for several years, I learned that the Bay Area has an unusually high number of tiki bars, and that the Tonga Room is among the most famous. The storied establishment has been located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel since 1945, when the owners hired MGM’s lead set designer to transform the hotel’s existing pool into a centerpiece for a full-blown immersive environment inspired — in a gaudy Western-colonial-male-gaze sort of way — by the South Pacific. Ever since, it’s been a luxurious, paradisiacal escape for businessmen who have a hankering for overpriced Asian fusion cuisine and a too-sweet cocktail but don’t quite have the capacity to make it to Waikiki for the weekend.
Throughout its seventy-year lifetime, the Tonga Room has mostly been adored by fun-loving citizens of the city. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was famously partial to the spot’s Mai Tai recipe, and locals were pleased when television food explorer Anthony Bourdain designated the restaurant “the greatest place in the history of the world” in a 2012 episode of his Travel Channel show. When the bar was slated to close in 2009 as part of a renovation to the hotel necessary to make way for new condos, upset San Franciscans successfully flooded the management with letters and petition signatures pleading that they not destroy such a local gem. Their rhetoric: What kind of bland, unimaginative place would San Francisco become without this mainstay of kitschy opulence that so perfectly encapsulated 1940s Americana? Without the watering hole, a piece of the city would be lost, erased, overwritten by a new, incoming culture, they claimed. What a tragedy that would have been.
Last year, director-turned-winemaker Francis Ford Coppola decided to open a Native American restaurant in Geyserville called Werowocomoco, named after the political capital of the Algonquian tribes. Twitter responded in uproar, and media outlets covered the ensuing debate about cultural appropriation in cuisine. But Coppola’s process included research around indigenous cooking, a vague claim of donating a percentage of profits to Native Americans, and a painted animal skin displayed across the wall of an otherwise typical modern restaurant — no tipis inside of which to eat. While those characteristics don’t validate the idea, they pale in comparison to the crass caricaturing of Polynesian culture that takes place in tiki bars. So why, then, does Werowocomoco get to be part of the conversation about cultural appropriation — of which Bay Area residents are typically well-versed — and not the Tonga Room? Why is it that my personal friends, the kind of progressive people who would condemn the thought of a non-native person opening a Native American restaurant, have no qualms with ordering a Lava Bowl at a tiki bar?
The most common answer relies on the logic that because Tiki Bars don’t feign authenticity, they don’t count as cultural appropriation. In his essay, “The Cultures of Tiki,” anthropology professor Scott Lukas cites tiki guides and interviews with tiki aficionados to conclude that tiki culture is a playful theater of inauthenticity in which the set pieces and performances are cultural samples being remixed into something mythical. Those invested in tiki culture are in it for a kitschy cultural fantasy — an imagined lifestyle associated with Jimmy Buffett and piña coladas garnished with tiny umbrellas. And, as Lukas argues, in the same vein as goth and punk, the tiki aesthetic challenges classist notions of “high” and “low” brow culture by celebrating something traditionally garish and distasteful. “The whole point of tiki, as I heard time and time again in many field observations,” he writes, “is to eschew the serious and the conventional and to delight in the campy and the controversial.”
But such a dismissal of the obvious appropriative roots of tiki culture requires a willful historical amnesia (the kind on which much of American identity is built). Such logic traces tiki bars only back to Don’s Beachcomber — the first ever tiki bar, opened in Los Angeles in 1933 — and glosses over the Polynesian origins of the imagery. That murkiness is key for constructing the tiki style, rendering the entire South Pacific a platter of stereotypes and aesthetic tropes to choose from. It was also perfect for the 1940s, when tiki bars began flourishing all over the country because World War II had incited a frenzied but adamantly shallow fascination with the South Pacific as young American men deployed to the Pacific Theater returned with blurry visions of an exotic paradise.
So, if tiki bars don’t seem to count as cultural appropriation, it’s only because the concept has evolved past the popular understanding of what cultural appropriation looks like. In this after life of authenticity, that which was appropriated has been so wholly and continually devoured, regurgitated, then devoured again, that it appears to take on a character and culture of its own.
In March, a travel writer named Wells Tower wrote a piece for New York Times Magazine entitled “The Hawaii Cure” in which he reluctantly visits the islands for the first time — noting that only the state of American politics in 2017 could cause him enough stress to want to escape to somewhere so relentlessly friendly. Much of the piece is spent mocking the cheesiness of the “Chief’s Luau” he attends and the inauthentic theatrics of the cultural activities available to tourists. With the audacious privilege that only a professional travel writer knows, Tower attempts to situate himself as a kind of post-tourist who is too intellectual for typical enjoyment of nice things.
“The 50th state has always seemed to me a meretricious luxury product whose visitors bring happiness with them in the form of money,” Tower writes. “I am not constitutionally geared for paradise. I am not one for cocktails containing patio equipment, for lazing on talcum-soft sand, eyes gone to pinwheels, grinning madly at the sun.”
But in his apparent attempt to criticize Hawaii’s tourist industry, Tower — who never engages with any real form of Hawaiian culture on his trip — unwittingly draws more attention to ways in which Americans have come to consider such constructions of tourism to be the epitome of the Hawai’i experience. And in doing so, reminds us that such constructions do not merely exist adjacent to actual Hawaiian history, but rather actively work to erase it, replacing violent colonization with illusions of escape and hospitality.
When American tourists arrive on the shores of Hawai’i, what they often expect and experience is not a Hawai’i in all of its historical and cultural richness, but an immersive, theatrical set in which to perform the care-free island fantasy supported by tiki bars, appropriated uses of the word ‘aloha,’ and other constructed notions of paradise present in popular culture. In this real-life extension of fake tiki culture, too, amnesia is crucial. This set has no room for a backstory of illegal overthrow, exploitation, and cultural genocide.
In “‘Hawaiian at Heart’ and Other Fictions,” Lisa Kahaleole Hall relays how such renderings of Hawaiian culture directly undermine Hawaiian sovereignty struggles. “A culture without dignity cannot be conceived of as having sovereign rights, and the repeated marketing of kitsch Hawaiian-ness leads to non-Hawaiian’s misunderstanding and degradation of Hawaiian culture and history,” she writes. “Bombarded with such kitsch along with images of leisure and paradise, non-Hawaiians fail to take Hawaiian sovereignty seriously, and Hawaiian activism remains invisible to the mainstream.”
It’s no coincidence that tiki bars — one of American culture’s most enduring forms of escapism — conveniently erase the South Pacific’s history of colonization and explicitly place the consumer in the role of the explorer. Consider that next time you’re sipping a Mai Tai, sitting in the grand ship that protrudes into the center of the Tonga Room, and the artificial rain begins to pour into the pool, magically leaving the customers completely dry.
Editors’ Note 5/25/2017: This essay has been revised to reflect the following corrections: the first tiki bar, Don’s Beachcomber, opened in 1933, not 1907; and the American musician referenced is Jimmy Buffett not Jimmy Buffet.
First, this article is a little sensationalist and I don’t believe we should abolish the Tiki bar, BUT there are some reasonable points to be absorbed.
Has anyone ever thought about what might constitute responsible Tiki? There are already Tiki bars doing this. There is such a thing as responsible content that leans more into the fantastical and natural imagery and less into the Pacific islands’ cultural imagery.
Bamboo, flowers, shells, sea animals, birds, boats, divers, mermaids, pirates, skulls, fire, barrels, treasure, tropical weather, volcanoes, surfboards, coconuts, etc.
Gods, totems, masks, almost nude dark skinned girls, chiefs, Asian faces, etc.
You can still have Tiki while respecting what makes it potentially insensitive! We can have it both ways!
Tiki culture was built off of Polynesia, not Hawaii. This blog should be abolished for such idiocracy.
Lol this has aged well…
Our last trip to Hawaii ( which will likely be our last) made us sad. If you get away from Waikiki and explore real Hawaii you can’t help but notice how disliked Haoles are by the remaining native Hawaiians. I don’t blame them and think we should give them their beautiful islands back.
Tiki bars are not the problem. The problem is when people don’t care enough to learn about the history of a culture and cannot discern the difference between a campy stereotype and the real deal.
What a sad, sad world – where people assume so much, and do NO research, but feel the need to take to writing about it. I may be late in reading this, and hopefully you’ll see this, because you need some assistance.
The WHOLE ENTIRE world of the Polynesian themes in the United States occurred because of World War II. The returning men wanted places to go that reminded them of their service time in these exotic locations. Places that became retreats from the outside world – without windows, with wonderful drinks with rum, formerly not so popular here. Places with elements that they grew so fond of. It’s not supposed to be some imitation or ‘rip-off’ of someone’s culture. It’s a full appreciation of something that people largely knew nothing of unless they travelled.
In order to be a good writer, one must not only be a good observer, AND do research. Your article was just posted on FB as a erroneous and silly article exemplifying how the uninformed come across. When it comes to all things Tiki – it’s ESSENTIAL to get informed. I’d bet you have never even heard of Thor Heyerdahl. Fortunately – information is only a click away!
Hi Sarah, just wanted to write a quick comment as I can’t believe the level of back lash your article has gotten. I think you make some excellent points and it got me thinking some more about tiki culture. I am a New Zealand European woman, and I have collected a few tiki mugs because I like the aesthetic. However, over time, I’ve started to really dislike them because of the fact that they are drawing on Maori and pacific imagery that has spiritual meaning, and they seem to mix all these cultures together at random. Thanks
The author is a naive millennial. Every culture has been borrowed. There is no one Polynesian or Hawaiian culture. There are hundreds of cultures and languages and islands. Tiki is a mish mash of three diffrent regions that comprise Oceania: Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Identity politics is cancer.
Doubt any of these crybabies will read this while they’re naming examples of European cultures they think were “appropriated” (LOL)
Why is it so hard to understand that one cannot oppress the oppressor? If a person who’s 6’4 and two hundred pounds of mostly muscle punches with all their might, and a person who’s 5’4 and sporting a lot less muscle by comparison punches you will all their might, which do you think is going to be the harder punch?
America and its European descendants = the person who is 6’3. And to my knowledge the vast majority of Chinese restaurants are owned by Chinese or Chinese American people… so why are people even crying about that?
Sorry Italians but if you have a problem with people enjoying Italian sauce, maybe you shouldn’t have made Christopher Columbus. Can’t really say Polynesians were the sole people responsible for pushing reductive “tiki” imagery all over the U.S. in the form of restaurants and festivals.
I really have to wonder how many of you are out there defending actual Polynesian or Pacific Islander or Hawaiian peoples this fiercely? Using that anger to learn about the effects of you and your ancestors’ actions. Sounds to me like you’ll say anything it takes to continue having your fun go unchallenged because you believe you’re above reproach.
And as for the Tiki spots on the actual islands– seems like Polynesian people using the caricatures the western world made of them to their advantage to take money from the people who forced themselves on them through colonialism is actually a hilarious idea. That’s the biggest joke of all and I’m 1000% here for it.
Robert – The linked article basically states that anything from the 1950s is automatically suspect and bad. I’ll leave out the part where they basically say that people who like tiki are basically Nazis.
In that case, where’s the call to tear down the culturally intensive history of mid-century segregated housing? Where’s the rage against mid-century architecture? Where’s the demand to abolish the “international style” buildings, which was cultural colonization and eradicated much of indigenous architecture during the 1950s and 1960s? When will we shut down Americana themed diners, which are inherently poodle-skirted white suburban spaces from that horrible period? How are they not symbols of an era where black women were forced to straighten their natural hair and pass as white, if they hoped to fit in at the soda bar? When does Benihana – Americanized Japanese-ish cuisine created for 1960s white american tastes and entertainment – get shut down? When will we fight the scourge of inauthentic Chinese food in this country? Chinese-American food is insidious on another level, where white America forced an entire cultural cuisine to adapt to white tastes and invent new dishes to serve our norms while also forcing Chinese immigrants to actually cook the bastardized affront to their regional culture for white America as a means to subsistence.
You can find something problematic about just about anything. What’s problematic about tiki is not comparable to what’s problematic with Nazis, the confederacy, or blackface. Some things are irredeemable, but tiki is not in that category. At the core is a utopian vision of the South Pacific that stems from a particular, historically significant moment in US history. It is an irreverent fantasy. A correct critique is that the Polynesian people and cultures are reduced to caricatures. The solution to that is education and using tiki as a gateway to getting people interested in the actual culture in addition to the utopian vision.
Articles like this are one reason why people voted for Trump. Using terms like “cultural genocide” …seriously? Tiki bars are a silly thing people do for fun. They aren’t going to be abolished. Focus your energy on tangible problems that need to be solved.
The following is a good article about the topic:
If you’re trying to defend the tiki bar as harmless entertainment it’s worth a read.
Yeah and when you travel and see an “American Restaraunt” abroad it is rarely anything other than a vague approximation of a stereotype of what “America” is. And living abroad and Asia and Europe as a Texan I am inundated with a bunch of cowboy questions (from Houston, have never even touched a horse or owned a cowboy hat) or asking if I know George Bush (yeah, we all know each other).
“Appropriation” in food and stereotypes is universal and isn’t going to stop. The masses do not care about authentic Polynesia, will never set foot there, and have no interest in being educated in Critical Theory simply because it is the current academic trend.
This article is well written, but seems to have missed its mark by ignoring a lot of actual facts in favor of an emotionally evocative argument. That’s a pretty standard tactic in today’s culture of outrage, but despite its tasty provocation, (people love nothing more than to pick sides on relatively silly issues and fight, fight, fight!) calls to “abolish” mostly innocent things a few people don’t like are getting pretty old. Abolishing local landmarks that have been around for decades because they irritate the sensibilities of some 25 year old would be tragic.
If someone wants to have a reasoned conversation about how erasure of colonialism and tiki culture might dovetail, then by all means do that, but trying to paint cultural exchanges in a melting pot country as inherently evil is ridiculous.
And to the person saying the “youth are coming” for us olds… good luck with that. What has always happened with previous youth cultures is that as they age, they tend to abandon the more extreme views of their youth and in a lot of cases grow more conservative. And I say that as a pushing 50 far lefty. It happens. It gets tiresome screaming and yelling against the more minor non-issues, and almost all people grow up and abandon that to a large degree.
So I wouldn’t be holding my breath for the great youth uprising of 2020, that’s going to sweep all us bitter old people into a dumpster along with our tiki bars. Good luck with that though.
Good article. I suspect it resonates with liberal thinkers who are sensitive to history and have an appreciation of other cultures. I’m sure the salient points of your article fall on deaf ears of Trump-voter types who laughingly dismiss any harm cultural appropriation might cause to those “little brown people” so far away.
Jimmy Buffett is in no way a part of tiki culture, nor has he ever been. In fact, he is routinely avoided by tikiphiles. The soundtrack of tiki culture was established a few decades earlier. If the author wishes to attempt a serious critique of tiki culture, she should at least do some research into what tiki culture is – and is not.
This is a pretty far-fetched article and I have a hard time believing the author really believes her own words. Cultural appropriation (if we are going to assume that’s what tiki culture is) is NOT in and of itself wrong. Everybody DOES to it to some degree and yet that DOES make it ok and to say otherwise is simply not true. I get chuckle out of this “The most common answer relies on the logic that because Tiki Bars don’t feign authenticity, they don’t count as cultural appropriation.” Even if it is cultural appropriation, like I said before that doesn’t in and of itself make it wrong. Most human beings regardless of their own culture borrow aspects of other cultures to some degree. Anyone who’s been to Maui ever eat at the Maui Tacos chain? Would there be an outcry if a black person owned an Irish pub? Or an Asian American from California opened up a British style fish and chips place? I almost thing this whole article is just one big troll post to get reactions (and yes here I am reacting).
Calling out people for cultural appropriation is an example of the type of nagging bullying behavior that has made so many people hate intellectuals and liberal ideas. Because of ridiculous articles like “Abolish the Tiki Bar” we now have Trump for president.
Stop stopping things and start something.
Bah ha ha ha
oh give it up Sarah please!!! You are embarrassing yourself as a gal that grew up in Hawaii with immense “half white” privilege, going to expensive schools …..you are a spoiled brat that has no idea what you are yakking about…just stop !
Tara. The idea of you avoiding all of those things, especially Disneyland, sounds amazing to me. You’re snobbery isn’t wanted or desired.
In response to what you said about the youth coming for us, nah. Just nah, baby. You know in your heart that nothing will change.
Gonna toast a mai tai to you 🙂
Thanks for writing this article.
I’ve been personally conflicted about “tiki.” I’m a regular at the Forbidden Island in Alameda. Love the staff and the drinks are delicious and I love kistch. I do have a collection of mugs, all beautiful in their own right, some idealized depictions of gods whose belief I have no idea about and some that are pop art in a tiki style.
I like this stuff, but I see this kitsch as also something harmful. That said, I think a lot of loyalist to mainland tiki are trying to learn more about a people and culture their fantasy is based from. Trying to find some balance between a fantasy culture, and the real world.
Anywho, I’ve been reading a few articles from critiki.com that scratch the surface of this conflicted interest, but it is from a perspective not too different from mine.
I hope to read a response:
ps. My wife has noticed that a lot of her punk, rockabilly, psychobilly friends have gotten into tiki, the kitsch of it all. Might be something there?
OMG – the amount of WHITE FRAGILITY in these comments is astounding! I kind’ve want to believe these were all written by the same person, but I should simply face up to the fact that white fragility is real!
As defined by Robin DiAngelo: “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
Let’s look at what these folks are defending, shall we?
• tacky, out-moded, Tiki Bars
• Taco Bell
• Las Vegas
• “communal fantasy”
• Terrible movies such as The Godfather or Goodfellas
• The fifties and sixties …a simpler time
• “nostalgia and magic”
• dressing up as a pirate
• mermaids, animatronic birds singing 1940’s Big Band tunes, and anything evocative of the “tropical.”
• The ability “for others to be interested in another’s culture, celebrate it, adopt it, adapt it, have fun with it, and yes, even mock it.”
Get it together people. Have you even thought about why you are bothering to defend these things? As a person of color, and an American, I don’t give a good goddamn if any of these things go away. Give me a dose of reality for once, please!
Face it: The “America” you are defending is actually WHITE America. What you are defending is WHITE SUPREMACY. Why are you asking this author to pretend that Colonialism didn’t happen? Is it too uncomfortable for you? Are you afraid to leave your sheltered life of drinking sugary alcoholic drinks with umbrellas in them and transporting yourself to the 50s and 60s? Do you miss the “whites only” signs that were so prevalent back then?
Guess what. Colonialism happened, and is happening. And no…colonialism isn’t evident in lack of authenticity in Italian-American pizza restaurants because Italians are the colonizers. Do your damn research. Or better yet, simply listen to what one young POC author is telling you instead of getting so defensive.
Have fun living in your “fantasy world” while it lasts… the youth are coming for you.
PS: Also, Ken, SFMOMA doesn’t have any “ancient pieces” – it’s a museum of modern and contemporary art.
Among the rabid repetition of the tiki defenders I’m most interested in this comment, “you’re the reason people voted for Trump.”
Is a bipartisan or cross-community conversation on cultural appropriation possible? Is cultural appropriation the best way to frame conversations about colonial legacies and the role/power of kitsch?
So many good questions we might ask but that will just get folks shouting about spaghetti, pizza, and Taco Bell.
I’m so sick of this.
“Cultural Misappropriation” is a ridiculous concept. The people who think like that are the same who scream for, “no borders no countries”. How in the world do you expect different cultures to mix and not have some “borrowing” going on?
Do you like Hummus? What cultures prepare and eat hummus today? Where did it originally come from? Greeks, Arabs, Israelis and others claim it as their own. Should one be deemed the *real* originator of this delicacy and the others forbidden from selling it?
And who is anyone to say what culture belongs to someone else? I can’t assume your gender but you can assume my culture?
You’re feeling were hurt because someone asked if you ate pineapple on your pizza or lived in a grass hut? My dad was from TN; when he went into the service in the 50s he was asked if he had ever owned shoes or grew up with an out-house. My Canadian buddy is always asked about hockey and poutine.
So what? Stereotypes exist because we *are* different. Some of the unique things about our background (our culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.) are so *very different* from others that they become symbolic of the group to which we belong.
And it’s absolutely A-OK for others to be interested in another’s culture, celebrate it, adopt it, adapt it, have fun with it, and yes, even mock it. Grow up and stop being so thinned skinned.
Don’t be a helpless little person that can only play the victim. Embrace it and use it as an opportunity to share with those that are interested in your culture even more wonderful things about it.
“I think tiki is offensive because I want to be edgy about something..please, anything. Someone please talk to me, even if it’s to tell me i’m wrong.” This is the most pathetic reach i’ve ever heard. This wouldn’t constitute as journalism in a 6’th grade prep course.
One of the dumbest things I’ve ever read.
Haha literally so many of the haters here are dudes named Bob and Dave, mostly white bros vainly trying to protect…what? Damn people don’t you hear yourselves? stop commenting a bunch of hate coz she’s not gonna also do unpaid emotional labor for you. Listen up or be left behind in a cloud of ignorance. Your call.
Let me add this. I’ve been to a few of the “Tiki Oasis” weekenders, which yes, include no end of ersatz Polynesian culture and the drunks who drink to it.
That said, it was there I sat through many a long and informative lecture about island art, history, and its interpretation, by serious scholars on the subject. All of whom initially came to it via the same Tiki lounge “cultural appropriation” the author derides.
Point being, these terrible places often birth tomorrow’s experts on the subject. A subject that should not die. The specious argument that “drunk sorority girls don’t respect it!” isn’t an argument, because *every* culture has its version of the Drunk Sorority Girl.
I would argue that when one culture impersonates and venerates another culture, demonstrably, it tends to benefit both cultures. Argue that if you may, but, if the scholars of either culture work harder to document themselves, then, all cultures win.
Something can’t be as the previous commented described ‘APPRECIATION’ while simultaneously abstract, escapist, fictional…
Think back not too long to the horrific black African figurines once produced, or tribal people as depicted in early cartoons – was the fact that they were made up, not representing a specific tribe enough to make them unoffensive?
While I agree that this piece could have been better fact checked, the point remains that remnants from a less sensitive time such as Tiki need, if not utter abolishment, to be thought about deeply by fans and outsiders, by those whom it represents (even only obtusely) and others.
There IS a lot of bad Tiki crap, Party City goofy cartoony tiki’s, etc. which need to be abolished.
But Tiki done right is NOT Cultural Appropriation, it is CULTURAL APPRECIATION. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Is it really hard for commenters to see how images can be “imaginary” and still fucked up, can still damage Americans’ understandings of other cultures and do harm to the places those cultures come from?
Everyone who thinks they’ve got the author in checkmate by bringing up Taco Bell or General Tso’s chicken, do yourself a real favor and read up on some of the serious conversations happening about how we can love our Americanized fast foods without erasing real Mexican or Chinese culture and without perpetuating stereotypes that suck.
Here’s a place to start: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/27/opinion/sunday/why-is-asian-salad-still-on-the-menu.html?_r=0
Next time write something you know a little bit about.
If we mainlanders have to close all tiki bars, you islanders have to close all your golf courses.
Jimmy Buffett and Pina Coladas don’t represent what it considered Authentic Tiki. Tiki bars that play Jimmy Buffett music and serve Pina Coladas should be burned to the ground.
Sarah. Please, baby. NO ONE has ever thought the artificial Polynesia that characterizes tiki bars was authentic. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows Hawaiians have their own culture which resembles nothing you see in a tiki bar. Every year I sit in awe of the Merrie Monarch Festival online. I watch it till my eyes burn (somewhere around 4 a.m. California time). It’s on my bucket list. When I do attend, I will have fun and show reverence for the authentic culture on display there.
I’m German American. I go to an Oktoberfest celebration in Southern California each year, knowing that authentic Germans don’t run amok in fake lederhosen, throwing up beer on their shoes. But it’s still fun to go. You know that Mickey Mouse at Disneyland is really a person in a suit, right? But it’s still fun to get a photo with him. If you’re offended by rum drinks with little umbrellas, may I suggest getting a different hobby? Like impeaching the fascist in the White House perhaps? You sound like an eloquent writer with a lotta energy and passion. Put your talents into something that actually matters.
Typical, Baby Boomer sentiment! Your generation just can’t stand what your parents liked, even today! You people just want to erase everything your parents built. Tiki is make believe; a fantasy. It is no more offensive than dressing up as a pirate, or decorating your house for Halloween. Your generation tried to kill Tiki before, way back in the 1980s and 90s, with the exact same hippie complaints, but you made one mistake: you forgot to separate the g-generation from generation x and the millennials, and now Tiki is bigger and better than ever. Heck, a new Tiki-themed water park is opening in Universal Florida tomorrow. Tiki is not kitsch, Tiki is cool and it will always be cool. It is the Baby Boomers that are uncool. Here you guys are again, trying to make Tiki unpopular again, with the same arguments and complaints; about it being unauthentic and culturally offensive. Have you guys ever thought that people really don’t care, that they want to escape and have fun. The Boomers have failed. Tiki has won.
The claim that Tiki culture is merely made up, merely picking and choosing, merely escapism, or merely cultural appropriation is far too shallow. I would argue (in fact, I did argue, in the article linked to as my website) that Tiki is not cultural appropriation because it does not have the pretense of representing genuine Polynesian cultures. Rather, it is a reflection of AMERICA’S experience of the South Pacific, which draws from Americans’ encounter with Polynesian cultures AS WELL AS the natural landscape and seascape, nautical romance, and elements of pure fantasy. It isn’t limited to ersatz representations of Polynesian deities and practices, but includes shipwreck and pirate motifs, the “beachcomber” aesthetic, mermaids, animatronic birds singing 1940’s Big Band tunes, and anything evocative of the “tropical.” The author mentions Don the Beachcomber, without contextualizing that the South Seas aesthetic of his original cafe was drawn from the souvenirs of HIS OWN travels throughout the region. These images took hold in the American psyche BECAUSE they were beautiful and interesting and “exotic,” a maligned word for sensations of wonder and curiousity. What is deemed mere insensitive “escapism” is a deep longing for romance (in the full, philosophical sense of the term). As an expression of America’s own cultural experience of the South Pacific, Tiki is not an appropriation of Polynesian culture, but an authentic piece of Americana.
Spot on, Bob!
Sarah, why didn’t your group vacation in Bakersfield, CA. Or, better yet, why didn’t you go to Wyoming…or Arkansas. Perhaps cultural stereotypes would cause you to recoil with uncomfortable hesitation as you consider REALLY stepping out of your comfort zone? Yeah, I thought so.
The Maoirian community of New Zealand plays up…and seems to enjoy promoting the mythology, mystery and wonder of their culture. They also dig the whole tiki trend in the US, Japan and Australia, because the mixed-mythologized pop culture phenomenon (in turn) stimulates interest in learning more about the individual cultures.
The People of the Pacific at Chicago’s Field Museum draws tiki fanatics from all over, because beyond the romanticized escape of tiki bars, the whole scene has also stimulated an anthropological curiosity and a desire to know and learn more about the customs of these individual cultures. Did you ever think about that?
The TIKI craze in the United States (in this same vein) has helped perpetuate a tiki organization that helps work and fight to preserve the ancient Moai on Rapa Nui AND also raise money to send students on Rapa Nui to college, in either Chile or the United States. What have you done to help preserve the ancient culture (and perhaps cradle of Polynesia) of Rapa Nui?
Additionally, if you know your own history, you know that “tiki” (and the origins of this word) is NOT Hawaiian — at all. Perhaps this explains why Maorian culture loves the phenomenon far more than you…because the word is of Maorian origin.
Tiki is not about Hawaii, it is about Polynesia. But, mainlanders’ love for tiki eventually made it back to Hawaii, and has certainly been adopted by Hawaiians to create a local tourist economy…hasn’t it? When have you complained about THAT community in Hawaii (kind hearted, hard working people, many whom are friends), which perpetuates and profits from the cultural mythos of “tiki?”
NO. This is just muckraking. It’s about on par with the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago. Perhaps you are well-intentioned but you’re really over-reaching. And I’m someone who has been to the Iolani Palace and I understand the history involved. There is tragedy there but tiki culture is not to blame. Corporate culture perhaps, thanks to Dole and the blasted missionaries. The tragedy was the suppression of Hawaiian culture not the harmless celebration of it.
The history of every place is marred in tragedy. We seldom take the time to reflect on any of the vast amount of inequity that brought us to our present situation. This is true of those most sensitive to ideas about cultural appropriation as it is to those most oblivious. Unremarkably, we live in the present, and as such our focus tends to be on the present.
Should each culture live in exclusion of the influence of other cultures? Should a person that immigrates to a different culture be prohibited from profiting off their own appropriation of their own culture? Should a Mexican be unable to own a Mexican restaurant which doesn’t discriminate in selling to people of different cultures? Even inside a building or a truck that may not be true to the actual Mexican experience? Should there be an agreement with the clientele that specifies that the client must only love this food within the context of the culture from which it comes, that they may otherwise not attempt to mimic any part of the experience themselves in perpetuity?
And what of nostalgia and magic? Should no one ever experience anything that kindles feelings of magic, nor attempt to recreate that feeling for the enjoyment of others that were not blessed with the same experience? Shall we tear down the Disney castle despite any joy it may bring in the name of cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is a very difficult subject indeed. When the idea is defended that a culture has been stolen and mocked it is hard not to look around and see everything that came from everywhere, to consider the troubled past of virtually every civilization on Earth. Striving for some kind of purity necessarily becomes meaningless for it would be too much trouble to try to disentangle from the deep web of cross cultural upbringing to which we’ve all been subject. In appropriating cultures, new cultures are created? Should those new cultures be destroyed because they left out details that might be bothersome or troublesome? Should we abolish the tiki bar and the joy associated with it? Who would that help?
It’s sad that the actually problems surrounding cultural appropriation get lumped into hot garbage like this.
These bars are iconic landmarks and add to the communities they are in but you want to put them out of business? Because it’s not authenticly portraying the dark history of colonization in the South Pacific. Does Dennys know they should be telling the truth about John Smith and Pochahontas with every turkey dinner skillet they serve? Choose your battles carefully and consider how this ridiculous stretch then makes people scoff at all cultural appropriation, how putting these tiki bars out of business could close down a family run business that’s been in the city for 40+ years opening the spot to condo developers and how the travel and tourism industries employ the people you think you are defending.
I’d like to hear the author chime in after reading some of these comments on her poorly researched article. She just comes off like any other spoiled Millennial brat, with lack of knowledge and experience, and I would like to have her explain/defend some of the points she was trying to make.
I’m sure she won’t though. She got paid for this article, and will shrug off any accountability of her mistakes or inaccuracies.
You are, in fact, an IDIOT. If you don’t like them, don’t go. If you won’t want a fruity delicious drink with an umbrella in it, go someplace else for a cosmo, which is what I’m sure someone like you would drink. You are what is wrong with America. You think it you don’t like something, you need to start some grassroots movement to abolish it. I say it again, you are an IDIOT. And a cry baby one at that. I pity you. I really do. Tiki bars have some of THE MOST kind and genuine people who are regulars. Everyone there is there to have a good time and lay back. Nowhere else will you find that attitude. Completely unpretentious. Maybe that’s it! That’s why you don’t like them. They aren’t pretentious and YOU ARE.
I am not going entertain anything written in this poorly researched and written article.
Can you say “Escapism”
Everyone that is into the Tiki Culture knows the history that it’s a made up.. yes, it’s inspired by Polynesian culture, like rock and roll was inspired by the blues. Tiki Culture was created in southern California. Please research your info before polluting the internet with your stupidity.
Stahp with the oversensitivity.. and looking for problems that aren’t there. It’s embarrassing you. YOU are the reason why people voted for Trump.
First of all, calling for abolishing things that offend you sounds fascist. If you don’t like it, don’t go there. If you feel the need to abolish it so other people can’t experience something so banal as a tiki bar, then you’re contributing to a culture of erasing what you consider to be uncomfortable history. Which is exactly what you’re arguing against.
Secondly, this article completely ignores the existence of Tonga. You know—the sovereign nation the bar is actually named after. Making the case for abolishing The TONGA Room because it doesn’t properly represent the history of Hawaii (an island more than 3k miles from Tonga) is an unbelievably hypocritical form of cultural appropriation.
By not bothering to even mention Tonga, you’re also contributing to that same willful historical amnesia you find so offensive. But I can share a few things about Tonga. The United States defended Tonga during WWII with a massive force of Sailors and Marines. Tongan forces fought bravely with American Marines in the Solomon Islands and helped to capture Guadalcanal, which was a turning point in the Pacific war. And Tonga never surrendered its sovereignty to any foreign power at any point in its history. None of these facts fit the narrative you’re pushing, which is maybe why you never address Tonga even once.
If you want to say that Tiki culture is tacky, or is an inaccurate portrayal of actual Polynesian culture, then ok, sure. If you want to abolish anything having to do with it because you don’t think it respects “Hawaiian sovereignty” enough, then you’re way, way out of line. Going to the Tonga Room, which is beloved by the people here, doesn’t rob anybody of the opportunity to learn more about the history of colonialism. But abolishing an institution that has been here since before Hawaii was even a state would rob us San Franciscans of part of our history.
Let me just finish with this – during the war, Tonga was primarily a staging point for battles waged elsewhere in the Pacific. It was a relatively safe place for our sailors and marines to rest and relax before going into battle. When these men were discharged from the Navy into San Francisco in 1945, they came home to a theme bar named for and modeled after Tonga, a place and a people they had built a bond with. So making this whole thing about “Hawaiin sovereignty” is historically inaccurate and frankly misleading.
When you go to Tonga Hut and complain about rum drinks of Caribbean origin and how much fake Hawaii there is and forget that Tonga is actually not Hawaii.
If Tiki doesn’t divorce itself of the worst forms of “kitsch”, it will be consigned to the dust bin along with fans of the Washington Redskins or even Robt E Lee memorials. Not everything is acceptable. Even in a simple taste category, there is a lot that is awful and should be called awful. Until we, as Tiki fans, embrace the roots of our subculture that go beyond Don the Beachcomber and educate ourselves and others about how we connect to real Polynesian culture, we are doomed.
Tiki enjoys living in a unique place of acceptance because tourism and Tiki have been hand in hand since the 1920s. The earliest moves to teach and continue Polynesian culture were also used to entertain tourists. It has worked for both Polynesians and bar owners. Now we need some separation. Even those hula shows are showing their age. We are evolving and we can’t accept awful tiki junk in Walmart along with everything else.
Some things ARE offensive. As Tiki fans, we need to discern and embrace what isn’t offensive before we become wrapped in that crap everyone hates.
Since it has already been pointed out, Jimmy Buffett and the tiki bars you wrote of have nothing to do with each other, so I won’t harp on that. But what I would like to point out is the author is so lazy , she didn’t even bother to make sure she spelled Buffett’s name correctly. A .0005 second Google search will tell you there are 2 Ts, not 1
Poorly researched and smug tone = boring.
Do you know how to do research and fact check your statements before you make them or do they pay you to talk out of your ass?
This article has renewed my vigor to visit every Tiki Bar on Earth.
I will be sure to laugh at the ridiculousness of this “crusade” as I enjoy my Scorpion Bowl
So, in a nutshell: White people should not appropriate anything from other cultures; tiki culture is a stereotype (I didn’t see that coming); all of this is undermining Hawaiian attempts at sovereignty; and, the author is an expert.
Did I miss anything? I am off to my safe space until the storm is over.
As an Italian American, eating pizza and watching mobster movies (Terrible movies such as The Godfather or Goodfellas) is appropriating my culture. Please refrain from ever doing these things again. Every time you eat pizza at least 10 Italians are murdered. In fact, because you are an imperfect white person, you should be shackled to your bed inside a bubble and never allowed to escape, because you may offend my pure Italian heritage with more culture appropriation.
So you’re writing for an art museum and you’re up in arms against cultural appropriation? Look around the museum, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of appropriation on the display. Does the museum have any ancient pieces? The Romans sure appropriated a lot of Greek culture and (gasp!) even their gods. What about Picasso? Gauguin? Ruscha? Lichtenstein? Shepard Fairey? Plenty of appropriation there. And what do we do when we don’t like an artist’s work? We call for it to be banned! Or, maybe, we just keeping walking through the gallery until we find something else we like better. And if that doesn’t work we leave the building. And go get your drinks at whatever the trendy hipster bar that doesn’t have Tiki in sight.
Don’s Beachcomber opened in 1933; moved & became Don The Beachcomber in 1937. Easily fact-checked.
It seems as though you take yourself way to serious. You are what about 21 years old? How can you understand the tiki scene when you’ve been to a couple of tiki bars? It’s a lifestyle. It’s more than drinking. Its about the fifties and sixties continental US. It’s mid century modern and googie. It’s Exotica and Hawaii and Polynesian music. It’s tropical, its about a different time in history. Clothing and hair styles and types of food. The fifties and sixties were a simpler time it’s a feeling an ambience.
All my friends grew up on Oahu in the Eighties and as children we grew up tiki bars but were taught Hawaiian culture in school. On vacation or working all we do is look for Hawaiian food and Tiki bars to give us a sense of home. Generally because WE locals cannot afford to go home.
My father is Italian, born in France. My mother is Irish, Scottish and English, born in the U.S.
I guess I exist solely as the living essence of cultural appropriation and therefore I should be derided and abolished.
This article might as well have been written by a 3rd grader who can’t separate any two related ideas from each other (and who doesn’t know how to do research, clearly).
It wasn’t until you mentioned Jimmy Buffet and piña coladas that I realised your whole article is a parody. Now I feel like a fool.
All you people that dye your hair blonde are appropriating my German culture and I’m offended. And stop eating sauer kraut too.
NO TIKI DRAMA !!!
I am so grateful to have read such a well-written/articulated piece and look forward to sharing it on Facebook. Thank you for setting such a powerful example in advocating for Pacific Islanders and Hawaiin culture by shedding light into the largely ignored cultural appropriation taking place every day on the mainland, as well as, Hawaiin Islands. You successfully started an important conversation. I definitely agree with one of the other persons who gave feedback in that, your article is doing it’s job! YOU ROCK! 🙂
It bums me out that the author can go into a place like the Tonga Room and amidst that lighthearted atmosphere, find a way to be offended. But some people don’t get Tiki. Some people get paid to write articles about being offended, and if you are paid to be offended, I guess you just find a place where people are having fun and look for a way to sour the milk.
Tiki is about no-place. It’s a communal fantasy.
It began, even before carved wood idols made their appearances at Trader Vic’s and Don’s, as a fringe of the nautical-themed restaurant. All the culturally inert fetish objects had already made their appearance. Blowfish, glass floats, anchors, bamboo, almost everything we associate with the aesthetic today. Wooden carvings from the south pacific made their way quickly into the aesthetic because they are beautiful. Polynesian cultural became part of Tiki because it was appreciated. What is appropriation in this context? Shouldn’t cultures share the best parts of themselves with other cultures? What damage is being done?
What is the “platter of stereotypes”? Bamboo? Palm trees? Rum? There are no ceremonies, no Tiki god worship, no proud nods to a “heritage” we think we’re celebrating. It’s literally people getting drunk with a specific decor.
“…conveniently erase the South Pacific’s history of colonization and explicitly place the consumer in the role of the explorer.” Role of the explorer? Are you serious? Think back to when you thought of that and thought you really had something. It sounded so good you forgot to check if it actually made sense. It’s total horseshit. Again, people just getting drunk. That last quote alone shows this entire piece us based on a false premise.
I am dying to know how our landscape would look without things from other cultures. Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing, but a consequence is that when you introduce people to anything they might like, they will want to adopt it. That’s a good thing. You’re mad because they’re doing it wrong. You’re mad because not everyone is as educated as you (your privilege) to understand the history and correct usage of the things they were introduced to.
Should we aspire to be you? Someone who acknowledges the oppression if Italian Americans every time you have pizza, or even better, you eschew pizza entirely?
Dang, looks like the article stirred up a fair amount of defensiveness. Hmmmm, me thinks thou (readers) dost protest too much.
It seems y’all have helped illustrate the author’s point. It seems not one of you undertook empathizing with the underlying idea. You’re all too busy justifying and dismissing, even denigrating.
I grew up in New Hampshire, but live in Hawaii. Although I’ve lived here for 27 years, I am still young in meeting Hawaii and it’s native culture, much of which I have, and continue to, witness being resurrected before my very eyes. I deeply appreciate the cultural practitioners and those striving to preserve and renew their culture!
In my youth in NH in the 60s and 70s the closest I ever came to native Americans and their culture were Indian head nickles, innumerable place names (Massachusetts, Baboosic Lake, etc) and tourists’ “trading posts” complete with carved wooden Indians and captive trained black bears…much to my chagrin.
Thank you Sarah Burke for your nerve and effort. Maybe we could meet at the Tonga Room some day over a drink. I must confess, it sounds like it’d be fun. I promise though, I would not lose sight of striving to connect with a more genuine cultural context, too…even if I drink the tiki bar’s Kool-Aid, I mean Mai Tai.
“It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s just taking bits and pieces from other cultures, divorcing them from meaning, rearranging them to fit our aesthetic, and remixing them to suit our tastes without consent or consideration of the effect it might have on the people whose cultures it approximates. What next, is Disney’s Pocahontas racist? Sheesh. What a snowflake.”
First let explain who and where I came from, as this person did before me. I grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. I now live on the mainland. I am a “tiki ” collector of mugs, paintings, statues, wall art, menus and books for my bar. It is a fun and social culture. I don’t do it to showcase my up bringing. I do it because it’s fun. Most people look at the Hawaii culture and don’t realize that most of the food, musical instruments, clothing and patterns were brought in from other cultures. Very little of what todays Hawaiian items were originally from the “true” islanders. As for original “god” tikis that were found on many south pacific islands, they were an influence but not the reason why we collect them. Its a hobby like any other
Welp, guess we need to abolish all Chinese restaurants too, right? Because it’s not real Chinese food. Also Thanksgiving, because how we celebrate is totally inauthentic. Also St. Patricks Day, Halloween, Christmas…basically every holiday that we’ve adapted from Europe, and quite frankly, from pagans, if you want to go back that far. Also, Disneyland has gotta go, Taco Bell, Chipolte, Saloons, Speakeasies, all of Las Vegas…
Tiki bar, not 1907…also not Hawaiian…try again
I don’t think you realise that tiki bar culture has evolved into a fantasy world. We know that if we find any such place on a Pacific island, they are catering to this fantasy. All books on the subject trace the evolution of the bar culture, not presenting it as an accurate representation of the actual island cultures.
I’ll also add (and this is the second time I’m reading about overly sensitive cultural appropriation today,) that this is exactly the kind of pointless battle that pushes people away from the left. While the left is squabbling among themselves about tiki bars, the right stands together against women’s rights. People are being attacked and ostracized for being Muslim or gay with the support of millions of hateful Americans and you want to attack the people predominantly on your side who like to drink rum surrounded by bamboo?
Next up on SFMoma’s blog: how Taco Bell conveniently erases the Mexican American War of 1857.
This article is so poorly researched and executed I find it difficult to empathize with the author. Most of the stated facts anchoring her complaints (The Beachcomber didn’t open in 1907) are wrong.
This is a major disappointment. My wife and I are SF MoMA members. If this is the quality of content our membership is supporting, I think we’ll offer our support solely to KQED.
Can not believe her take on tourism and degrading of the Hawaiian cultural and independence movements.
(First let me say I lost count of how many times you used the word “kitsch” in your article.)
It’s truly saddening that someone who has had the unbelievable luxury of growing up in paradise (Hawaii) doesn’t understand how the rest of us (most of whom sloshed through icy snow for a good part of our lives) can enjoy the escapism of a “pretend” tropical paradise, aka, a Tiki establishment. It is, after all, about escapism. In many ways visiting a mid-century Tiki bar/lounge/restaurant is no different than visiting Disney World, or spending two hours watching an action movie. It’s fun, it’s different, and it takes you away from the stress and boredom of everyday life.
That said, I need to point out that some of your statements are not accurate. The first Tiki Bar was not opened in 1907. Don Beach was born in 1907, and opened his first “Tiki” themed bar in 1933. Also, Jimmy Buffet and Piña Coladas (or “overly sweet drinks”) are not considered part of the mid-century Tiki aesthetic. You are comparing apples to coconuts. The music of mid-century Tiki is Exotica, and more recently mid-century style surf rock. The drinks use fresh juices and generally have more rum in a single serving than most people can handle; they are carefully created and well balanced when built correctly.
I feel perhaps a little research into the history and current state of Tiki establishments might help you understand their true nature, and why their popularity has made a fantastic comeback in recent years. You’ll find there is no “cultural appropriation”, only the good old fashioned American standard of learning from and infusing different cultures to make something new. “Tiki”, in this respect, is a 100% American devised and enjoyed culture, exactly the same as Chinese restaurants, football, and pizza joints are here. Tiki doesn’t “make fun of” Hawaii or Polynesian culture. It celebrates it, in a very American way.
I invite you to look past the trendiness of trying to pick out “cultural appropriation” and “obsolete styles” and see The Tonga Room for what it is: A major part of America’s pop culture history, and an escape from the mundane world cookie cutter establishments.
Meh. I wish SFMOMA would publish articles that are actually relevant to some of the real, terrifying issues that are facing marginalized groups at this time in our history.
Sarah, have you ever made spaghetti? Was your sauce authentic? Are you Italian? Have you made Tacos? Were they authentic? Are you Mexican?
Have you eaten at a pizza hut? Was that authentic? Have you eaten at Taco Bell? Was that authentic?
How far do really want to take this?
The two comments above: “Hawaiians use these stereotypes too, so that makes it ok,” and “everybody culturally appropriates, so that makes it ok.” Y’all need to start confronting your own complicity within frameworks of White Supremacy
Pretty stupid and not well thought out. You can’t walk into a tiki bar today and expect it to portray contemporary times in Hawaii. tiki bars were invented by Americans who served in WWII in the Pacific Theatre. Their only good memories were the drinks/tiki huts in the tiny islands in the Pacific (not including Hawaii so much). Plus, the “cultural appropriation” theory or assertion or what have you, is rather irrational. Every culture adopts & appropriates, whether good or bad. Christmas, Halloween, and practically everything we celebrate or honor or live with has been borrowed or “appropriated.” It can be a good thing. Not something we should avoid.
You’ve been to the La Mariana sailing club right?…. in Honolulu!
I’ve been to Hawaii 12 times & all I hear is Aloha from shop attendants! Also I assume you’ve been to the corny Luau at The Hawaiian Hilton Village? It’s not just the mainland, Hawaii itself does it!