A piece from NPR asking if tiki bars are “harmless fun or exploitation” started making the rounds yesterday—it’s good timing, as I’ve had an article brewing in my head for a while now and was hoping to get a chance to write it down. Today is the day!
Warning: I know escapism is a big part of what many of you enjoy about Tiki. This article is the opposite. This is taking a moment to wake up from the dream state and take a harder look at reality. I’m not looking to take your escapism away: I love this stuff as much as you do. But if you’re game for taking a bit of time to open your heart to what’s underneath, I think we’ll all be better for it. If you’re not game, then that’s totally okay, you can exit here.
In the NPR piece, the journalist meets up with a couple from the island of Saipan at Archipelago, a new tiki-lite bar in Washington, D.C. The piece… it’s a little weird. I like that people are discussing the questions of how American Polynesian pop culture connects and relates to authentic Oceanic cultures. But this piece feels a bit like a too-quick, cheap swipe at the questions, and winds up being a bizarre combo of filler fluff piece and white guilt. (Do not even get me started on the “Don the Beachcomber is still operating” falsehood. But I digress.)
I’m particularly uncomfortable with the way the journalist seems to have brought this couple from Saipan in to be used as litmus paper. Listening to the perspectives of people from Oceania: yes, absolutely, please, let’s. But this felt like a strained command performance for the benefit of the journalist, rather than a thoughtful invitation for marginalized people to voice a considered opinion. Again, I think these discussions are worth having, I just would have liked to see more thought go into it.
I’m not into the idea of polling Pacific Islanders to ask what’s okay and what isn’t. You can’t ask a few people to represent and speak for millions of humans, who surely will have a wide range of perceptions and reactions. And it’s not their job to make this okay for us. But it is our job, as decent people, to be thoughtful and considerate of others.
My love for Tiki is not where my love for things Polynesian began.
I lived in Hawaii for a short time as a young child. Later, as a young adult, I had questions about the history of Hawai’i: specifically, I wanted to understand what life had been like for the native Hawaiians, and how their lives had changed with the influx of outside cultures. It’s not a pretty story. The explorers, the missionaries, the plantation owners, the U.S. government, all took their turns stomping on Hawai’i for their own purposes.
I read about the suppression of Hawaiian culture by the missionaries. I was particularly fascinated and moved by the tradition of hānai, which gets translated as “adoption” but it’s not, exactly. It was key to cementing connections between families. The self-appointed invading religious leaders told them that hānai was bad and wrong, and this important part of their social fabric was partially lost.
Do you know how the United States came to own Hawai’i? It was stolen by the United States government, via a quiet invasion by American marine military forces, because plantation owners had friends in high places. This is not a wacky conspiracy theory, this is not exaggeration, this is what went down.
Today, we love our Dole Whip—but read up on Sanford Ballard Dole and James Dole and see if maybe the rose tint falls away a bit. But are you going to stop loving Dole Whip? Are you going to boycott Dole products, 150 years after the fact? No, of course not. Knowing and condemning the history does not completely preclude our enjoyment of the products of it, because we are human, we are intelligent, and we are capable of nuance. We are complicated, we are uncomplicated.
Here’s the thing: my deep dive into history, into learning the cultural and political history of native Hawaiians, it taught me a lot. But I wasn’t yet seeing Hawai’i clearly—that only came later, with my love of Tiki. I learned what was fake by diving into the fake, not merely by diving into the real. It was by digging into my fascination with mainland Polynesian restaurants that I started to understand how my perceptions of Polynesian dance, music, cuisine, and art had been shaped by decidedly non-native people.
Heyerdahl, Michener, Wheeler, Presley, Owens, Matson, Dole, Beach, Bergeron: these are some of the names of the people who were responsible for telling midcentury America what Hawai’i, Polynesia, Oceania was all about. These are the names of white men, not of Polynesians. I don’t want to retroactively stifle the voices of Polynesians who were there (Kahanamoku!), but they were the exception, not the rule, and even their voices were chosen and filtered through the white men who called the shots. That’s just the way our world operated for a very long time, and still largely does.
Sometimes the only way out is through. If I were to shun the history of tiki bars in America, if I were to completely discard the cultural contributions of people who were lifting ideas and imagery from marginalized people, I would be trading one ignorance for another. I’m really not into that.
What’s more, I simply don’t see how I could possibly deny the value, the beauty, the incredible artistry, I see in midcentury American Polynesian pop culture.
We live where we live. And in this world, Hawai’i left the control of its native occupants a long time ago. Hawai’i is a melding of the cultures of Hawai’i, Portugal, the Philippines, Japan, China, America and a cavalcade of other places. Starting especially in the ’70s and through to today, native Hawaiians have been speaking up for their culture, and demanding its respect and preservation, something I support. What does it mean for something to be “Hawaiian” now?
Now may be a good time to call a spade a spade: I am a white, atheist American woman who has a fake tiki bar in her basement. In the past, I’ve also had a bathroom dedicated to glow-in-the-dark mockeries of Christian imagery. Cultural respect, it may not be my strong suit. Maybe don’t look to me for answers. Definitely don’t look to me to rubber stamp your ideas of what’s acceptable.
As much as I love Tiki, there are expressions of it that make me cringe from a cultural sensitivity point of view. Personally, I tend to be particularly uncomfortable with sexualized distortions of hula. I also tend to cast a bit of side-eye at particularly cartoony takes on tiki carvings. But I’ve no doubt that my friends who embrace and engage in these very things have their own moments of cringing at the Tiki aspects that I embrace. We’re kinda the blind leading the blind here, stumbling through some tough terrain.
Ditching the world of Tiki to pursue a more “authentic” Polynesia isn’t straightforward, thanks to a few centuries of cultural damage. It doesn’t take much reading into criticism of the Polynesian Cultural Center on O’ahu to understand that much of it is still coming through a colonial lens. But I do think it’s important to do the mental homework necessary to understand that with Tiki we amplify an idealized view of Polynesia, while the life and post-contact history of actual Polynesians is anything but ideal.
Again: I believe we are capable of nuance. Does anyone believe that New Orleans Square at Disneyland is a faithful representation of a trip to the real New Orleans? Does anyone believe that a full-on tiki bar is a faithful representation of Oceania?
Speaking of Disney, Disney is fascinating to watch these days. The kings of cartoon stereotypes have recently taken a whole new tack when it comes to Polynesian culture. It’s not an oversight that Aulani, Disney’s resort on O’ahu, has no tiki bar. Disney has made an unusual effort to be more true to the cultures of Oceania both at Aulani, and in their upcoming film Moana. It will be interesting to see how Disney winds up having this co-exist with the fantastical approach at the Enchanted Tiki Room and the tiki bars found at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Back now to Polynesian pop: what happens when a “tiki” bar isn’t so obvious in its creation of an alternate universe? Maybe the bar’s owners understand where Tiki comes from, but do the crew on the front lines? Further, what does it mean when a bar has been labeled a “tiki bar,” but is shying away from both historic Polynesian pop culture and authentic Polynesian culture? These are the people who are the faces of Tiki for bar patrons out in the world, they are the keepers of the stories, and the sharers of factoids, true or false.
This has been a big driver for me to do my “Tiki: A Story for Bartenders” talks. I touch on a lot of these sometimes-uncomfortable historical issues, because I think it’s important for the people who are introducing Tiki to new audiences to have a more all-encompassing view of the players and events that shaped what they think of as “Polynesian.” I can only cover these thoughts briefly—there’s a lot of Tiki history—but I hope to get them thinking about where Polynesian pop culture came from, what it was, what it is, what it is not, what it can be. And maybe, just maybe, figure out that the word they want to use to describe the vibe they’re creating isn’t “tiki” after all.
Whew. Okay. That was a lot, and I rambled a bit. Thank you for reading. Obviously, this is something I think about a lot, and enjoy hashing out. Please keep in mind, this is just one flawed, misguided woman’s perspective. Yours is different, everyone’s is different. We’re all muddling through together.