The Real and the Fake: Polynesian Culture and How We Perceive It

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.

I can't tell my heart to stop wanting to live in this scene.
I can’t tell my heart to stop wanting to live in this scene.

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.


15 thoughts on “The Real and the Fake: Polynesian Culture and How We Perceive It

  1. Thank you for writing this! I was a little dismayed by the NPR article because I felt it was a very shallow dive into the issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation. That article was lazy. The author went out for drinks once, to one tiki bar, and talked to one bartender, and then wrote some notes on an iPhone and turned it in as an article.

    I fell in love with tiki bars about a decade ago when I stumbled across Hala Kahiki outside of Chicago. I blissfully enjoyed it for years without thinking about how it could be considered exploitative. I never once got the impression that it was trying to be any real place other than Mid-Century Americana. I have been to others that did have components that made me uncomfortable i.e. topless hula girls, “fu manchu” mugs, etc. When someone told me that “tiki bars are racist”, I did a simple google search and came across tens of articles that were more informative and represented multiple views better than the NPR article.

    What I found is that tiki did come from a place of escapism and exploitation. However, after visiting several modern tiki bars I can say most of them, like Lost Lake, make a real effort to stay away from naked girls on their mugs. I think an article from says it best, “That’s the beauty of tiki in Chicago: unlike its Californian forebearers, Chicago is confronted with the oddity of its placement—a healthy reminder that tiki is very much borrowed, something to respect rather than caricature.” Chicago could be anywhere in the US, really.

    Sorry for the long response! I’ll keep muddling with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a beautiful read.
    The beauty came from the humility and open-mindedness.
    Too often articles are written from insecurity veiled in arrogance yelling at you, “I’m an officianado and I’m gong to tell you what is”.
    Anything seen as “cool” will always have its social climbers wanting to be known as “the coolest” like “I’m more tiki than you!”
    Those pollute something the most of us see as beautiful and just want to know more about.
    Thanks for sharing this and I look forward to more!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michelle, are you aware that Eden and Angelo Villagomez are super prominent, active members of the CNMI community? They were not selected at random for the NPR piece. That said, I enjoyed your post very much, and I agree that the original story barely touched the surface.


  4. I turned up the volume when I heard yesterday’s NPR story mention tiki, and then Archipelago, a place I will be next week. All too often we take the world around us too seriously, I know I’ve taken some of the stuff sold as rum too seriously, but that’s another story. Tiki is an escapism wrapped in what was described as Polynesia, Oceania or whatever fancies the writer. The truth, if there is one, is that few of the pioneers of tiki ever ventured that far from the west coast of CA. And those that did didn’t find the rums they ended up pouring in Berkeley or LA.
    Rum was the ingredient of choice because it was the best value spirit those bars could pour, the fact that it came from far away places was a bonus. The fact that the rum being poured came from another hemisphere than the inspiration of the rest of the bar mattered not. To quote my first writing mentor, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
    The silver lining of the NPR story is that it will inspire a few more people to search out a tiki bar and escape the ordinary places they have been drinking. They might even exercise their brains while they try to pronounce one of the faux-inspired drink names on the menu, meet some new people and have a verbal conversation.
    Right now, it’s time for my ti’ punch, but I’ll keep my eye out for you next week in a tiki bar in a far off place where they make drinks I wouldn’t dare try to make at home.


  5. Thanks for writing this: I wouldn’t have heard the NPR piece if not for this post. I agree that it seemed like a casual swipe at the topic, but that’s very frequently true of a piece of this length. They almost always leave people who already care about the topic frustrated, but at least they represent a bit of exposure.

    This is something I’ve thought a lot about during the last year. My first serious exposure to tiki was last December, at Trader Sam’s, where my brother took me on a visit. After that I dove deep, and have made half the drinks in Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app, read his masterpiece _Potions of the Caribbean_, filled multiple shelves with rum, listened to hours of Exotica, and visited a few establishments like Seattle’s Rumba, Tacoma Cabana, and DC’s Archipelago (mentioned in the piece).

    And I have to say that my relationship to tiki is ambivalent, at this point. The idea of tiki as escapism is both tempting and frustrating: what does it mean to have a fantasy tropical island, where life is easy and pleasant, when the reality of those islands all around the globe has been shaped so significantly by colonialism? Those places were *homes* for a lot of people, but treating them as places principally to escape to blots out that reality, using a privilege lots of Westerners have had for generations due to conquest.

    Whenever people defend tiki as being about general ideas like escapism and fun, I bridle. For one, that’s too bland to be interesting. What’s fun? Fun needs to be specific.

    On the other hand, I find artificial fantasies very appealing in lots of contexts: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Swiss Family Robinson, the Mexico restaurant at Epcot… these are pure fantasies about a certain idea that are incredibly appealing. And they sure as hell dance around their share of darkness, too. But for me, we have to embrace exploration and acknowledgement of that darkness, or we risk losing ourselves in things that are either offensive or uninteresting.


  6. I’m trying to figure out how to fit into this new PC world, and this seemed to me to be a very good positioning of a discussion about things like this. I’m not a fan of claiming “you can’t appropriate my culture”, except that when it is an obviously oppressed culture there are accommodations that should be made. I don’t see how Hawaiian culture is oppressed except of course by prior history which tried to wipe it out … just like history has wiped out every culture that has ever existed. No one mourns our wiped out Puritan culture; it progressed to whatever the heck it is now. It seems to me that now adays Hawaiian culture is being honored and revered, not oppressed. Of course no one wants to talk about the very bad things that are involved with every culture (violence, dictatorship, etc), they only look back at the wonderful aspects.


  7. Aloha, I am a Kumu Hula , a Master Teacher of Hawaiian Hula, a native practitioner of kanaka maoli spirituality and custom, and a Hawaiian Sovereignty activist for the re-establishment of a Hawaiian Nation State, i.e. Independence. I will be sharing Hawaiian analysis through the hula at the Pukiki Tiki Bar in Calheta Madeira between May 23rd and May 28th of this year 2018.
    I believe cultural misinterpretations can and have led to exploitation of my people’s intellectual property. It wasn’t the first time that European and American colonization severely diminished and even attempted to displace a native people and their culture and their inherent sovereignty.
    I am the grandson of Madeiran immigrants to the Garden Island of Kaua’i. I now return to the Garden Island of the Atlantic to celebrate my Madeiran roots by communicating through the roots of my mother, the hula, the sacred national dance of my Lahui, my nation, Hawai’i. Mahalo for your words of concern.
    E komo mai e ‘olu’olu … Please join me at the Pukiki Tiki Bar in Calheta … Please check for specific times for this event.
    Kumu Hula Paul Kevin Keali’ikea o Mano Neves
    p.s. I teach in Hilo,Hawai’i, San Francisco, California, Kyoto, Japan and Bejing, China with branches in Austin, Texas, Washington D.C., Denver, Colorado ….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you. I am Kanaka Maoli. I nearly cried reading this. My heart is broken on a daily basis living in Hawaii. Me and my family will die not know what is like for our people to have the right to our own destiny in our homeland. We were born broken and will die broken.


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