The curious case of Tiki racism

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

“Tiki: [Māori] A large wooden or small ornamental greenstone image of an ancestor or any human figure.” --Oxford English Dictionary

One day when I was 12 or so growing up in Columbus, Ohio, my family was out of town, save for my father, which meant I had to spend the day running errands with him, an onerous task for any 12-year-old.

As afternoon turned to evening and the sun began to set, he suggested we go out to dinner and pulled into the parking lot of the now-demolished Kahiki Supper Club, the preeminent Polynesian restaurant in America’s Midwest.

Shaped as a Māori fighting boat, flaming Moai idols guarded the massive wooden front door of the Kahiki, whose very name implies faraway travel. It was dark inside the windowless restaurant, from the jungle cave to the thatch-roofed Outrigger Bar (of course), the darkness broken by tabletop lamps leading to the fiery centerpiece: A 22-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the form of a Tiki god.

I was too young to sound the gong to summon the Mystery Girl, who would bring forth a cocktail for four (rum, tequila and orange juice). I don’t remember much about the meal, whether I was served by a coconut-bikini-clad waitress or even if my beverage had fog rising off it.