The curious case of Tiki racism
“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.
Tiki Culture beckoned, and Tiki Culture was cool.
Over the years I’ve spent some time tiki bars. There were nights after work in Washington D.C.’s now-closed Politiki, popular with congressional staffers because of their $1 Budweiser night.
I don’t remember much of a tiki vibe, being more concerned with not missing the last train home. I remember the sweet rum and citrus fruit cocktail at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda while visiting family. The allure of pure unadulterated kitsch followed me home, and in my kitchen I have more than one tiki mug.
Little did I realize how racist I was.
America’s cultural warriors now have Tiki culture and Polynesian restaurants in their sights. Tiki, per the argument, is a white interpretation of island culture, a gross cultural appropriation that glosses over the struggles of islanders, ignoring the history of militarism and legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific, and rife with sexualization of native women.
Tiki represents the first man akin to Adam in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A tiki mug is the equivalent of black face and Aunt Jemima.
The retort: Tiki is not an actual place or culture, but a fascination with the exotic and enjoyment of a fictitious place; a caricature of something that doesn’t exist.
Most histories put Tiki’s origins in the 1930s when Don The Beachcomber opened in Hollywood, followed by Trader Vic’s in Oakland. California Cocktail escapism with island visuals, borne out of the Great Depression with bamboo, grass skirts, tapa cloth, and of course, the tiki mugs and statues, Māori figurines in every pose imaginable. “Polynesian Food” even has its own entry in Jane and Michael Stern’s classic “Encyclopedia of Bad Taste,” alongside leopard skin print, SPAM and boudoir photography.
Servicemen returning from World War II with visions of tropical sand and palm trees looking for an escape from daily life fueled Tiki’s growth, but the menus have roots as much in the Caribbean as the Pacific. The food tends toward Southern Chinese fare adopted for American tastes. Sweet and sour pork— pineapple chunks are a must. The drinks, especially spiced rum, carry a Caribbean pedigree. Think Jimmy Buffett, not The Ventures.
There are plenty of opportunities to consider racism in agriculture. Take rum and the triangular trade route of the 17th and 18th centuries. New England distilleries would sell their rum to Europe and West Africa, which funded slaving expeditions, and the human cargo toiled on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and Atlantic to produce sugar and molasses for export to New England to make rum, and the cycle continued. Or take modern-day migrant labor and agricultural worker trafficking around the world, especially in seafood and crop production.
For my part, I’ve spent more time in island cafes than in tiki bars, more Micronesian than Polynesian. I prefer to sit on a pier and stare at the horizon. One had a plastic palm tree. Most have had termites and subpar plumbing. Electricity tends to be expensive, so cold is relative, and I never had Cantonese dishes or rum-laden cocktails. Just because something was on the menu didn’t mean you could order it.
Recitations of victimhood can be overbearing. Attempts to erase uncomfortable histories— and there are more and more examples of this throughout the world—are just as dangerous as attempts to glorify it. To their credit, Tiki critics aren’t seeking to cancel the culture, but rather to address the reality of Pacific island life, and in those narratives is enough to make all sides uncomfortable. The conversation is worth having.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.