Tiki / The imaginary Polynesian culture

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tiki statue at the Tonga Room in San Francisco

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere.

The Authentic Fake-Polynesian Experience
The Tonga Room, like any good Tiki bar, is dark and funky, with a nautical feel, fake palm trees, and lots of large carved wooden statues. Unlike most Tiki bars, however, this one has a pool in the middle, with a floating raft that functions as a stage for the band. And every 20 minutes or so, visitors are treated to an authentic artificial Pacific thundershower. Morgen and I sat down, ordered scary-sounding tropical drinks, and loaded up our plates with vaguely Pacific-looking treats—basically a dim sum selection and a number of dishes involving pineapple. There could be no doubt that we were at last having a genuine Tiki experience. But the question still nagged at me…what does Tiki actually mean?

As I learned after some research on the Web, a Tiki is a carved statue representing a Polynesian god. OK, fair enough. But it turns out that “Polynesian” is a fairly broad and ambiguous term, as Polynesia covers a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean—from Easter Island to Hawaii to New Zealand—and the cultures and languages represented are numerous and heterogenous. In some part of Polynesia, apparently, islanders once made and worshipped statues referred to as Tikis. So what does that have to do with a wacky American fad?

In the 1930s, bars and restaurants in southern California began to adopt South Pacific themes, as Americans were just starting to discover Polynesian foods and cultures. In an effort to lend some authenticity to the bars, artifacts from various Pacific islands began to show up, and Tiki statues soon became regular fixtures. Put a Tiki in a bar and, ipso facto, you’ve got a Tiki bar. And what would a theme bar be without special drinks? So bar owners invented strong, fruity drinks with exotic names like “Mai Tai”—often served in Tiki-shaped glasses—even though the drinks themselves had nothing to do with Polynesia. Neither, for the most part, did the food or music that became part of Tiki culture; like the décor, they were composed of bits and pieces from lots of different places, along with a healthy dose of imagination. Ironically, the very effort to make Pacific-themed bars more “authentic” eventually led to the creation of a pseudoculture that didn’t resemble anything in the real world. But that didn’t stop it from taking on a life of its own.

Pros and Kon-Tiki
Tiki culture soon got another boost. According to Polynesian folklore, the earliest inhabitants of the Polynesian islands had come from South America, led by a mythical figure named Kon-Tiki. But it was popularly believed that such a long voyage would have been impossible using the technology available when the first settlers would have arrived. In 1947, a biologist named Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove the feasibility of such a trip. Along with five assistants, he built a balsa log raft (which he also named Kon-Tiki) and drifted 4,300 nautical miles from Callao in Peru to the Raroia atoll in Polynesia. The trip took three months and was quite treacherous, but it proved that it could be done. Heyerdahl’s book about his adventure quickly became a best-seller, reinforcing Tiki mania.

In most parts of the United States, Tiki bars died out before disco. But in keeping with the modern “retro is good” meme, Tiki is experiencing a renaissance. I couldn’t be happier. I missed the Tiki fad the first time around, and of all the imaginary cultures I’ve experienced, Tiki is among my favorites. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Tiki…

This article was featured in in Retro Carnival, Edition 1.

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A terrific overview of the history of Tiki culture by James Teitelbaum can be found in the online introduction to his book Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America. Also see The Book of Tiki by Sven Kirsten, a detailed, heavily illustrated, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of tiki culture. If you’re interested in making Tiki drinks, there are a couple of good books you might consider: Tiki Drinks by Adam Rocke and The Great Tiki Drink Book by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (with Nancy Thomas).

There are plenty of Tiki resources on the Web, for example:

  • The Tiki News Website is a fanzine created by Otto von Stroheim.
  • The Tiki Room features Tiki music, photos, books, and an active discussion forum.
  • Tiki Mon sells hand-carved Tiki totems.
  • Tiki Objects by Bosko carries handmade Tiki poles, masks, bars, mugs, shields, and all sorts of other Tiki paraphernalia.
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Thor Heyerdahl wrote about his adventures in Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, which was also made into a documentary film in 1951.

If you’re ever in San Francisco, be sure to visit the famous Tonga Room on the lower level of the Fairmont Hotel. In fact, San Francisco has no shortage of Tiki bars. There’s also Trader Sams and The Bamboo Hut.

You may also find these ebooks interesting: How to Build Your Own Tiki Bar ($20) or Polynesian Tropical Island Theme Party ($13).

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