The curious fantasy of tiki begins with a young white man not necessarily turning down the American dream, but at least putting it on the back-burner in lieu of something wilder: a dicey dance of cultural appropriation and overproof rum.
In 1926, a 19-year-old American man decided that he didn't want to go to college. You can't hang history on a fulcrum, but the moment Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gant passed up an offer from his oil baron father to attend a university reeks of import. A degree never guaranteed anyone a serious, respectable life, but it is a clearer path to one than a global, island-hopping adventure, especially one that ends in a legal name change to Donn Beach.
That's how the curious fantasy of tiki begins: a young white man not necessarily turning down the American dream, but at least putting it on the back-burner in lieu of something wilder. He returned to the States from jaunts in the Caribbean and the South Pacific years later, carrying with not just a collection of souvenirs but a chimera—an imaginary, idyllic island where the women were beautiful (and scantily clad), the sun was hot, and the rum was freely flowing. That dream would outlive him.
"I would say there was a lot of anthropological fantasy involved," explains Jeff Beachbum Berry, the author of Sippin' Safari and proprietor of New Orleans's Latitude 29. "The notion of the carefree, sensual, pagan islander plucking dinner from the trees and sexing it up with all and sundry was a powerful one in uptight, conservative, conformist Eisenhower-era America. Fear ruled the day—fear of nuclear winter, fear of blacklisting during the Red Scare, fear of missing a payment on your 30-year-old mortgage, fear of not fitting in—and the faux-Polynesian fantasy, coupled with rum drinks, helped you forget all that for awhile."
For decades, the mishmash of borrowed and reimagined Caribbean and Pacific island culture that would eventually become known as tiki spread, from a single establishment in Los Angeles known as Don the Beachcomber to many bars. The American zeitgeist leaned harder towards exotica in general, especially after World War II.
'Everything in our culture was, and is, almost entirely shaped by white guys, and the idealized version of Polynesia that flourished in mid-century America was no exception.'
In her seminar "Tiki: A Story for Bartenders," Polynesian pop culture expert Humuhumu Trott points out that Beach was part of a larger fixation with island culture at the time. Martin Deny's "Quiet Village" was a hit record, featuring birdcalls and a foxy Sandy Warner languidly posed outside a bamboo hut on its cover. Hollywood embraced the beach movie and its own Pacific love affair, while its stars drank in the bars born from Beach's imagination.
Eventually the trends faded, but the bars soldiered on. For a time you could still drink order a Mai Tai in many cities in America, often at a Trader Vic's or another rival inspired by Beach's fantasy. The drink would frequently come in a ceramic mug with an exotic affect, often inspired by the sincere religious Polynesian art form that would lend the entire enterprise one of its names: tiki.
"Everything in our culture was, and is, almost entirely shaped by white guys, and the idealized version of Polynesia that flourished in mid-century America was no exception," Trott says. "It had more outside cultural influence than much of what was popular in the day, but the powerful voices, as ever, were owned by white men. A notable exception: Sunny Sund, the businesswoman behind the Don the Beachcomber chain. White, but a woman. There were great contributions from Filipino and Chinese men, particularly when it came to the bartending, cuisine and tiki carving (Ray Buhen, Mariano Licudine, Andres Bumatay, Milan Guanko were not widely known during their day but thankfully today are held in high regard for their contributions), but the men who were paying the bills and deciding what Americans wanted were white guys; often men who did at least have first-person experience in Oceania, but not always."
Those white guys weren't all known historically for their sensitive interactions with other cultures. The dream slipped further away into the years of the Vietnam War, when, as Trott puts it, "palm trees didn't remind us of innocence anymore." The meticulous mixed drinks degraded in quality, surviving in name only on paper placemats. Some of the ceramic mugs survived, but not all that lasted were innocent. Today you can still find Fu Manchu and Headhunter tiki mugs easily online. Sometimes you still find them in bars.
Donn Beach passed away in 1989. When he died, he didn't know people like Beachbum Berry would work to resurrect the dream that could have died with him, breaking the codes of secret recipes kept in old notebooks. He didn't know that more than a decade later bartenders like New York's Brian Miller would work to restore the drinks to their place among the classics.
"Is Donn's dream surviving? Absolutely. Did it ever really go away? Who among us has never dreamed of running off to the islands? When I hear the word 'vacation,' that's the first thing I think of," Miller says. "I'm not sure I would call tiki mythic. Paradise is real. Its all in the eye of the beholder. It means many things to many different people. It can be drinking piña coladas in a hammock on an island anywhere in the world. Or it can also be eating pizza with your niece watching Star Wars. Paradise is a place you travel to that wholeheartedly makes you feel happy."
Not just the drinks needed restoring. The image of tiki is being resuscitated from the often tacky places it had been slumming. While the tiki renaissance hits its stride, every new bar that draws from a fantasy born 80 years ago needs to make decisions about how to carry that into the 21st century.
"One pitfall in visual presentation, drink garnish and bar decor both, is to avoid offending Pacific Islanders with cartoonish versions of their cultural iconography," says Berry. "Back in the mid-20th century, Polynesian art and culture was co-opted and commodified by tiki restaurateurs without consequence, but today, quite rightly, we must be sensitive to proper artistic representation. If you're gonna have tikis in your bar, make sure they're not corrupted ones."
While many people might consider Lost Lake in Chicago one of the world's most exciting new tiki bars, there aren't many drinks served in familiar tiki mugs there. Instead the bar often serves drinks in mugs designed around tropical flora and fauna.
'If you're gonna have tikis in your bar, make sure they're not corrupted ones.'
"We're sensitive to the origins of tiki, and how it was a concept developed 80 years ago during a time when 'cultural appropriation' was not a mainstream concern in America. Some of the early tiki bars presented artifacts of Polynesian cultures outside of their sacred context and meaning, and without respect to the significance those items held in Polynesian culture," proprietor Paul McGee explains. "We do have some mugs with 'tiki' illustrations, but there are other mugs on the market that we don't feel comfortable using in service. For example, the Fu Manchu mug, and any hula girl or 'native babe' mugs."
There are a lot of things to be attracted to in Beach's dream today. Certainly the fantasy of snubbing college for island adventure still works, even at a time when actually following suit is easier than ever. He boasts the unusual distinction of having created a fantasy single-handedly and having lived to see it evolve and expand independently. He's inspired and been imitated in the bar world the way men like Tolkien and Lovecraft have in their respective genres, and just as geekily. None of them were men of our time or worldview, and it is impossible to separate their work completely from its context.
The bartenders, enthusiasts and historians who carry on his tradition have a lot to think about. Sometimes paradise is hard work.