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CULTURAL QUIRK
It's Tiki time again; retro Polynesian pop culture is alive and well...
posted by Richard Green on 07/04/2017

Cocktails phalanxed with fruit and foliage - Tiki Tuesdays at the Radio Bar, Miami Beach. Photo Radio Bar

What is it? Starting in the 1930's and reaching dizzy hula heights in the 1950's and 1960's, Tiki culture spread faux exotic venues across America. And though it almost petered out, Tiki's medley of South Pacific motifs is back in fashion - cue grass skirts, A-framed thatched roofs, paper parasols in cocktails and a hibiscus blossom behind the barman's ear.

Where did it come from?  Ever since Captain James Cook sailed through the South Pacific Islands in the 18th century, sailors returned from the region with tales of beautiful islands where locals were alluring and the lifestyle sublime. American servicemen in the Second World War Pacific theatre brought more tales of island culture back with them, and pretty soon grass skirts, wood carved heads and cocktails brimming with paraphernalia were all the rage.

These days we can choose how ironic to be about Tiki, because many of us have actually been to Hawaii, and even beyond, and who hasn't been exposed to a wiff of South Sea popular culture in the air - from Magnum P.I., Hawaii Five-O, Castaway, and even the Surivor series.

Yet back in 1941 only 32,000 tourists reached the Hawaiin Islands, which was unimaginably remote to the average mainlander. That remoteness changed abruptly with the Attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to huge numbers of American servicemen fanning out to fight from their bases on Hawaii.

The islands didn't become the fiftieth US state until 1953 and by the time I fist holidayed there twenty years later, tourist numbers had soared to 2.7 million per year.

I remember the indescribable thrill of being presented with a lei of hibiscus flowers around my neck once through arrivals. I'd imagined that this was standard practise in the South Seas, until I got a bit older and I realised that it was paid for (included in the package holiday price, but arranged by the tour operator).

Now some nine million people visit Hawaii annually, and the tradition of a lei greeting is continued - for those that want it - by companies like Lei Greeting, who offer 'true Hawaiian hospitality' and a 'warm aloha' across four islands; from the 'Classic Orchid Lei ($28.80pp), through to the 'Fragrant Double Tuberose Lei' ($54.45), to the Ohana four lei special for $103.66.

Tiki Icons

Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room: I lived in Los Angeles for three years in the early 70s and well remember semi-regular visits to Disneyland, most often for friend's birthday's. The attractions that caught my imagination most powerfully were Pirates of the Caribbean and the Enchanted Tiki Room.

"All the birds sing words and the flowers bloom" in Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo Flickr/Sam Howzit

It's hard to believe that it was the original 1967 boat ride adventure that spawned the multi million dollar film franchise, rather than the other way round, but it's true. We can count ourselves lucky that the Tiki Room was overlooked for its filmic potential, but the original squalking extravaganza is still there, though now the experience is joined by similar ones in Walt Disney World, Florida; and Tokyo Disneyland.

Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963. Photo Flickr/Tom Simpson

As a five year old I may have thought that the singing parrots were real. In fact they were an impressive and the first attraction anywhere to feature Audio-Anamatronic technology. The quartet of Macaws were and are hilariously stereotypical - Jose is Mexican, Michael's Irish, Pierre French, and Fritz German. But in a world convulsed by hatred, that level of cultural clumsiness seems charmingly harmless.     

Trader Vic's was partly responsible for the whole Tiki phenomenon. It is a restaurant business that was started in 1934 by Victor Jules Bergeron, who ten years later gave the world the Mai Tai cocktail too - a claim disputed by rival 'Don the Beachcomber', but more of that in a moment.

The concept of stuffing his restaurants with Polynesian paraphernalia and serving exotic cocktails was an instant success, and the resulting expansion was one of the first examples of the 'themed chain'.

The trademark Tiki A-frame of the Trader Vic's Vancouver, c1961

The fad purveyed Polynesian escapism to millions before it all felt too kitsch for comfort, and restaurants began to close. But Trader Vi's has stayed the course, and today it has resurrected itself with 18 restaurants worldwide. Though the locations are as bizarre as the Tiki concept itself - the conceit of being transported to the South Seas by a few wood carvings on the walls and half a pineapple in your drink.

Amazingly, London is the oldest one in its original location - it opened in 1963 in the Park Lane Hilton. Others include include Atlanta, Bangkok, Mumbai, Munich, and Tokyo, plus a smattering across the parched Middle East, in Al Ain, Amman, Abu Dubai, Doha, Manama, Muscat and Riyadh.

And there has to be an ocean of irony in having a Trader Vic's restaurant in Mahe in the Seychelles of all places. Yet I pulled up its website and the first picture was an advert for 'Menehune Month'. The Menehunes are a forest dwelling dwarf people in Hawaiian mythology apparently, and this was to celebrate the restaurant's first anniversary in the Seychelles with - wait for it - a Hawaiian Inspired Menu and a Cuban Band.

Resolutely unswayed, the company strapline remains the deliriously optimistic - 'Join us in Paradise'. Find out more at Trader Vic's

Perhaps even more incongruous is the The Sip N Dip Bar - which is an historic Tiki Bar in Great Falls, Montana that opened in 1962. There's the usual bamboo on the ceiling and nauticalia in the decor, but the back wall of the bar is a below-the-water-level window into a swimming pool where perhaps even as you read this, 'mermaids' (and the odd 'merman') entertain guests with gently suggestive sub aquatic gymnastics.  

The Sip 'N Dip in Great Falls, Montana - not your ordinary dive bar. Photo O'Haire Motel

Find out more at the O'Haire Motor Inn

London's Tiki Bars: a famous example of the fashion in the UK was the Beachcomber Bar opened in 1960 in the basement of the Mayfair Hotel. A Pathe film of the time shows tiki carvings, a live band with hula dancing, and pond with real crocodiles in it. Flamboyantly served cocktails such as the Kahlua Kiss or a Missionary's Downfall were served, and whole suckling pigs brought to the table with "your own personal unused chopsticks to take home and practise with".

The fame of London's Beachcomber spawned wannabe's of the same name, including several across the Butlin's holiday camp chain, and another at the Shanklin Hotel on the Isle of Wight.

A postcard showing the Butlins Beachcomber Bar in Skegness, where patrons made do with halves of bitter

And who would have guessed, but London's Tiki scene is alive and well and surprisingly vibrant. Bars include the Kona Kai in Fulham, Trailer Happiness in Notting Hill, The Sugar Cane in Clapham, Kanaloa Club in the City, and London South Pacific in Kennington. The Mahiki London is an upmarket nightclub where Usain Bolt - no less - partied till the early hours in 2014.

The Two Floors Bar, London. This is the saddest Tiki bar I've ever seen. It's downstairs below a bland, though harmless enough drinking place. But instead of decor that makes you smile, staff that chivvy along the atmosphere and cocktails true to Tiki tradition, I found a sweltering and drab armpit of a Tiki Bar. 

Workmanlike glasses, tired Tiki tat, and apalling drinks and service at Two Floors. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Yes there is bamboo on the walls and a few fishing nets strewn from the ceiling, but the space lacks love and execution. The staff were extremely surley and served cocktails in glasses that you might find in a school canteen - i.e. no Tiki mugs, no straw, parasol, plastic monkey, or even ice and a slice. It was the worst West End cocktail I can remember and I had left before it was finished. Two Floors, 3 Kingly St, Carnaby, London W1B 5PD

Tiki time in Moscow

Yes even Moscow has its Tiki Bar, about a 15 minute walk west of the Duma (parliament) and Red Square. It has all the paraphernalia that you might expect - from sawn off rowing boats holding Bacardi bottles and ceramic mugs behind the bar, to a floor-to-ceiling Tiki statue and surfboards pinned to the wall.

Authentic Tiki trappings, Moscow style. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It was a tad quiet when I visited for a Mai Tai, where some of the world's palest Tiki staff were doing their best to recreate a South Sea vibe in the Russian capital. The nautical decor included the usual coils of rope and fishing nets, but in addition here is a rather random steel ferryboat that takes up one entire wall of the large bar.  

My Mai Tai set me back 490 Roubles and came in an orange tiki face pot with an orange slice and cherry on top, and (not always the default service mode in Moscow) a smile. 

The Russian ferry boat grafted to a wall houses another bar and extra seating. Photo Tiki Bar Moscow

And in case you've an urge to remodel your living room into Luau central, then the chaps at Cheeky Tiki will sell you everything from a pink ukulele mug (the four strings convert to straws) to the whole grandly designed fandango, complete with bamboo bar, lobster pots and Tiki totems. 

One more thing...The Tiki Dalek conversion is the creation of Kevin Roche, who describes himself as a 'spintronics Researcher, reader, costumer, singer, musician, science fiction fan, and conrunner'. His delightful re-interpretation of Dr Who's nemesis - in a grass skirt with coconut shells, bamboo, plastic hibiscus and a cocktail to hand - has toured widely, including to London's World Science Convention. Some wag suggested the famous metallic death cry of 'exterminate' be replaced by 'inebriate, inebriate...'

Tiki Dalek in holiday garb, on tour at the WorldCon in Reno, Nevada. Photo Flickr/Cory Doctorow

 


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  • "The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth"
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet and aviator