Rattan, the Mai Tai, and Blue Hawaii: A History in “Exotic” Escapism

Source: Tiki Central.

Polynesian pop and Tiki culture have always been about escapism….

The trend got its beginnings in the 20s, though social and artistic obsessions with tropical climes have existed for as long as Europeans and Americans have been around to “discover” them. Escapism, however, is not a uniquely “Western” obsession; most everyone finds joy in a culture not their own, since they don’t have to live it every day. And that’s why people like to be tourists, as well as “pretend” to be locals for a time–which is still tourism, because the stay doesn’t last. So visitors buy contrived souvenirs, dress like cowboys or Harajuku girls, ride in rickshaws or double-decker buses, and take pictures, to live it all over again. But this particular history of an escapist culture is more than an exploration of kitschy shirts and fruity drinks, because it’s not about escaping a 9 to 5.

Popular among the affluent in the 1920s, Tiki decor adorned many of the decade’s popular night clubs. But Tiki culture didn’t really get its start until the Great Depression; as often happens during tough times, alcohol and entertainment sold well when nothing sold. Californians down on their luck in the early 30s turned to “Don the Beachcomber” or “Trader Vic” to lift their spirits. After all, they couldn’t afford travel to escape the reality of their daily lives, so the next best thing was to commiserate over a Mai Tai and whatever “exotic” food these places served–often Chinese dishes.

Don’s original “Beachcomber Cafe.” Source: Martin Turnbull
The legend himself outside his cafe in a Polynesian pop-style peacock chair. Copyright AP. From Elle France’s piece on the Musée du Quai Branly’s (a museum I visited that’s questionably dedicated to “indigenous” art) exhibit on “Tiki Pop.”

Many of those Tiki-themed nightclubs of the 20s didn’t outright call themselves “Tiki,” nor did they serve Tiki drinks, which practically define the true Tiki experience. Don, previously a Prohibition-era bootlegger, set up his “Beachcomber” cafe in Hollywood after years of more or less squandering his rum-running inheritance. He had island-hopped before it became a “thing,” collecting many artifacts along the way. This collection turned into the decoration for his place, filling it with rattan, bamboo, and wood-carved statuettes. And the drinks? Rum-based inventions, using the best Caribbean rum he’d come across from his days of travel and bootleg-boating with his grandfather.

A collection of Tiki cocktails, part of the display at the Musée du Quai Branly exhibit. Copyright D.R. Source: Elle France.
Don mixing a rum cocktail at the original Beachcomber location in Hollywood. Source: Hawaii Beachcomber.

So “Don the Beachcomber” and its Tiki culture spread, with California competitor Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr.’s “Trader Vic’s” growing alongside it. Popularity ebbed as the American economy recovered (largely due to the armament industry’s rising international demand in the late 30s). But hard times came again with the advent of World War II, and with them followed an escape back into Tiki. Hawaii was a factor in all of this; perhaps some perceived need to protect the island chain’s rich history, as well as its shores, arose in 1941 in the wake of that fateful December attack. And so Tiki took on Hawaiian-isms, too.

A “luau” at Don’s in Waikiki. Photo by Billy Howell. Source: Tiki Central.
The idealized 50s couple out for dinner and drinks at Trader Vic’s. Source: Restaurant-ing Through History.

It wasn’t all about Hawaii’s burgeoning American identity. It was about other South Pacific islands, as well. Many a soldier found himself on an island abroad at some point after 1941. War creates a lot of bad memories, and, in turn, good memories and some seemingly unremarkable ones become uniquely powerful. So time spent on isles that became second home during the war became exotic and new again with Tiki and with victory. Over cocktails like Zombies and Hurricanes, previous soldiers could trade in their uniforms for Hawaiian shirts and reminisce about “good” times (now remembered as great) and forget about the bad ones. In their memories, every drink was like this one, every wartime leave to Hawaii was spent with Wahini, and wasn’t war great?

WWII bomber nose art referring to Don the Beachcomber’s famous “Zombie” drink with a limit of two per customer. A copycat version of the drink was served at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Source: MacArthur Memorial
Some down time at a Rattan table while on deployment. Source: Tiki Central.

So Tiki functioned, more or less, as a remedy for a post-war identity crisis. It was familiar and exotic, all at the same time. But the 50s and 60s faded into the 70s, and it became too familiar. The same men, or their sons, or both, found themselves in the midst of an unpopular war–certainly not the same war of days gone by when they were victors.

A graphic photo of burning bodies in My Lai in front of a house set ablaze. It’s fully evident here why thatched roof Tiki bars didn’t have the positive connotations of before. Source: Library of Congress My Lai Investigation. Photo by Ronald Haeberle.
Viet Cong  Massacre
At Đắk Sơn in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong set fire to the homes of the locals, known as “Montagnards.” The real people, places, and objects exoticized in Tiki suffered at the hands of both American and Vietnamese combatants. Copyright Associated Press.

Tiki culture had incorporated bits and pieces from so many South Pacific and Southeast Asian societies that it seemed too much like Vietnam, even though it didn’t resemble Vietnam, at all. Tiki died because it was no longer an escape; it vividly reminded soldiers and civilians of Vietnam, or perhaps it made them feel guilty–like escaping was wrong. The garish colors, exoticized women, and Maori-inspired mugs couldn’t survive alongside Mỹ Lai and Đắk Sơn.

Vintage postcard of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Source: Disney Vacation Kingdom.
Don once again in a peacock chair–a Tiki furniture favorite. Source: Angel’s Envy.

Tiki experienced somewhat of a revival in the 90s, a good number of years removed from Vietnam, and again contemporaneously with a growing interest in mixology. During the in-between years, Don the Beachcomber cafes closed up shop across the country and Trader Vic’s diminished. Nowadays, some vestiges of Tiki’s glory days remain; there’s the occasional A-frame house, the ubiquitous wicker peacock chair, Mai Tais at “Japanese Steakhouses,” and there’s always Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort in Orlando. Possibly exploitative, definitely escapist, Tiki won’t soon disappear from collective memory.


Sources: Smuggler’s Cove by Martin and Rebecca Cate, Tiki Central, Wikipedia — Don the Beachcomber, Wikipedia — Tiki Culture

For more information about Tiki, Sven Kirsten is the leading expert on the phenomenon. He has several books on Tiki culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s