Tiki Bar Authenticity: The Rise of Tiki Bars and Imperial Influence (Ruby Telles)
In the podcast episode “Filipino Tiki Bar,” writer and host Paola Mardo shares a rich history of the tiki bar and uncovers its roots in Pacific island and specifically Filipino culture. She talks about immigrant men from the Philippines who realized their American dream being waiters, busboys, bartenders, or owners of their own tropical themed tiki bars. Throughout history, the accuracy of the portrayal of Pacific island culture in tiki bars has been called into question―the line between appropriation and appreciation has never been clear. The documentary, “The Air Conditioned Eden,” questions any authentic Pacific island influence tiki has at all, covering the history, for the most part, through white business owners, musicians, and researchers. Which history is correct? Does Mardo fail to tell the whole story of modern imperialism in Los Angeles, or does “The Air Conditioned Eden” miss an important aspect of native influence and accomplishment?
The tension between these two sources is defined by their differing definition of the rise of tiki bars and the inspiration behind these pockets of paradise in a big city. The documentary begins with a scene of a woman hula dancing to soothing island style music, while a British narrator greets her audience with the word “Aloha” (0:06). Having a British woman narrate the story of tiki already sets a precedent that it is not one to be told by native Pacific islanders. Rather than centering it around the work and influence of people of color, like Mardo does in her podcast, this documentary uses very little insight from any people of color at all. This immediate difference between the two sources stirs confusion around the origins of tiki and how it was shaped throughout the 20th century. As the documentary continues, the majority of people that were interviewed on the subject were white soldiers and authors, musicians, and anthropologists. It clearly establishes non-native perspectives as the most important and correct voice, allowing little room for any word on the contributions of people of color, especially those native to the Pacific. Oppositely, Mardo focuses on and credits tiki bars’ success to the work of, in particular, immigrant men from the Philippines, whose jobs working behind these bars, waiting on customers and mixing cocktails, helped shape tiki identity in America. These opposite perspectives cause confusion for their shared audience. It is difficult to determine, when Mardo’s words are compared to “The Air Conditioned Eden,” the actual importance of the contributions of people of color.
The narrator continues by calling tiki a “pop culture phenomenon” (0:11). Along with the utilization of the word ‘aloha’ in her introduction, this description paints tiki as a commodity and a trend rather than as a celebration of Pacific culture. In her podcast episode, Mardo chooses to highlight the contributions of men like Ray Buhen, an immigrant from the Philippines, as integral in shaping tiki culture, but “The Air Conditioned Eden” makes no mention of him at all. It is not uncommon for the most popular or accepted versions of history to be the ones that have been white-washed. In the film, people of color are only present in the B-roll, shown working behind the bars and playing in the band. In this portrayal, their image is only used in the background, solely serving as a way to add authenticity to the environment when it is needed.
A pivotal aspect of the commodification of paradisiacal tropes like Hawaiian shirts and plastic tiki heads is the sense of mockery and humor that tiki bars use as a source of entertainment. At the end of the narrator’s introduction, she refers to people in America as going “coconuts” for tiki trends (0:42). Much of the phrasing used in the film creates a sense of make-believe and comedy, devaluing any sense of authenticity that other sources, like Mardo’s podcast episode, choose to focus on. Sven Kirsten, who authored “The Book of Tiki,” also says that tiki captured the “imagination” of the American people (2:52). Retelling the origins of tiki in this way makes it seem like it was dreamt up completely by white minds, like Pacific culture is so outrageous and far fetched it has to be a figment of somebody’s ‘imagination.’ Anthropologist Jeffrey Vallence says that tiki was a “psychedelic experience;” so separate from reality that it borders on hallucination and absurdity. Mardo advocates for the converse, discussing the multiple cultures that came together to inspire tiki. She notes flavors like coconut and pineapple that came from Hawaii, as well as words from the Tagalog language that were used to name cocktails. She makes a point of bringing to light real people and places that tiki was based off of, while “The Air Conditioned Eden” credits its creation to white American imagination and wonder.
The documentary centers white narration to continually enforce the idea that tiki was made for and by white Americans’ entertainment. By focusing on stories from white soldiers, like James Michener, it plants the roots of tiki in American soil. Michener was a soldier stationed in the Pacific in the first half of the 20th century. When he came home, he used his own experiences of Pacific culture to write the novel “Tales of the South Pacific.” His book was a hit. People everywhere were fascinated by this strange and mysterious land he described, and it shaped America’s view of tiki at the time. The novel was adapted for film and Broadway, which the documentary uses clips from to show the version of paradise that white Americans fell in love with. The scenes used show two white men arriving at a tropical paradise, greeted by beautiful women in flower leis and grass skirts. The two men are treated like kings, bowed down to and adored. It supports a sort of white savior narrative, like white people’s adaptation of island traditions are what made it truly great. From the beginning, this version of the story declares tiki as something that was created by and for white suburban citizens. Although Mardo’s version of the history of tiki does credit white fascination as a driving force behind its popularity, she makes an effort to tell stories of its perpetuation through efforts from native Pacific islanders. She ties in details about immigrant men from the Philippines and their important contributions to tiki culture working in the bars. “The Air Conditioned Eden” does not address the efforts of these men at all, but draws on a different perspective to explain how tiki culture infiltrated all aspects of American life.
In the film, Jeffrey Vallance discussed the popularity of the tiki theme outside of bars and restaurants. He talked about white suburban families who threw their own tiki themed parties at home, giving them further credit for perpetuating the trend. As more and more people became enthralled with the idea of tiki, he explains that new adaptations and depictions of it at home, in movies, and in music played a big part in continuing to build and shape its identity. He stated that “no one really cared” about the authenticity of tiki, because it had always only been a source of entertainment and profit (13:35). As long as tiki was serving its purpose to amuse, it didn’t matter how true it was. As the narrator said, it was “the perfect antidote for oppressed Americans in the 1950s” (5:26). Rather than prioritizing appreciation of Pacific culture, tiki was used simply as a tool for diversion, being molded and crafted by white hands into something completely different from legitimate tradition. How can Polynesian culture truly be celebrated if a majority of tiki bar goers are experiencing a fabricated version of it, and do not seek to appreciate it either way? This combats Mardo's argument that tiki bars were run by people of color and therefore still gave them a space to share their culture. Although they may have worked behind bars or bussing tables, the film credits white entrepreneurs, musicians, authors, and suburban families with the perpetuation of tiki. Perhaps, especially during the 1950s, it was much more difficult for the efforts of people of color to be understood and recognized, and as a result of racism and xenophobia, we have a twisted version of tiki history in this film.
The documentary credits Martin Denny, a white man, for creating the sounds of tiki with his music. Denny is described as “the undisputed king...of the tiki sound” (6:07). Denny said that he created a “unique, new, American” sound, again putting the manifestation of this phenomenon in white hands. He continued to describe his music as “fictional” and “make believe” (7:19). It was what people thought the islands sounded like, not what they actually sounded like. This makes it hard to understand how tiki could ever represent cultural appreciation. James Michener stated that “Martin…made Hawaii a very popular commodity” (7:03). If men like Denny are fabricating cornerstones of the island persona, then even genuine enjoyment of the culture that tiki defines is misguided and uninformed. The contrast of these two sources begs questions of perspective: perhaps “The Air Conditioned Eden” does not look deep enough to discover Filipino influence or Mardo failed to include the lasting effects of modern colonialism. Playboy after dark in 1960 further sexualizes tiki culture, and solely credits white visionaries with crafting it.
As tiki bars and music became more popular, albums like “Ritual of the Savage” by Les Baxter and “Exotica” by Martin Denny sexualized and dehumanized Pacific culture, particularly its women. Prof. Haunani-Kaytrask, director at the Center for Hawaiian studies, discussed the “repulsion and attraction that the west has for dark skinned, beautiful native people” to point out the perverted depiction of native women used to popularize and sexualise tiki (10:36). In order to make tiki what it is today, it was necessary to distance it from Pacific culture. Because of negative, confusing assumptions made by Americans about people from these islands, the culture had to be altered in order for it to ever become mainstream. In Mardo’s podcast, she talks about the love and appreciation that many people had for tiki, but “The Air Conditioned Eden” leads audiences to believe that this love did not extend to Pacific island natives.
In truth, the origins of tiki are likely a good mix of both authentic Pacific culture and a version of it through white eyes. A mix of many Pacific cultures comes together in a simplified way that is far more easily understood and digested by white consumers. “The Air Conditioned Eden” highlights this phenomenon of whitewashing native cultures that come to the United States, revealing lasting effects of imperialism that Mardo’s podcast put aside to highlight the accomplishments of men like Ray Buhen, who made a name for themselves and their culture in their own establishments. The history of tiki is much richer than just a single documentary or podcast episode, and becomes more accurate the more both sides of the story are considered. Comparing the discontinuity between each source reveals rifts in the narrative that can be closed by the examination of the two sides as a whole. Allowing all relevant voices to be heard is the best way to uncover important truths.
“1950s Tiki Culture / Exotica Documentary ("The Air Conditioned Eden") (Part 1).” Youtube, uploaded by Roddy Melville, 4 Mar. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGVtTQ-OyMY.
Mardo, Paola. “Filipino Tiki Bar.” Long Distance, Offshore Podcast, 21 May 2019, https://www.longdistanceradio.com/6-filipino-tiki-bar.