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Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Before Tiki: The Romance of Hawaii in the Golden Age of Travel

Tiki culture - the fantasy world of thatch-roofed bars, Hawaiian shirts, and whimsical ceramic mugs - was largely a product of post-World War II American leisure society, when soldiers who served in the Pacific returned home to build and benefit from an unparalleled economic boom. With more money and more time off than their parents could have dreamed of, reminiscing of faraway beaches and palm trees, Americans took to the road during ever lengthening vacation days while building oases for themselves at home during the off-season. Advances in transportation could bring them virtually anywhere, whether by America's developing system of highways or the flyways of the new Jet Age. With Communist Cuba off-limits, an exotic, tropical destination was placed right on Americans' doorstep when Hawaii joined the Union in 1959. The fad for anything and everything evoking Polynesia, Oceania, even Africa and the Caribbean, exploded like an atom bomb, from Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to Martin Denny's smooth Jazz to the ubiquitous at-home Tiki bar.

Walt and Jose welcome guests to the Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo: Disney.

Americans had already been primed by Polynesian exotica for several decades before WWII. The roots of Tiki culture are found deep in the DNA of America's relationship with the Pacific, in the very first tropical supper clubs that would become Tiki pioneers, in lavish Hollywood musicals, and in radio programs broadcast from the ballrooms of Hawaii's most glamorous hotels. Despite French and English interests in the South Pacific - New Zealand, for example, and Tahiti - it was the Americans' unique relationship with Hawaii that fostered the development of Tiki culture... Not as cultural appropriation, but rather, as an expression of genuine Americana.

Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay (1776) by William Hodges.

It is widely thought that the settlement of Polynesia was staged from the Melanesian Islands, which had been occupied by migrants from Taiwan via the Philippines some time around 1300 BCE. By 900 BCE, they spread to Fiji and Samoa. After a gap of somewhere between 500 and a thousand years, courageous mariners struck into unknown waters, discovering Tahiti. The descendants of those settlers became warring chiefdoms that stalled further exploration until the Fa'atau Aroha. Translating to "friendly alliance", the Fa'atau Aroha was a great peace that freed up the islanders of Tahiti to become colonizers of the Pacific. They spread out to the Marquesas and the far corners of the Polynesian Triangle: Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The Hawaiian islands were first colonized by mariners from the Marquesas sometime around 300-700 CE and were either conquered by or retained active communication with Tahiti up to 1300 CE. Unfortunately the Fa'atau Aroha was broken when the leaders of the two great Tahitian alliances, the Aotea (East) and Aouri (West), were killed. The golden age of Polynesian seafaring came to an end.

Cultural exchange between Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia dropped off thereafter, and Hawaii settled into its own system of island chiefdoms each with a distinct culture. Some deities were kept in common with other Polynesian cultures, like the heroic figure Maui, while others were adapted and evolved. Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the underworld, developed from Tangaroa/Tagaloa/Ta'aroa, the god of the sea and of creation. New deities were developed for the unique aspects of Hawaii, like Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. Hawaiians developed elaborate systems of aquaculture with their hewn fishponds and irrigation canals for taro and sweet potato, breadfruit and banana. The pigs and chickens they brought with them devastated the species blown to the islands when they first started to emerge from the ocean floor about four million years ago (the Big Island is the youngest, emerging 300,000 years ago and still growing). Nevertheless, Hawaiians eked out a successful living on these edenic isles, growing to a population between 200,000 and one million people by the time of Captain Cook's arrival.

Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance Holland (1775).

Cook's exploratory journey to Hawaii in 1776 was the island's first contact with Europeans. The British explorer first made a name for himself by participating in the English conquest of Canada against the French. After mapping Canada's rugged Atlantic coastline, the Royal Society commissioned Cook to travel to the Pacific to chart the Transit of Venus. Commanding the HMS Endeavour, Cook arrived in Tahiti in 1769, after which he went on to Australia and stranded his ship for seven weeks on the Great Barrier Reef. The Royal Society was convinced that an even larger continent must exist even further to the south than Australia, and so they sent Cook out once again in 1772 to look for it. He came within spitting distance of Antarctica, but blamelessly opted  to island hop through Polynesia instead. It was on his third voyage, aboard the HMS Resolution, that he discovered the "Sandwich Islands." First he explored the northern island of Kauai in 1776, then departed to map the Pacific Coast of Canada and Alaska. He returned to Hawaii in 1779, circumnavigating the islands and landing at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii Island. A series of strange coincidences led to Cook possibly being mistaken for the Hawaiian deity Lono, a god of agricultural fertility. That goodwill was squandered with an overstayed welcome, culminating when several Hawaiians stole one of Cook's rowboats and Cook retaliated by trying to take King Kalani'ōpu'u hostage. Intercepted by villagers, Cook took a blow to the back of his head and his limp body was descended upon with knives. Because he was still held in some esteem by the Hawaiians, his corpse was defleshed in the custom extended to the honoured dead... leading to the old nursery rhyme that Captain Cook was cooked.

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 (1795) by Johan Zoffany.

Hawaii was now open to the arrival of predominantly American colonists, plantation owners, and whalers, bearing Euro-American goods, culture, and diseases. Taking advantage of social unrest, a precipitous drop-off in population, and the acquisition of Western weapons, King Kamehameha conquered the Hawaiian islands under a single monarch in 1810. Far from a mythical ruler of times gone past, Kamehameha was a contemporary of Napoleon. With a unified Kingdom of Hawaii and a growing population of Westerners, tourism began in earnest.

Published in 1872, Mark Twain's travelogue Roughing It helped shape America's image of the islands for 30-odd years:
In place of roughs and rowdies staring and blackguarding on the corners, I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens sitting on the ground in the shade of corner houses, gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along; instead of wretched cobble-stone pavements, I walked on a firm foundation of coral, built up from the bottom of the sea by the absurd but persevering insect of that name, with a light layer of lava and cinders overlying the coral, belched up out of fathomless perdition long ago through the seared and blackened crater that stands dead and harmless in the distance now; instead of cramped and crowded street-cars, I met dusky native women sweeping by, free as the wind, on fleet horses and astride, with gaudy riding-sashes, streaming like banners behind them; instead of the combined stenches of Chinadom and Brannan street slaughter-houses, I breathed the balmy fragrance of jessamine, oleander, and the Pride of India; in place of the hurry and bustle and noisy confusion of San Francisco, I moved in the midst of a Summer calm as tranquil as dawn in the Garden of Eden; in place of the Golden City's skirting sand hills and the placid bay, I saw on the one side a frame-work of tall, precipitous mountains close at hand, clad in refreshing green, and cleft by deep, cool, chasm-like valleys—and in front the grand sweep of the ocean; a brilliant, transparent green near the shore, bound and bordered by a long white line of foamy spray dashing against the reef, and further out the dead blue water of the deep sea, flecked with "white caps," and in the far horizon a single, lonely sail—a mere accent-mark to emphasize a slumberous calm and a solitude that were without sound or limit. When the sun sunk down—the one intruder from other realms and persistent in suggestions of them—it was tranced luxury to sit in the perfumed air and forget that there was any world but these enchanted islands.       
Twain, being Twain, had the presence of mind to add that "It was such ecstacy to dream, and dream—till you got a bite." He also discussed the native phenomenon of surfing: "I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.—The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly."

Surf-Bathing - Success.
Surf-Bathing - Failure.
Illustrations from Mark Twain's Roughing It.

Global traveller Isabella Bird also visited Hawaii for seven months in 1872 and recounted her experiences in the 1875 book The Hawaiian Archipelago, at the insistence of her companions. "At the close of my visit, my Hawaiian friends urged me strongly to publish my impressions and experiences, on the ground that the best books already existing, besides being old, treat chiefly of aboriginal customs and habits now extinct, and of the introduction of Christianity and subsequent historical events. They also represented that I had seen the islands more thoroughly than any foreign visitor... and that I had so completely lived the island life, and acquainted myself with the existing state of the country, as to be rather a kamaina than a stranger..." Of her first impressions she wrote:
Yesterday morning at 6.30 I was aroused by the news that “The Islands” were in sight.  Oahu in the distance, a group of grey, barren peaks rising verdureless out of the lonely sea, was not an exception to the rule that the first sight of land is a disappointment.  Owing to the clear atmosphere, we seemed only five miles off, but in reality we were twenty, and the land improved as we neared it.  It was the fiercest day we had had, the deck was almost too hot to stand upon, the sea and sky were both magnificently blue, and the unveiled sun turned every minute ripple into a diamond flash.  As we approached, the island changed its character.  There were lofty peaks, truly--grey and red, sun-scorched and wind-bleached, glowing here and there with traces of their fiery origin; but they were cleft by deep chasms and ravines of cool shadow and entrancing green, and falling water streaked their sides--a most welcome vision after eleven months of the desert sea and the dusty browns of Australia and New Zealand.  Nearer yet, and the coast line came into sight, fringed by the feathery cocoanut tree of the tropics, and marked by a long line of surf.  The grand promontory of Diamond Head, its fiery sides now softened by a haze of green, terminated the wavy line of palms; then the Punchbowl, a very perfect extinct crater, brilliant with every shade of red volcanic ash, blazed against the green skirts of the mountains.  We were close to the coral reef before the cry, "There’s Honolulu!" made us aware of the proximity of the capital of the island kingdom, and then, indeed, its existence had almost to be taken upon trust, for besides the lovely wooden and grass huts, with deep verandahs, which nestled under palms and bananas on soft green sward, margined by the bright sea sand, only two church spires and a few grey roofs appeared above the trees. 
Even greater changes were in store for Hawaii than the arrival of Cook or the conquests of Kamehameha. The House of Kamehameha fell in 1872 with the death of King Kamehameha V, who had no heir. Governance passed to King Kalākaua amidst riots and the landing of American and British troops. The Bayonet Constitution signed at gunpoint in 1887 stripped the monarchy of much of its power at the direction of politically powerful and collusive American plantation owners (as well as stripping most native Hawaiians of the vote). When King Kalākaua passed away in 1891, his figurehead crown passed to his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani. She announced plans to draft a new constitution in 1893 that would increase the power of the Crown, which incensed the so-called "Committee of Safety" composed of those American interests.

When their plot to overthrow the monarchy was uncovered, martial law was declared. Under the pretense that the lives and property of Americans were being threatened, US Marines were landed in Honolulu. Though never having fired a shot, and ordered to only act defensively, the presence of US troops made it impossible for Queen Lili'uokalani's supporters to defend themselves. She surrendered to the Committee of Safety's coup d'état, which promptly flew an American flag over the capital in a petition for annexation to the United States.

Queen Lili'uokalani, last monarch of Hawaii.
Iolani Palace, home of Hawaiian royalty, circa 1890.
A royal lūʻau hosted by Princess Lili'uokalani (centre left) and King Kalākaua (centre right), 1889. 
Robert Louis Stevenson (left), a personal friend of the king, was a guest. Stevenson traveled
the Pacific and settled in Samoa, and his posthumously published  journal In the South Seas 
is itself a significant document of Pacific colonial history. Photo: Hawaii State Archives. 

Nevertheless, 1893 was not 1836 and Honolulu was not the Alamo. President Grover Cleveland immediately condemned the coup, saying "Substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair the monarchy." Though Cleveland felt strongly that reparations should be made and the monarchy of a sovereign nation restored, his efforts were frustrated by pro-annexation Senators. Official annexation would have to wait until 1898 when Cleveland was succeeded by William McKinley. In the meantime, Sanford Dole appointed himself president of the Republic of Hawaii. When the annexation ceremony was held in 1897, the atmosphere more closely resembled a funeral. Native Hawaiians wore symbols of the Hawaiian nation and shuttered up their homes. Dole was appointed governor of the Territory of Hawaii and the true purpose of annexation was made apparent: the unencumbered flow of Hawaiian agricultural goods into the United States. Shortly thereafter, one of Sanford Dole's cousins - James Dole - came over and started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, which aggressively cornered the market on the king of fruits and eventually came to be known by the family name. From the turn of the century onward, the newly-minted Territory of Hawaii became a tourist spot as hot as the volcanic features that formed it.

Dole map of Hawaii, 1937.

Before air became a viable medium of transportation, the only way to get across the Pacific was by ocean liner. William Matson began shipping goods between San Francisco and Hawaii in 1882, expanding his operations when tourists became as lucrative a market as produce. In 1909, the Matson Navigation Company's newest and most luxurious liner - the SS Wilhelmina - debuted, ferrying well-heeled passengers to the isles. Matson's lines expanded across the Pacific Islands in the early Thirties with the SS Mariposa, SS Monterey, SS Matsonia, and SS Lurline. Amelia Earhart was a passenger aboard the Lurline in 1934, along with her aircraft stowed away below deck. Once it was unpacked, she flew it back to Oakland, California in an historic flight in 1935.

Whether in the 1910's, 20's or 30's, new arrivals at Honolulu were greeted with the customary lei. Traditionally given as expressions of "aloha" spirit at celebrations and life transitions, leis can be made of virtually any available material, including flowers, shells, and feathers. Most tourists became familiar with leis made from plumeria blossoms, offered by vendors lining the streets adjacent to the piers at Honolulu. As the tourists shipped off for home, they would throw the petals of their leis into the waters around Diamond Head, Honolulu's extinct volcano. They hoped that, like the petals, they too would soon return to Hawaii's shores.

SS Wilhelmina, circa 1917. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
SS Lurline pulls into dock at Honolulu, circa 1930's. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


Wahines greet incoming ships. Photo: Hawaii State Archives
New arrivals receiving the customary lei, circa 1920's.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives/Pan-Pacific Press Bureau.

The two customary activities of visitors to Hawaii were lūʻau and surfing on the world's most famous beach. The modern lūʻau is thought to have begun in 1819 when King Kamehameha II broke the traditional taboo of men eating with women. In traditional Hawaiian culture, men and women dined separately, with different menus. Since then, lūʻau has come to represent gatherings where copious food is present and entertainment provided. Guests were typically seated on the floor, on mats, and the food spread before them to be eaten with the fingers rather than utensils. The main dish is Kālua pig, slow-cooked in an imu (earth oven), and poi, a paste-like mash of taro. Entertainment consists of music and, often, hula. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, ancient hula (called kahiko) were essentially a form of interpretive dance performed with chants and songs, often in worship of a deity or in reverence to a ruler. Contact with the West and the introduction of new instruments transformed hula (the new style being called ʻauana), and for a brief time it was even restricted by Protestant missionaries. But the grace, power, and beauty of hula won out and today it is performed in a wide variety of circumstances, from religious to commercial.      


Hula show, circa 1937. Photo: University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Library.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
This is how food is made, kids. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Tuck in! Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Surfing at Waikiki Beach, circa 1920's. Photo: University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Library.

To meet these tourists' need for accommodation, the Moana Hotel was built on Honolulu's then-neglected Waikiki Beach in 1901. Nicknamed "The First Lady of Waikiki," the Moana Hotel sported the popular Neo-Classicism of the time and boasted telephones and bathtubs in each of its 75 rooms, as well as the first electric elevator in Hawaii. In spite of its luxurious appointment, it was not originally profitable and the owner sold it to the Territorial Hotel Company in 1907.

The Moana Hotel circa 1908. Photo: Moana Surfrider Hotel.
The lounge at the Moana, circa 1930's. Photo: Moana Surfrider Hotel.

The Moana's banyan tree court, circa 1930's, much the same as it is today.

The grand entrance of the Moana Hotel.
Photo: University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Library.
Moana Hotel from Waikiki Beach. The extra wings on each side were added in 1918.

As the Twenties roared in and travel reached its first Golden Age, the Territorial Hotel Company worked with the Matson Navigation Company to build "The Pink Palace of the Pacific." At six stories and 400 rooms, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the place to see and be seen on Waikiki Beach when it opened in 1927. Designed in the Spanish-Moorish style popular in California, it earned its nom de guerre by its distinctive pink stucco work. Both hotels were passed on to Matson in 1932, and eventually the Starwood chain, under whose banner they still welcome guests today.

The Pink Palace of the Pacific, Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
The Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Enjoying the world's most famous (and populous) beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives.




The Royal Hawaiian's coconut grove.
Inside the Pink Palace. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Time for tea, or a light lunch. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
And, of course, the nightly dancing in the ballroom. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
The Royal Hawaiian (left) and Moana (right). Photo: Hawaii State Archives.

Eventually, the convenience of air travel took over from ocean liners, slowly but inexorably. Yet during the Golden Age of Travel, even going by air was a luxurious affair. Pan-American Airlines set its sights on Hawaii not long after it spread its wings across the Americas in 1927. Most flights were originally for cargo, but each of the great "clipper" flying boats could carry along fewer than a dozen passengers. In that early era, air travel followed the same paradigm as ocean liner and railway travel. Each passenger was assigned a cabin or a berth to sleep in, and during the day, relaxation and dinner could be had in the spacious lounge. A flight to Hawaii from California would take in excess of 18 hours, but the conditions were clearly much nicer than today. Once in Honolulu, Inter-Island Airways could ferry passengers to the sights on Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Island. Inter-Island, founded in 1929, eventually became Hawaiian Airlines. Unfortunately the age of the flying boat came to pass after the war. In the fight for passengers, it was cramming people into tubes for an economical price that won out over leg-room, luxury, and otherwise humane treatment.

An Inter-Island Airways flight over Molokai.
Photo: National Air and Space Museum. 
Pan-American ad. Adjusting for inflation, an overnight flight to
Hawaii aboard the Honolulu Clipper cost approximately $4000.
Photo: National Air and Space Museum. 
And this is why. Dinner service on a Pan-American flight.
Photo: National Air and Space Museum. 


For the less affluent masses of Middle America, their main acquaintance with Hawaii would not have come from travelling there, but from the radio programmes broadcast from the ballrooms of these grand hotels (as well as travelling hula shows at state fairs). In 1934, Nebraska native Harry Owens caught a huge break when he was appointed the musical director of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Scouring the islands for music and transcribing it into Western notation for the first time, Owens made the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra practically a household name. Their smooth, distinctive rhythms drawn from traditional songs lulled listeners with the aural landscape of everything tranquil and tropical. When his daughter was born in 1934, Owens penned a song for her that would become the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra's theme and an Academy Award winner: Sweet Leilani. That Academy Award came by way of Bing Crosby recording it for the film Waikiki Wedding in 1937. Another song appearing in Waikiki Wedding was Blue Hawaii, made famous by Elvis 25 years later. From 1935 to 1975, the Moana Hotel hosted Harry Owens' programme Hawaii Calls. The story goes that listeners thought that the radio static was actually the sound of waves on the beach, and so producers rushed down to the seashore to record the real thing in subsequent broadcasts.


Waikiki Wedding was not the only film of Hollywood's own Golden Age to be set in this exotic, palm-fringed territory. The first one shot on location was Hawaiian Love, released in 1913. "It Girl" Clara Bow played a wild child in 1927's Hula. Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians performed for Betty Grable and Victor Mature in Song of the Islands in 1942. Hawaii Calls became a film of its own in 1938, but its great music was offset by stock footage and rear-projection livening up a shoot on Hollywood soundstages. In keeping with the theme of soundstages, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper was updated in 1939's Honolulu, where it was garnished with the comedy of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the astonishing dancing of Eleanor Powell. She returned opposite Red Skelton in 1942's Ship Ahoy, where the WWII spy plot on a cruise ship to Puerto Rico required her to tap out a message in Morse code in the middle of a dance routine. It was Tommy Dorsey and Ship Ahoy that helped propel the song Hawaiian War Chant into public consciousness.

Bing Crosby croons Sweet Leilani in Waikiki Wedding.

Eleanor Powell ripping the dancefloor apart in Honolulu.

The hotter-than-hot version of Hawaiian War Chant from Ship Ahoy.

Lavish musicals not only brought the mystique of Hawaii to American audiences, but dressed it up with Tinsel Town glamour. They were also the lighter side of the jungle adventure films that had already been popular for a decade, like Trader Horn (1931), King Kong (1933) and the Tarzan series starring Johnny Weissmuller. One such film was 1932's Bird of Paradise, which featured on-location shooting in Hawaii, authentic hula dances, interracial romance, a nude swimming scene, and an invocation of the old girl-and-the-volcano trope. Abbott and Costello riffed on the genre in the musical comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942), which also featured three songs by The Ink Spots. Typical of every movie made in Hollywood's Golden Age, cultural sensitivity and accurate representation were not high on the list of priorities. Escaping the drudgery of the Great Depression was, even for an hour or two.



But sometimes paradise is Hell, as Leslie Howard (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Gone with the Wind) discovered in 1931's Never the Twain Shall Meet, in which his love for a flighty native girl demoralizes him into becoming an alcoholic beachcomber. Like Trader Horn and Tarzan the Ape ManNever the Twain Shall Meet was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who had previously directed White Shadows in the South Seas and The Pagan in 1928 and 1929 respectively, both filmed on location in Tahiti. Dorothy Lamour became known as the "Sarong Queen" for a string of jungle films for Paramount, starting with The Jungle Princess in 1936, and parlayed that into playing the straight woman for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's Road to... series of movies. There was even a tropical Western, in the form of 1938's Hawaiian Buckaroo!

One of the most successful and lauded dramatic films to be shot on location in Tahiti was Mutiny on the Bounty. Released in 1935 and starring Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as mutineer Fletcher Christian, it retold - and somewhat massaged - the sordid tale of history's most famous naval rebellion. Having learned from the value that footage of African lifestyles and wildlife added to the Tarzan series, MGM filmed part of this sprawling seafaring epic in Tahiti, with attention paid to native Tahitian culture. For their efforts, Mutiny on the Bounty won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Laughton, Gable, and Franchot Tone all received best actor nominations for their roles, leading to the creation of the Best Supporting Actor category.

    Trailer for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).

Cartoons also featured the Hawaiian Isles, or a generally Polynesia setting. Betty Boop went to Bamboo Isle in 1932, and Mickey and the gang took a Hawaiian Holiday in 1937.

Disney's Hawaiian Holiday (1937)


Mainland romance of the South Seas itself became the subject of cinema, as in the 1938 Fred MacMurray film Cocoanut Grove. Co-starring Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians, who perform Sweet Leilani, its object was the eponymous nite club in Los Angeles. Housed in the famed Ambassador Hotel - site of six Academy Awards ceremonies - the Cocoanut Grove hosted the brightest lights of Tinsel Town beneath its Moorish Revival arches, fake palm trees, and artificial evening sky. A radio program was broadcast from the nite club and its name became synonymous with glamour. Sadly, the hotel declined through the Seventies, up to its closure in 1989 and demolition in 2005. That was still a better fate than a namesake club in Boston. Built in 1927, Boston's Cocoanut Grove was another Art Deco tropical fantasy until a fire caught the fronds of a papier-mâché palm tree on November 28, 1942. With so much combustible material and too few exits, 492 people perished in the worst nightclub fire in American history. 

Stars stud the Los Angeles Cocoanut Grove. Photo: California Historical Society.
An empty LA Cocoanut Grove awaits its guests.

Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians perform in Cocoanut Grove (1938)


A 1928 Vitaphone Varieties newsreel of Gus Amheim and His Ambassadors,
the house band at the LA Cocoanut Grove. 

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the Waldorf Hotel opened in 1947. Despite the elite name recollecting New York, the interior boasted several tropical club spaces that still exist despite a demolition scare in the 2000's. Back in Los Angeles, the Zamboanga South Seas Cafe and Nite Club boasted of being the "home of the tailless monkeys" and "the most beautiful Polynesian paradise in America." Eventually the space became a Japanese-themed nite club called The Ginza, and currently sits empty. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, Clifford Clinton opened his first "Clifton's Cafeteria" at 618 Olive St. in Los Angeles, which quickly earned the nickname of "The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule." As a religious imperative, Clinton insisted that customers only needed to pay what they could for a meal, refusing to turn them away even if they could pay nothing. Startlingly, the business model was a success and a second Clifton's location opened at 648 S. Broadway in LA. "Clifton's Brookdale" was impressively themed to the woods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which inspired a 1939 remodel of the original cafeteria into "Clifton's Pacific Seas" with a tropical theme. The LA Architectural Commission threatened a suit against the new exterior, which featured foliage and waterfalls. Sadly, the location was closed and razed in 1960. Clifton's Brookdale still exists and, after extensive restoration work, its current owners opened a hidden Tiki bar inside it in 2016 called Pacific Seas. Tropical supper clubs and nite clubs of the Thirties and Forties style are long gone, though celluloid preserved the idea of them as the "South Seas Club" in The Rocketeer (1991) and a recreation of the LA Cocoanut Grove in The Aviator (2004).

The Waldorf Hotel's tropical bar circa 1952.
Photo: City of Vancouver Archives.
Dining room of the Zamboanga.

Exterior of Clifton's original Pacific Seas.
Interior of the original Pacific Seas.
The stage at Pacific Seas.

Arguably the most lasting contribution of this time period to Tiki culture's rise across the United States was a small cafe that opened in Hollywood in 1933. The proprietor, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, decorated his establishment off the corner of Hollywood and Highland with an array of items he picked up in the South Pacific, including tribal masks, nets, statues, and the like. He then chose the evocative name "Don's Beachcomber Cafe" and inadvertently created the world's first Tiki bar. In 1937 he moved across the street and renamed it "Don the Beachcomber," but it was already famous for numerous cocktail concoctions including the Mai Tai, Navy Grog, and Zombie. The food was standard Chinese-American fare, but it still reinforced the escapist ambiance of the exotic and far-flung. The novel bar was a hit with the Hollywood crowd, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney.

Exterior of the original Don's Beachcomber Cafe.

Inside Don's Beachcomber Cafe

Over in Oakland, another cafe owner named Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. was running a BBQ place named "Hinky Dinks." When he chanced to visit Don's Beachcomber Cafe, he was entranced with the tropical theme and renovated his own bar. It was rechristened "Trader Vic's," becoming another legendary Tiki bar (and claimant for the invention of the Mai Tai). During the Forties and Fifties, both expanded their chain of restaurants and bars. Unfortunately Don lost his and the right to open any more in the United States in a divorce settlement, prompting his move to Hawaii before statehood. These days, the name of Don the Beachcomber is leased to a restaurant in Huntington Beach, California, and the Royal Kona Resort on Hawaii Island. Trader Vic enjoyed considerably more success, including opening his restaurant in Hawaii (by choice) in 1950. The Trader Vic's® company currently has a chain of restaurants and franchises around the world, including Tokyo, Munich, London, Dubai, and the flagship in Emeryville.    
Victor Bergeron's Hinky Dinks.
Remodeled as Trader Vic's.

Some pop-culture historians define Tiki as beginning in the Thirties with Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's. Others define this as a nascent stage of "pre-Tiki" (Pritiki?) that would lay the groundwork for the post-war profusion of Tiki culture. That Tiki boom started drawing to a close in the late Sixties and early Seventies, as the children of the Baby Boom came of age, preoccupying themselves with drugs, sex, and political protests. Tiki was a kitschy and square artefact of their parents' generation. Today, Tiki culture is a niche interest, the popularity of which floats along with the ebbs and flows of the nightclub market. When it pops its head above the surf, outsiders unfamiliar with its complex history often accuse it of the crime of cultural appropriation. Yet an examination of this complex exchange between Polynesia and the mainland puts those accusations to rest, above and beyond the question of whether "cultural appropriation" is even a valid theory. 

Cultural appropriation theory treats a culture as a rigid, defined unit of practices, adornments, and even attitudes that are the exclusive property of a circumscribed ethno-group of people, which remain unchanged through time unless negatively affected by an oppressor ethno-group, who may proceed to "steal" the products of that culture. But that "conflict theory" model of distinct dialectic ethno-groups locked in an oppressor/oppressed power struggle over property and means of production is simply, demonstrably, not how culture works (besides being actively racist towards people of mixed ethnic heritage). Some argue that it is not even technically possible to "steal" a culture, because "theft" implies deprivation of use which does not happen when somebody else indulges in a cultural practice. On the contrary, culture is extremely fluid, the sum of numerous of intersecting variables like climate, religion, government, food, music, education, economy, resources, visual arts, and shared history, that combine, recombine, and adapt in myriad ways through time, innovation, and contact with other cultures (even in that most odious, rapid, and devastating form of cultural exchange, colonialism). Tom Swiss, in his controversial article There is No Such Thing as "Cultural Appropriation" argues that established concepts of insensitivity, misrepresentation, plagiarism, and disrespect offer a more useful way of understanding these issues than cultural appropriation theory. "[W]e recognize laziness, dishonesty, and plagiarism as sins all on their own," he says. "We don't need to create a new category to condemn them."

Though Tiki culture and Polynesian Pop has drawn from the aesthetics of traditional Polynesian culture - and have led in some circumstances to insensitivity, misrepresentation, plagiarism, and disrespect which ideally should be avoided - it was never intended in any sense to represent it. Rather, Tiki style was a reflection of the American experience of the South Pacific, which included the American encounter with Polynesian cultures and landscapes during the Golden Age of Travel and alongside the Pacific War and Cold War experiences, as well as nautical romance and elements of pure fantasy. Statues of Moai and Ku were ubiquitous, and regularly supplemented with mermaids and shipwrecks, pirates and beachcombers, palm tree fringed beaches, and occasionally even Captain Nemo. It was a genuine, authentic expression of Americana. Far from appropriating Polynesian culture, Tiki culture was the manifestation of how the romance of the South Pacific colonized the American psyche. 

Aspects of Polynesian aesthetics diffused their way into mid-century Americana, satisfying a longing within American culture. In contrast to the gleaming, hi-tech, fast-paced future promised by the Space Age, Tiki and other so-called "primitive" aesthetics offered a more earthy emotional release valve. The growth of Tiki mirrored a concurrent renewal of interest in America's national parks and the nostalgia of the "Gay Nineties" for roughly the same reasons. It contrasted sensuality against the ascetic, antiseptic aesthetics of the Space Age, reflecting a connection to nature and recollecting ideals of Paradise. And to those living the new suburban dream, it did offer a controlled experience of the extraordinary and exotic, which are feelings mingled with wonder and curiousity. These images appealed to people because, above all else, they were beautiful and interestingOne user of the Tiki Central forum described Tiki bars as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age." It is a function they still serve against the uncertain forces affecting the modern day.  

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