Over the last several months, I’ve spent a lot of time around tiki bars – reading, researching, interviewing and trying everything from a Mai Tai to a Bayanihan. This is the first episode of a podcast about our fascination with the South Pacific island dream and the pop culture phenomenon of tiki bars, where race, culture, cocktails, and Hollywood collide. Click here for more on this ongoing project.
This journey started when I came across a photo of Filipinos and other people of color lined up for a movie casting call in 1929, as well as photos of Ray Buhen, a Filipino immigrant who worked at various tiki bars in Los Angeles including Don the Beachcomber, the original tiki bar that opened in 1934, and the Christian’s Hut on Catalina Island, a tropical-themed bar financed by Clark Gable to satiate cast and crew members during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Buhen is also founder of the Tiki-Ti, the longest-running family-owned tiki bar in Los Angeles, the birthplace of tiki culture.
Tiki bars are an interesting byproduct of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when various cultures began mingling with each other against the backdrop of entertainment. I wondered how and why these people found themselves in these situations during this time of racial segregation. Hollywood movies and tiki bars seemed to serve as cross-sections of various races and cultures. In tiki bars, white men (and some women) owned the bars, Filipinos served as waiters and bartenders, and Chinese chefs prepared American Cantonese dishes. In movies, white men and women were the stars while people of color mostly played background roles, if they had any roles at all.
Hollywood movies set in the South Seas were popular during the 1930s and 1940s, and many tiki bar owners incorporated film production design ideas and special effects into their establishments. These trendy Polynesian rum palaces, paired with the release of popular films like South Pacific and Mutiny on the Bounty, produced idyllic images of Polynesian life and culture that permeated deeply into American popular culture. Images of the Polynesian islands as paradise still exist today, as seen through recent Hollywood films like Alohaand Disney’s Moana
This piece is the first step in a series aiming to understand the need for media diversity and racial and cultural understanding through the tiki bar, an intersection of race and culture generated during a time when those things often went unchecked. This episode delves into the history of tiki bars and why they exist, featuring a conversation with Sven Kirsten, a cinematographer, urban archeologist, and author of several books about tiki culture. Future episodes will examine the Pacific Islander perspective on tiki bars, as well as the various people involved in its culture including Pacific Islander artists, tiki fans, mixologists, and the Buhen family members who still run the Tiki-Ti today.
Please be advised that this is a pilot episode and the series is a work in progress. Comments, questions and any form of feedback including your own experiences with tiki bars and culture are most welcome. Sign up for the newsletter at tinyletter.com/whytiki for updates on the show and to send feedback. I promise we’ll only email you when necessary. No Hawaiian shirts required.
“Hawaiian Hula Dance” by John K. Almeida
“Aku Aku” by Martin Denny
“Holiday in Waikiki” by The Kinks
“Hawaiian Twilight” by Hawaiian Trio
“Bird of Paradise” by Les Baxter
“The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” by The Mellomen