I asked Dan Taulapapa McMullin, a New York-based writer, artist and filmmaker “of Samoan and Irish-Jewish descent,” to define the word “tiki.” Their work often focuses on their Indigenous heritage. (Taulapapa McMullin identifies as a fa’afafine, a Samoan third gender identity, and uses “they” pronouns.)
“Tiki is a deity, similar to Adam or Prometheus, who went from island to island lifting the sky and bringing fire from the earth,” they responded. The term can also refer to a carved image of a god or ancestor.
But to most people in the mainland United States, the term is probably more likely to be associated with so-called “tiki culture,” aka “Polynesian pop.” That is, fanciful depictions of the Pacific islands—borrowing indigenous imagery from places like Hawaii, Easter Island, Tahiti and New Zealand—found in drinking establishments, restaurants, dinner theaters and other places of amusement.
The tiki design aesthetic was launched in California in the 1930s by white men like Donn Beach, founder of the restaurant Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, and Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr., who opened Trader Vic’s bar in Oakland. These places featured palm trees; paintings of Polynesian women; “beachcomber” decor like fishing nets, glass floats and starfish; and tiki carvings, masks and spears. Tiki bars specialized in complex “tiki drinks” based on rum and fruit juice with elaborate garnishes and names like the Zombie, the Missionary’s Downfall, and the Mai Tai, the moniker of which was supposedly taken from a Tahitian word for “the best.”
The trend picked up steam in the postwar era, when American GIs returning from the Pacific theater were nostalgic for the sights, sounds and flavors of the South Seas. The aesthetic lost popularity in the early 1970s, maybe in part because the bamboo and thatched roofs prevalent in tiki bars were uncomfortably reminiscent of the huts U.S. soldiers were burning in Vietnam.
Tiki culture saw a revival in the nineties due to renewed interest in midcentury design, fashion, and all things retro. The twenty-first-century craft-cocktail revolution led to a new appreciation of the early tiki drink recipes, and saw the openings of hipster-friendly nouveau-tiki bars across the nation.
To Polynesian pop enthusiasts, tiki venues are places of relaxation, nostalgia and escape from everyday life on the mainland. I’ve had a fondness for the genre since I was a kid in the seventies, when a member of my Ashkenazi extended family owned a tropical-themed hotel in Miami Beach called The Hawaiian Isle.
For tiki culture fans, going to such a venue can be an immersive experience. There’s the kitschy, often windowless decor; the aloha shirts and sarongs worn by the staff; the soothing Hawaiian music or faux-global “exotica” tunes played on the sound system; the food, typically Chinese-American cuisine with tropical influences, or Hawaiian-style offerings; and most of all, those strong, sweet drinks served in tiki mugs.
Given the grim realities of the Chicago winter, it’s no surprise our region has long been a hotspot for Polynesian pop. There are at least ten tiki venues (although not all of them identify as such) across the Chicago region. These range from Three Dots and a Dash, a nightclub that opened in the downtown River North nightlife district in 2013, to The Breakers, a tiki-Chinese restaurant in business since 1949, located almost fifty miles away in far-northwest suburban Crystal Lake.
But amidst all this supposed fun, there have been lingering questions about the genre. For example, is the whimsical use of Pacific Island terminology and iconography —particularly religious imagery like tiki carvings and moai, Easter Island statues—in these establishments sufficiently respectful of actual Polynesian cultures? And does this lighthearted take on Oceania inappropriately gloss over the more uncomfortable aspects of the region’s history and modern-day reality?
When the cocktail lounge Lost Lake opened in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in January 2015, my sense was that its owners, who are white, were mindful of these issues. While the place was branded as a tiki bar—for example, its website was LostLakeTiki.com—and served the traditional drinks in a beachcomber setting, the decor and drinkware were nearly devoid of tikis.
In the wake of the George Floyd police murder and renewed calls for addressing past and present racial injustices, tiki venues have come under increased scrutiny, with some people arguing that the format may be irredeemably flawed. Leading the charge has been the Pasifika Project, “an organization founded by and created for individuals of Oceanic descent within the hospitality and spirits industry,” which has a reading list of tiki criticism on its website.
“The drinks genre itself is rooted in colonialism and imperialism,” argues cofounder Samuel Jimenez, a Californian of Samoan and Mexican-American ancestry, in a conversation last year on the beverage website Punch. “To me, there’s no way around it. To me, non-appropriative tiki doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. It can’t be a thing.”
It was a sign of the times in August when, as Lost Lake reopened after an eighteen-month hiatus during the pandemic, the bar announced it was rebranding from a tiki lounge to a “tropical” one. This included a menu switch from old-school faux-Polynesian beverages to Latin-American cocktails like margaritas, piña coladas and mojitos.
The restaurant news website Eater Chicago reported that Lost Lake’s decision came after years of feedback from multiple people in our city’s hospitality and social justice activism communities, who argued that white folks opening a tiki bar was harmful to people of color. One of them was Chicago bartender and activist Ashtin Berry, who’s Black, and is the only local person quoted in the article, aside from the Lost Lake staffers themselves.
According to Eater, criticism of tiki as a genre with “racist and colonialist baggage” by Berry and others at the annual Chicago Style cocktail conference, organized by Lost Lake co-owner Shelby Allison and two other white women, led to the cancellation of the event. “The myth making of tiki… is white supremacy at the expense of Polynesian and Pacific Islander traditions,” Berry told the website.
Lost Lake spokesperson Carrie Sloan, who’s white, indicated that the bar owners are now on the same page with their critics, telling Eater via email, “It’s become clear that tiki culture cannot be divorced from cultural appropriation and colonialism, which is the reason for the shift to ‘tropical.’”
However, Berry was unimpressed by Lost Lake’s change of heart toward tiki, telling Eater she still doubts that Lost Lake’s owners actually care about people of color.
Some key voices, however, were missing from the Eater piece. Conspicuous by his absence was Lost Lake co-owner Paul McGee, Chicago’s most famous mixologist and the leading figure from our city’s 2010s tiki revival. I also wanted to know what other local tiki venue owners, many of whom are people of color, think of this controversy. Most importantly, what do Chicago-area Pacific Islanders have to say on the subject: Are tiki bars, restaurants and dinner theaters inherently disrespectful of their heritage?
First I check in with McGee. In 2013 he worked with the local restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You to open the aforementioned Three Dots and a Dash, which features plenty of Polynesian religious imagery. McGee was apparently so into the concept at the time that his bar even featured mugs with his bearded, bespectacled, tiki-fied likeness.
But McGee confirms my suspicion that when he and his partners opened Lost Lake two years later, they kept it tiki carving-free in an effort to be more considerate of real Polynesian cultures and people. “Our intent was to distill the spirit of the first tiki bars down to their essence—fun, tropical, transportative. We eschewed typical tiki motifs—tiki idols and the like had no place here—in the hopes of creating a different, more welcoming vacation hideaway.”
“Over the six-and-a-half years since opening, as people and as a business, we’ve done a lot of learning and growing and changing,” McGee says. “By listening to activists like the founders of the Pasifika Project, our understanding has grown—and along with that, the changes we needed to make became clearer. During the summer of 2020, we finally stopped using the word ‘tiki’ as a descriptor.”
When I stop by, Lost Lake’s decor, which had always been minimalist by tiki bar standards, is almost spartan. Gone are the glass fishing floats hanging in the front window, the fishing basket light fixtures over the bar, and the pufferfish chandelier. A picture of a woman in a grass skirt has been taken down, a rock wall is covered with a curtain, and fake skulls have been removed from the fish tank. Unlike the last time I visited, staff members aren’t wearing aloha shirts, and vintage R&B, not typically heard in tiki bars, is playing on the sound system. A bartender says these changes are part of the rebranding.
In contrast, Hala Kahiki, a multi-room bar and gift shop in near-west suburban River Grove, is still densely decorated with tiki images and moai. Polish-American couple Rose and Stanley Sacharski opened the venue at its current location in 1964. Their grandson Jim Oppedisano, who’s white, currently runs the business. When I chat with him at the bar, he declines to discuss on the record the claim that tiki culture is inextricably linked to cultural appropriation and colonialism.
However, Maxine Barton, co-owner of Kahala Koa Tiki Bar, a new establishment in northwest suburban Arlington Heights, is willing to talk about the subject at length. Although the venue only opened last year, it feels just as old-school as Hala Kahiki, since it’s chock-full of vintage furnishings, including lots of Polynesian religious imagery. Barton and her son Bruce run the place, and several members of the family, which is white, work there.
Maxine says she disagrees with the argument that the genre is hopelessly tainted by racism. “You can’t change the past, so I don’t see any reason to take all this beautiful art and decor and put it away.”
She adds that she’s seen a lot of “nasty” arguments about the Lost Lake situation on tiki blog comment sections and Facebook discussion groups. “I was sorry to see that, because for the most part people in the tiki community are really friendly—they like each other.”
Phil Zuziak, owner of the Tiki Terrace dinner theater in northwest-suburban Des Plaines, is an interesting figure in the local Polynesian pop scene. A few people I talked to for this article, including Polynesians, told me Zuziak and his brothers Scott and Jim, who cofounded the venue in 2003, are Pacific Islanders. The Zuziaks have studied Polynesian drum and dance and competed in Samoan fire knife dancing competitions. But Phil says they’re actually of Japanese and Polish heritage, with no family ties to Oceania.
The Tiki Terrace features plenty of midcentury-style Polynesian religious iconography, and giant fiberglass moai, made by the Zuziaks, flank the stage. The menu features Hawaiian-style cuisine like Kalua roast pork, loco moco and poke. The floor show includes dance forms from Polynesia. The venue also holds a weekly Hawaiian music night and has hosted nationally known acts like ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro. Phil says the place functions as a gathering place for the local Pacific Islander community.
Asked about the argument that it’s cultural appropriation for non-Pacific Islanders to own such a place, Phil responds, “A few people may look at what we do and say we shouldn’t be doing it. But 99.99 percent of the Hawaiians I know are really proud that someone who is not of Hawaiian blood is embracing their culture and promoting it.”
Chef Shangri-La in southwest suburban North Riverside is a tiki-Chinese restaurant founded by Chef Paul Fong and his wife Susie, immigrants from Canton, China. Their daughter Lisa Abrams currently runs the eatery with her husband Irv. Although the Fong family identifies as Chinese American, Lisa says Susie was nicknamed “The Fierce Hawaiian Tiger” because her grandmother was a Tahitian woman from Hawaii.
Chef Shangri-La’s decor features multiple tiki carvings and a couple of large moai. The restaurant hosts performances by Hawaiian dance troupes; surf and rockabilly bands; and Elvis impersonators.
Lisa says she’s never before heard the argument that tiki culture is appropriative or racist. “I think we emulated Polynesian culture because we respect it. I’m just really in shock that anybody would come to my restaurant and say ‘You’re being very disrespectful of my culture.’”
In contrast, Lisa’s younger sister Betty Hlavka, who owns AO Hawaiian Hideout, a pan-Asian and Hawaiian restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop, is aware of the Lost Lake controversy. “I’m sure they lost a lot of customers by switching formats.”
AO, which opened a few years ago under the name Asian Outpost, seems to check all the tiki venue boxes. It has thatched roofs, bamboo, tiki carvings, moai and playful mug designs. The menu includes all the classic drinks, plus others with faux-Polynesian names like “Ka-mon-i-wana-lei-a.” It hosts a similar live entertainment lineup as Chef Shangri-La.
However, Hlavka is adamant that her establishment is not a tiki venue. “It’s a tropical-themed restaurant serving ono grinds [a Hawaiian phrase for good food] and boozy libations.” She declines to say why she avoids the term.
Hlavka argues that there’s nothing about the restaurant that should be interpreted as disrespectful to Pacific Islanders. “It’s just recognizing and appreciating the culture. You can have the masks and the mugs. It doesn’t have to be offensive.”
Of course, when it comes to the question of whether Chicago-area tiki venues are harmful to Polynesians, the most important people to ask are local Pacific Islanders themselves. It’s a relatively small community that mostly flies under the radar. According to recent Census data, there are only about 5,000 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander individuals in all of Illinois.
Aloha Chicago dance and entertainment company owner Chris Tuia’ana, who’s of Samoan heritage and grew up in suburban Norridge, provided background on the local Polynesian community, noting that most people have migrated to the area for school or work, often in the entertainment or airline industries. For example, his father musician and entertainer Herman Tapu Tuia’ana moved the family to the Chicago area in the early 1970s when he was invited to perform here.
Tuia’ana says one gathering place for the Chicago-area Pacific Islander community, until recently, has been a series of potluck barbeques near Busse Woods, where Hawaiians, Samoans, Tahitians, Tongans and others bring their native cuisines, and sometimes a whole pig is roasted in an imu underground oven. There’s also live music and dance. However, he says it’s been a while since the group has convened.
Asked about the tiki culture controversy, Tuia’ana says, “Bluntly, I really don’t mind when some of these bars are creating their own vision of tiki. I have more of a problem if people are insulting the real culture of the people: the dance and the dress.” His troupe has performed at Three Dots and a Dash, the Tiki Terrace, Chef Shangri-La and AO Hawaiian Hideout.
Native Hawaiian musician Lanialoha Lee may be the best-known ambassador for South Pacific arts in the Chicago area. Her mother came to the area from Oahu to work at the U.S. Steel plant on Chicago’s Southeast Side, and Lee grew up in Buffalo Grove.
She performs with her children Kamae and Hinano Sumberg during Sunday brunches at AO Hawaiian Hideout. While Lee says she doesn’t have a problem with Polynesian pop venues (“Tikis or Easter Island statues are fine”), she adds that she dislikes the phrase “tiki bar.”
She also has kind words for Hala Kahiki, the Tiki Terrace (“They did fine work with the stage props—it really takes you back to Hawaii”), and Three Dots and a Dash. She indicates that there are a few factors in whether she’s happy hanging out in such a place. The quality of the drinks, food and entertainment has to be up to her standards. She mentions floor shows with wigs, cellophane grass skirts and pre-recorded music as being dealbreakers. “People think you can do a half-assed job with tiki, and that’s not OK.”
When I contact The Barefoot Hawaiian entertainment company for referrals to other Pacific Islanders, they put me in touch with ukulele player and drummer Kaleo Lee, who plays with four different dance troupes and happens to be Lanialoha’s brother.
Kaleo has performed at Hala Kahiki, the Tiki Terrace and Chef Shangri-La, and has positive things to say about these venues. “I have no issues with who owns them. My question is always, are they respectful about it—are they treating me with aloha [“fellowship and compassion”]? They were all very friendly and appreciative of the music.”
“I understand that a lot of people don’t like tiki culture, and I get that,” Kaleo says. But he sees the format, and mainstream interpretations of Pacific Islander culture in general, as a gateway to the real stuff. “When I perform at places like that, I’ll play hapa haole [“half-white” English-language Hawaiian pop] tunes like ‘Little Grass Shack’ and ‘Tiny Bubbles.’ But I’ll also play authentic [Native] Hawaiian songs describing a waterfall, or a love story or a story about a king—and people love that.”
Of course, professional entertainers like Chris Tuia’ana and the Lees have a financial incentive to speak charitably of places where they might perform. So I contact locals of Polynesian descent from other walks of life to get their take on the cultural appropriation issue.
Playwright and scriptwriter Hannah Ii-Epstein was raised on the north shore of Oahu, and is of “Native Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian” ancestry. At twenty-one, she followed an ex-girlfriend to Chicago, where Ii-Epstein says she found her love for theater. In 2018 she helped lead a protest against Chicago-based Aloha Poke Co. for sending cease-and-desist letters to other poke shops, some of them Native Hawaiian-owned, with “Aloha” in their names, so issues of cultural theft are on her radar.
Ii-Epstein says that, along with the Lincoln Park Conservatory greenhouse, the Field Museum’s Maori meeting house, and Lincoln Park’s Aloha Eats plate lunch restaurant, AO Hawaiian Hideout is a place where she sometimes enjoys spending time to get a reminder of life back home. She says that, as a non-drinker, she appreciates that the venue offers mocktails “in the cute little tiki glasses.”
On the other hand, like Lanialoha Lee, Ii-Epstein says she dislikes the term “tiki” to describe such venues. “It reminds me of “The Brady Bunch”… The idea that tiki is being profited on by people who aren’t of that descent is what feels gross to me in my stomach.”
Ii-Epstein says she appreciates Lost Lake switching its terminology from “tiki” to “tropical.” “Honestly, I think I’m going to start changing my language to use that word instead myself.”
Chicago Public School teacher Lorel Madden, who’s of “Native Hawaiian, Irish, German and Portuguese” ancestry, grew up in Chicago. She studies hula at Halau i Ka Pono dance school in Oak Park.
Like Ii-Epstein, Madden takes a somewhat dim view of tiki culture. “The way tiki imagery is used in bars and restaurants, they do misappropriate it. It’s kitschy, and there’s no real understanding of what it actually means.”
However, she’s performed hula at the Tiki Terrace and speaks positively of it. “A lot of fundraising goes on there for the Hawaiian community, like for people protesting against the thirty-meter telescope they’re trying to build on sacred land on Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii.”
She also has kind words for owner Phil Zuziak, arguing that it doesn’t make a difference that he’s not a Pacific Islander. “His heart is in the right place, and it’s like it’s his adopted culture.”
Fellow Halau i Ka Pono student Cynthia Ohata is a doctor of family medicine of Native Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese ancestry, who grew up in Hawaii. She says she’d be willing to perform in a tiki venue at “an event that was thoughtful,” but otherwise probably wouldn’t choose to spend time in such a place.
Via email, she says, “The heart of the Hawaii that raised me to be connected to the ‘Aina’ [“Land”] and to understand how the shape of the land affects when and where the rain falls which then affects the shape of the land and what grows there… and what a pikake flower or a white ginger or a yellow ginger flower smells like… and how I might tell you about it with a flutter of my hands paired with a gentle inhalation and a luxurious blink while my hips carve a pattern like an ocean’s meditation… and how this knowledge and connection can teach beauty and respect and appreciation as a way of life… is not in those tikis.”
Samoan American artist Dan Taulapapa McMullin has used art to make caustic critiques of tiki culture. One of them is a forty-five-minute film called “100 Tikis” that juxtaposes lighthearted, stereotypical and/or racist depictions of the Pacific Islands in pop culture, including tiki bars, with clips that show the darker side of the region’s history, such as military propaganda and protest videos. It ends with the final wedding kiss from the Elvis movie “Blue Hawaii,” followed by an image of a nuclear testing blast at Bikini Atoll with the word “Aloha” and a smiling emoticon.
Taulapapa McMullin also published a poem called “Tiki Manifesto,” that begins:
Tiki mug, tiki mug
My face, my mother’s face, my father’s face, my sister’s face
Tiki mug, tiki mug
White beachcombers in tiki bars drinking zombie cocktails from tiki mugs
The undead, the Tiki people, my mother’s face, my father’s face
The black brown and ugly that make customers feel white and beautiful
The poem just gets angrier from there. But Taulapapa McMullin tells me the process of creating these works was cathartic, and they’re pleased by the recent movement toward tiki venues “cleansing themselves of this patina of colonialism and racism.”
“Yeah,” Taulapapa McMullin says, “Why not just call it a tropical bar and have Polynesian performers there and celebrate our culture in a healthier way that doesn’t disrespect our religious figures. I’d feel more comfortable in a bar like that. Maybe I’d meet some Pacific Islanders there and we’d have a hoot.”