hat tip to Luke Tsai for the link. Luke and author Sarah Burke both worked at the East Bay Express.
Why is it that my personal friends, the kind of progressive people who would condemn the thought of a non-native person opening a Native American restaurant, have no qualms with ordering a Lava Bowl at a tiki bar?
The most common answer relies on the logic that because Tiki Bars don’t feign authenticity, they don’t count as cultural appropriation. In his essay, “The Cultures of Tiki,” anthropology professor Scott Lukas cites tiki guides and interviews with tiki aficionados to conclude that tiki culture is a playful theater of inauthenticity in which the set pieces and performances are cultural samples being remixed into something mythical. Those invested in tiki culture are in it for a kitschy cultural fantasy — an imagined lifestyle associated with Jimmy Buffet and piña coladas garnished with tiny umbrellas. And, as Lukas argues, in the same vein as goth and punk, the tiki aesthetic challenges classist notions of “high” and “low” brow culture by celebrating something traditionally garish and distasteful. “The whole point of tiki, as I heard time and time again in many field observations,” he writes, “is to eschew the serious and the conventional and to delight in the campy and the controversial.”
But such a dismissal of the obvious appropriative roots of tiki culture requires a willful historical amnesia (the kind on which much of American identity is built). Such logic traces tiki bars only back to Don the Beachcomber — the first ever tiki bar, opened in Los Angeles in 1907 — and glosses over the Polynesian origins of the imagery. That murkiness is key for constructing the tiki style, rendering the entire South Pacific a platter of stereotypes and aesthetic tropes to choose from. It was also perfect for the 1940s, when tiki bars began flourishing all over the country because World War II had incited a frenzied but adamantly shallow fascination with the South Pacific as young American men deployed to the Pacific Theater returned with blurry visions of an exotic paradise.