Tiki: cultural reflection and fusion

Once again the Endless Knot bar is open, and this time we're serving Mai Tais: 

When thinking about the Tiki craze of the 1940s and 1950s, the elephant in the room is, of course, the cultural appropriation. Tiki culture borrows from Polynesian sources, but it's more about mid-century America than anything else. Rather than just gloss over this, I decided that it was an opportunity to discuss the tension between cultural appropriation and intercultural communication, a story which is also reflected in the history of the World's Fairs, which has several connections to the tiki craze story, so it made a good fit. Also, this was nicely in keeping with my previous cocktail videos. "Cocktail" parts 1 and 2 explore the British / American interrelation and America's colonial period and growing sense of a distinct national identity, and also touch on other international relations, such as the British / French rivalry, US / Mexico connections, the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, and so forth. And "Gimlet" focussed on colonialism and imperialism, with the East India Companies and other efforts to explore and commercialize overseas territories, often with terrible human consequences, scientific advancement notwithstanding.

There were of course many details I had to leave out of the video. The Maori story of Tiki has parallels in many cultures around the world as a creation story, and the motif of the reflection in the pool is an interesting parallel to the Greek myth of  Narcissus (from which we get the word narcissist). Tiki is furthermore important in Maori mythology as the giver of customs and laws, so we can also think of him as a culture hero. As for the "carved human figure" sense of the word, the Maori also have hei-tiki, small pendants carved out of greenstone, which may be connected with the Tiki myth, or to ancestor worship, or to fertility as  representations of either Hineteiwaiwa, the goddess of childbirth, or a human fetus.

And of course comparison (and sometimes confusion) is often made between the Maori tiki and the Easter Island moai -- the Rapa Nui culture and language are indeed closely related to the other Polynesian traditions, and the moai may also be connected to ancestor worship. So perhaps the creation of the Pacifica statue by artist Ralph Stackpole for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition is an appropriate symbol. The tiki mugs, which were often given away as souvenirs to tiki restaurant goers, are, of course, the American commercial adaptation of the tradition.

Polynesian culture first came to widespread attention in the western imagination in the 19th century, with artistic reflections such as Herman Melville's book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and artist Paul Gauguin's trip to and art inspired by Tahiti. These sorts of reflections did much to inspire this notion of a south seas paradise. (Lots more about Gauguin here).

As for the Polynesian languges, I relied mostly on the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, as well as Edward Tregear's The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891). The Polynesian Lexicon Project is  great way of checking out cognates in the related languages, and is a lot of fun to play around with, so check it out if you're into comparative linguistics. Even from just the two etymologies in the video, tiki (Maori tiki, Hawaiian ki'i, Tahitian ti'i, and other cognates here) and mai tai (Tahitian maita'i, Hawaiian maika'i, Maori maitai, and other cognates here), some clear phonological correspondences are clear: /k/ and the glottal stop, /t/ and /k/. Also, it's an interesting semantic trajectory to go from the name of the first human, to the carving of a human figure, to an umbrella term for an entire aesthetic in another culture and language.

Of course there is much more that could be said about the history of the tiki craze, and Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in particular -- there are many who have written much more authoritatively on the subject than I could, so do check out the links on the sources page for some detailed accounts. In particular, have a look at this interview with researcher and writer Sven Kirsten on the history of tiki culture, which goes into much more detail than I could in the video. Don and Vic seem to owe much of their success to their flamboyance and showmanship. Don would spray a water hose onto the roof of his restaurant to simulate a tropic rainstorm (or to convince patrons to stay a little longer rather than leave during a downpour). And while Don was inspired by his actual South Seas travels, Vic mostly invented his adventurer persona, pretending for instance that he lost his leg not in a childhood illness, but in a shark attack. But tiki culture is about creating the appearance and fantasy of something, just like the story of Tiki and the reflection in the pool. And just like that reflection, something new can, as a result, take on a life of its own, as was the case with the tiki craze. Fusion is something American culture excels at, often producing something quite new by combining disparate sources.

And it's appropriate that Monte Proser, the British-born nightclub owner who stole the Zombie recipe, was a press agent for Walt Disney. One of Disney's themepark attractions is the Enchanted Tiki Room (opened in 1963), a Disneyfied reflection of tiki culture, a fantasy of a fantasy. So art imitating art imitating life, I suppose.

The Hawaiian or more properly Aloha shirt is itself an example of cultural blending too. The shirts, originally made from kimono fabrics, seem to have been the invention of Koichiro Miyamoto, the son of a Japanese immigant to Hawaii, and first appeared in the family shop in Honolulu. The style of shirt was then taken up in the 1930s by Chinese merchant Ellery Chun in his Waikiki shop, and soon became very popular with both local residents and tourists.

When discussing the Exotica music genre that went along with the tiki craze, I perhaps should also have mentioned vibraphone player Arthur Lyman. Born in Hawaii, and of Hawaiian, French, Belgian, and Chinese descent,  Lyman was part of Martin Denny's band for his first exotica album, and did much to help define the vibraphone-heavy sound of the new genre. After that first album, Lyman went his separate way and recorded many exotica albums of his own. The genre itself, as well as i's practitioners, is a good example of fusion and cultural blending. As are American musical genres such as jazz, blues, rock, and so forth, which are all predicated on musical fusion.

As an interesting sidenote to the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the fairgrounds also included a Japanese Tea Garden, which still exists today. It was here that the fortune cookie seems to have been introduced to America, being served in the Tea Garden. So though we now most associate the fortune cookie with Chinese-American food, it actually had its origins in Japan in the 19th century, and made its way to the US through this World's Fair (or shortly thereafter). So another gift to popular American culture.

As for the drink recipes, much research has been done to uncover the more authentic 1930s and 1940s recipes and syrups, perhaps most importantly by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who has written several books on the subject. For a detailed discussion of the Mai Tai recipe, see here, and if you want to make an authentic Zombie, have a look here. So mix yourself up your favorite tiki cocktail, and thanks for watching the video! Mahalo!