First things first: what, exactly, is a tiki?
In the most basic terms, a tiki is a Polynesian god, or more commonly, a physical representation of a Polynesian ancestor figure, usually carved in wood or stone. The Polynesian islands are spread out over a whole lot of ocean, and there are many different Polynesian cultures, each with its own figures and mythology.
However, the tiki that Critiki is concerned with is a little different:
In the mid-20th century, Polynesia was a mysterious, exotic place — or at least it was to your everyday American. An idealized version of Polynesian culture was created on the mainland, featuring lush, over-the-top themed environments, just like stepping into a tropical vacation. Initially this was just in bars and restaurants, but eventually it spread to places like bowling alleys, minature golf courses, and ultimately the very homes & backyards of America. The country was recovering from a war and looking to build a bright, new future — and spending an evening exploring their “savage” side was how Americans handled the pressure that came along with that.
Hawaii Kai in New York
It is difficult to appreciate today just how popular tiki bars were in the 20th century. Every city in America had not just one tiki bar, but several. Many of them were deluxe restaurants — an upscale evening out, worthy of dressing up (unless you were wearing your very best aloha shirt). The food and drink presentations were elaborate... while the food usually looked better than it tasted (it was basically mediocre Chinese food, dressed up in pineapple), it was the tropical drinks that could make or break a tiki bar. The proper mixing of tropical cocktails is a complicated art that is a challenge to find today. These masterpieces were often served in a ceramic tiki mug you could take home with you — these mugs are now a huge area of collecting. The investment made in decorating the interiors was huge, sometimes featuring waterfalls, working volcanoes, massive tikis and dancing hula girls. One such restaurant, the Mauna Loa in Detroit, cost $1.6 million to build — and that's in 1967 dollars.
As time went by, and the next generation grew older and increasingly dissatisfied with their parents' ability to turn a blind eye to the problems of the day (especially the Vietnam War), tiki bars became a symbol of all that was wrong, and fell out of favor. The restaurants remodeled themselves as plain Chinese restaurants, or simply went out of business. A small handful of them still stand today, and a resurgence in interest in Polynesian Pop has led to a new crop of tiki bars and restaurants.
I'm just barely scratching the surface of Tiki & Polynesian Pop here, and I'm not doing it any justice. To learn more, I strongly urge you to look for the following: