About Tiki

First things first: what, exactly, is a tiki?

A tiki carving

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: it's a shorthand reference to a mainland American phenomenon.

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.

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 often simply a twist on American-Chinese food, dressed up in pineapple), it was revolutionary in a time when people did not commonly eat outside their own culture. 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.

This is barely scratching the surface of Tiki & Polynesian Pop.
Here are some ways to learn more:
  • Critiki
    Browsing through the location listings in Critiki is a great way to learn about the scope and scale of the Polynesian Pop phenomenon, learn a bit of history, and best of all: find places to experience tiki first hand.
  • Critiki News
    Hundreds of articles about history, new developments, and analysis of the world of Polynesian pop culture.
  • Critiki Symposiums
    Humuhumu presents talks on tiki travel and tiki history. Most of these talks take place at tiki and hospitality industry events, others take place at her own tiki bar in San Francisco.
  • Book of Tiki, Tiki Modern, & Tiki Pop, by Sven Kirsten
    Sven's groundbreaking Book of Tiki and its follow-up Modern Tiki are sadly now out-of-print and can go for hundreds of dollars. You may have to convince a friend to let you peruse theirs. Thankfully, his more recent book, Tiki Pop, is bigger, grander, and easily available in beautiful hardcover. Sven's books are full of gorgeous photos and give a beautiful, immersive view of the role of Polynesian idealism in American culture.
  • The works of Jeff "Beachbum" Berry
    Even if you don't know Beachbum Berry's name, you've likely experienced the results of his tireless work (he'll try to tell you he's just a lazy bum, but don't believe him). Berry is the one who saw tropical cocktails from tiki bars as something fascinating, something strange, and something worth saving. The secrecy around the recipes had led to the drinks being on the verge of extinction, until Beachbum Berry came along and resurrected them. He's written several books, a mix of recipes and stories from the golden age of tiki bars.
  • Ooga-Mooga
    Ooga-Mooga lets people who collect tiki, mostly tiki mugs, share their collections with the world. It's a great place to learn about tiki mugs.
  • Tiki Central
    Before Facebook came along, Tiki Central was the place where tikiphiles got in contact with each other and shared what they were learning. This message board is still active today, perhaps not in such heavy use as it once was, but is still an excellent resource for learning about tiki.
  • The Atomic Grog
    Hurricane Hayward's blog gives a great, time-sensitive snapshot of what's going on in the world of tiki, especially tiki events.

Critiki is a free, not-for-profit website, created by Humuhumu.

You can contact Humuhumu at humuhumu@critiki.com.