Paradise Lost?

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So, I just finished reading a book about Paul Gaugin called Gaugin: Tahiti. Now I’m not much of an art fan, other than my love of modern Tiki artists (see Tiki Ohana – Artists ,  Tiki Ohana – Artists, Part Deux) and Edward Hopper (see Edward Hopper). I know enough to be dangerous about old-school artists. I never really knew anything about Paul Gaugin and had certainly never seen any of his artwork. When I found out he left France to pursue his late career in French Polynesia, I was intrigued, so I read his story.

Apparently, Gaugin left France because he was disgusted with the traditional art scene, culture and politics in his mother country. He hoped to find a more primitive lifestyle in Tahiti to transform his art. He also had a lust for young ladies, which he partook of in abundance in Tahiti, much to the detriment of his reputation. Many believe it took many years after his death for Gaugin’s art genius to be acknowledged in France because of his horrible character and his outspoken criticism of the French establishment. But that’s another story.

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Gaugin leaves France for French Polynesia in search of a more primitive lifestyle, an escape, if you will. Here’s why I was drawn to this story: it reminds me of Tiki escapism in Mid-Century America and it’s revival today. Gaugin was looking to surround himself with the natural beauty and color of Tahiti to reinvigorate his art. Isn’t that what Tiki does for us now, in a way? We seek an escape through music, art, libations and all things Polynesian, both authentic and faux, to get us to a better place.

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Unfortunately, when Gaugin first arrived in Tahiti in 1891, he was disillusioned by what he found. The French government had beaten him there by at least 50 years, and the colonizers and missionaries did a great deal to subjugate and evangelize the local population. What Gaugin had hoped to find, a primitive culture and people, had become a lot like what he was trying to escape in France. His behavior, both regarding his disdain of the local government and appetite for Tahitian girls, put Gaugin at odds with the Tahitian authorities. Some escape!

Tiki’s original downfall in the late 1960s had a similar story. This so-called “escape” was decried by the hippie generation as a completely artificial and unnatural world. There was some truth to this narrative. Original Tiki did borrow from Polynesian culture in a very loose sense, which some people then (and even to this day) saw as an exploitation of these native lands. Was it wrong or disrespectful to appropriate sacred carved Tikis as gods for a new culture of escapism?

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For Gaugin, his desire to get back to a more primitive state of nature had a noble cause: to improve his art. It’s sad that his own baggage dragged him down, and the colonization of Tahiti demoralized him even further. Gaugin was only human, after all, and human nature in both his own case and the French occupiers of this Polynesian paradise ultimately defeated his ideal. Broken, both emotionally and physically (years of STDs had taken a toll on his body), Gaugin relocated to the more remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in 1901 before passing away there in 1903.

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The revival of Tiki culture beginning at the turn of the 21st Century also had a noble cause: the rediscovery of a lost culture in its purest form. Yes, Tiki culture is as much artifice as it is art, but we current Tiki enthusiasts don’t make excuses for this or pretend this escape is something more than just that: an escape. In addition, the broad scope of Tiki culture can lead (and has led for me) to a much deeper dive into its various elements. The differences in Tiki carving styles among the different Polynesian islands. The origin of Tiki drinks from humble beginnings in the Caribbean to exotic cocktails painstakingly crafted by expert mixologists. The architecture and design of lush Tiki temples all over the world.

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Again, there is no need to make any excuses for enjoying the Tiki lifestyle. When I was troubled recently by a video mocking the American occupation of the Hawai’ian islands, my friend George Jenkins responded: “Good luck finding a square inch of this planet that doesn’t have some nasty history associated with it.” Truth. We humans have a nasty habit of fucking up our world through our greed and lust for power. But we can still be positive about Tiki and our brand of escapism, as long as we are respectful of others. Added my friend Scott Deeter: “Hawaii has a very complicated history for sure, Andy. But there is amazing beauty in both the land and the culture there. Don’t be an ugly tourist–just like visiting anywhere.” Wise words from my fellow Tiki enthusiasts.

So, while your enjoying a Mai-Tai, think about all of those who came before us in this escape we call Tiki. Paul Gaugin would be happy to join us there!

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The Wide, Wild World of Tiki.

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Tiki does not exist in a vacuum. It was born out of the need for escape, and it both feeds and is fed by that need.

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I can trace the roots of Tiki culture back at least to the 1890s, when Paul Gaugin left France for Polynesia, looking to escape the constraints of Impressionist painting in search of a more primitive lifestyle to feed his art. The Hawai’ian music craze of the 1920s in America further fueled our desire for a world of faraway ocean breezes and swaying palm trees. The 1930s saw the invention of the Tiki drink and the nautical flotsam and jetsam-themed bars of Don The Beachcomber. In the 1940s Trader Vic’s upped the ante with full-blown Polynesian restaurants and the creation of the greatest Tiki drink of all: the Mai-Tai. The 1950s brought the return of American GIs from the Pacific Theatre of WWII and the rise of backyard luaus and basement Tiki bars. Tiki culture peaked with the admission of Hawai’i as the 50th state in 1959.

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In the Mid-1960s, it all started falling apart. The Summer of Love ushered in the drug and hippie culture. America had a new means of escape, as the children of the Tiki culture banished their parents’ artificial paradise in favor of a more natural (albeit drug-fueled) release. This back-to-nature movement continued through the 1970s.

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Another culture sprung up in the late 1970s to add insult to Tiki’s injury. Jimmy Buffet introduced Margaritaville, moving the tropical escape to the Caribbean and creating a more-accessible and dumbed-down version of Tiki to the world. Well-crafted cocktails were replaced with alcoholic slushies. Hawai’ian and Exotica music faded to catchy tunes about boat drinks and cheeseburgers in paradise. Carved Tikis and authentic nautical decor gave way to parrots and brightly-colored party decorations. It was enough to make Donn Beach roll over in his grave!

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The 1990s saw the beginning of the resurgence of Tiki culture. Like-minded enthusiasts, brought together by the rise of the Internet, resurrected the lost civilization from Mid-Century America in all of its artificial glory. Today, Tiki bars are opening with well-crafted cocktails made from rescued recipes. Basements are once again adorned with authentic nautical decor, lowbrow artwork, and real Tikis painstakingly carved by modern-day savages. New Exotica bands have brought back the music that was the soundtrack to the original Tiki craze.

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It is here that I should introduce the concept of the Tiki purist. Many of the folks who helped bring Tiki back are very protective of their work, and with good reason. We don’t want to see this wonderful escape relegated to the ash heap of history again. As Tiki gains in popularity, it runs the risk of jumping the shark and being watered down, like Margaritaville. This is why the tight-knit Tiki ohana tends to be wary of newcomers to the scene, until they can be vetted for their “Tiki cred.”


I am not a Tiki purist. Although I’ve been descending slowly down this rabbit hole for over 10 years now, I still value the eclectic nature of my journey. A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge has many of the purist Tiki elements I value most, like carved Tikis, bac-bac matting, bamboo, and cool artwork. I also mix up some pretty authentic Tiki drinks using many different rums and fresh ingredients. However, I’m not above mixing in atypical items to my Tiki space, like pink flamingos, a few tacky decorations, and of course the ubiquitous pandas! If my mother-in-law cross-stitches a sign for me that says “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere”on it, then I display it proudly at the bar.


I belong to several Facebook groups devoted to Tiki ephemera like SHAG’s art, cocktails, exotica music, and home Tiki bar builds. Some of these groups are led by pretty hardcore purists, and that’s okay. I still enjoy being a part of these groups, but I’ve learned through a few intense but civil interactions that folks take their Tiki pretty seriously. It’s all good, as I can appreciate wanting to preserve the traditional elements that made Tiki great the first time around. I just hope that the newfound popularity of Tiki doesn’t lead to its second downfall. That would be ironic, don’tcha think?

Tiki has always been, and continues to be, an escape. It’s not the only game in town. But to Tiki enthusiasts, both purists and serious newcomers, I believe it’s the best. For an artificial creation to become such an all-encompassing passion, through music, art, drink, and decor, it could only happen in America. Happy Independence Day, mahalo and okole maluna!

The Road to Mai-Tai

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I am not a mixologist. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good drink and have partaken of a few in my 48+ years on this Earth. I’ve always enjoyed a good beer, especially since the craft brewery explosion that began in the mid-80s and introduced us to tasty beers like Sam Adams’ Boston Lager and Dock Street’s Amber Ale (my personal favorite). I’ve also done some home brewing in my days, but I was never really very good at it.

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I also do like wines and champagnes, although I’m far from a connoisseur of the fermented grape. I usually prefer these with a meal or dessert. I guess my stomach fares better with wine when it’s not empty. I’ve developed a taste for a nice Shiraz, but my favorite is probably a Pinot Noir. I think this happened after I saw the movie Sideways!

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As for mixed drinks, there are so many to choose from, where do we start? For me, my earliest recollections of underage drinking involved Rum & Cokes, Seven & 7s and Sloe Gin Fizzes (which look really gross when they come back up!). These were simple drinks, and my tastes didn’t get more complicated as I grew older, only more refined. I developed a taste for Gin in my 30s: Tanqueray & Tonic for a refreshing summer drink, and for a more serious cocktail, the Bombay Sapphire Martini. Shaken, not stirred. Straight up. Neat. With olives.

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If there’s one thing the martini taught me (besides the joke about martinis being like women’s breasts: 1 isn’t enough and 3 is 1 too many!), it’s an appreciation for the ritual of making a good cocktail. I guess drinking has gotten more complicated for me after all! I love to get out the blender to mix up a nice Piña Colada or Margarita, and I really enjoy watching a good bartender whip up a vintage drink with more than 2 ingredients and some cool garnish. Again, I would have fit right in during 1965, the year of my birth.

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I guess this is why I’ve also come to appreciate Tiki drinks. Talk about craftsmanship! Starting in the Caribbean at the end of the 19th Century, Rum-based drinks have really grown in popularity as they’ve evolved from the original holy trinity of rum, lime juice and sugar. Shanghai’d to Southern California by Don The Beachcomber in the 1930s, the rum drink came into its own in Mid-Century America as Asian bartenders competed to make the fanciest, tastiest, potent concoctions we know as Tiki drinks today.

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Donn Beach created such famous drinks as the Zombie and Missionary’s Downfall in Los Angeles, but it was “Trader Vic” Bergeron in Oakland who created the ubiquitous Mai-Tai, the most famous of all Tiki drinks and my personal favorite libation (as of this writing). According to Trader Vic’s story, he was messing around with a new drink idea and served it to two friends visiting from Tahiti. After trying it, one of them exclaimed “Mai Tai – Roa Ae,” which in Tahitian means “Out of this world – the best.” I would agree.

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The problem with Mai-Tais is the same problem with many things: there are really good ones, and there are really bad ones. Some of the worst Mai-Tais I’ve ever had were in hotel bars and in cheap restaurants not known for their drinks. These were no more than rum mixed with Kool-Aid – I should have known better than to even order them! The best Mai-Tai I’ve had (so far) was at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, followed closely by the offering at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago.

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So I’ve come up with my own Mai-Tai recipe, and after much trial and error, I think I’ve now got a pretty good cocktail. It’s a little more involved than Trader Vic’s original recipe, as I tried to replicate the Mai-Kai’s version and don’t skimp on the fruit juices. I did follow Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s advice, though, and made sure the Rum remains the star of my Mai-Tai, as it should be. So if you’re ever in the Bethlehem area, please stop by the Tiki Lounge so I can mix us up A. Panda’s Mai-Tai. Mahalo!