Is the Tiki Kitsch Craze Innocent Fun or Exploitation of Culture?

Hand Carved Tiki Statues in Hawaii

When Trader Vic invented his now famous Tiki cocktails in fun whimsical Tiki head souvenir glasses with curly straws and tons of rum, there was not any thought as to sensitivity to the Hawaiian culture that might exist if it were today. Think of it like this. What if a bar were started with a Jesus shaped container for a souvenir glass? Eek. Or Mouhammad? Ugh. Not that cool.

What do Hawaiians think of these type of Tiki head container usages? Pacific Islanders have, for the most part, ignored this whole fad, one observer says. “But seeing your ancient gods or your ancestors in a bar somewhere across the ocean, I think that can be difficult.”

Another person went on to talk about how seeing his Hawaiian culture copied, exaggerated, and then turned into kitsch can feel invalidating. He added. “Really at the root of it, it’s exploitation. It’s pretty much ignoring the real lives, the real culture, and the real problems that we all do face on a daily basis.”

Of course, the idea behind these Tiki bars has not been exploitation, but rather escape. Hawaii has been the land of perfect escape and the Pacific islands are glorified for many reasons as the lands of enchantment. So, in the middle of Winter, someone in New York City can walk into a Tiki bar and hear island music. They can feel the warmth of the atmosphere of Tiki torches and Tiki lights. For a few hours, the people in the Tiki bar can make believe they are miles away in the South Pacific. Escapism. Not a thought about the people behind the culture at the root in the place where they stand. And maybe that is the problem.

In previous articles about Tiki culture, I have mentioned I don’t know enough about our 50th state. Hawaii has a rich history that is so much a part of our American history. Pearl Harbor is located in Hawaii. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942 led the United States into WWII. Hawaii was not a state yet. How many people know that?

The Tiki culture is fun. I’m not knocking it. There is no denying the fun and the excitement of a great Tiki party. However, I think having Tiki décor and Tiki fun without knowing the history just misses something. Especially, because Tiki history is part of America’s history. Our nation is so large, and we have such a rich history. Isn’t it amazing that the Tiki culture is a part of our nation’s history? And that is pretty special.

When you decorate that back yard with Tiki Torches or with other Tiki décor, remember this is a part of your history and try to learn more. Hawaii has only been a state for about 60 years. We have so much to learn about this state and the island people. Unfortunately, Hawaii is not a road trip. If you live on the mainland, you have to fly there.

However, with more and more airlines making Hawaii a destination on their list, hopefully, this will make it possible for many of us to visit. This may be a good news/bad news for the Hawaiian people. Good for the economy, but too many tourists will always bring problems of their own with increased traffic, more crowded beaches, longer lines, and a stress on the environment. If you are able to visit, please study up on language, traditions, and ways to increase respect for this wonderful culture and land of beauty.