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New York Times Spoils the Party: ‘History of Tiki Bars and Cultural Appropriation’

Posted on 29 December 2020

Did you realize that “Tiki bars are a beverage industry mainstay – with a painful and underexamined past” requiring “reclaiming” and “repair”? That’s the sour message on the front of the New York Times Sunday Business section, written and researched by Sammi Katz and illustrated in mock-retro-advertising style by Olivia McGiff. An online headline actually read “History of Tiki Bars and Cultural Appropriation.” On its eternal quest to ruin innocent pleasures, the Times is suffering a social justice hangover and is passing the headache to its readers. Meanwhile, 99% of the population will remain blissfully unaware they should beware of sipping on a Mai-Tai from a "particularly racist mug." It is an unquestionably difficult time for the hospitality industry. Every day, another restaurant shutters, one more bar pulls its steel gate down for good. Since its invention, one kind of watering hole has seen America through its most grueling times: the tiki bar. So the Times decided to make things just a little harder for the industry -- by accusing one sector of it of long-standing racism and cultural appropriation. Taste the prejudice behind the paper umbrellas: Decorated with bamboo and beach-y lights, with bartenders in Aloha shirts serving up mai tais, tiki bars were a booming part of America’s hospitality industry. “Put down your phone and put on this lei,” say the tiki bars. “Here’s something delicious in a silly mug.” They offer an intoxicating escape from the weight of the world. But the roots of tiki are far from the Pacific Islands. A Maori word for the carved image of a god or ancestor, tiki became synonymous in the United States and elsewhere for gimmicky souvenirs and décor. Now a new generation of beverage-industry professionals are shining a light on the genre’s history of racial inequity and cultural appropriation, which has long been ignored because it clashes with the carefree aesthetic. Let’s peel back the pineapple leaves to examine the choices that created a marketing mainstay. Katz offered some tiki bar tick-tock, starting with the "Don the Beachcomber" bar, which opened in Southern California in 1933 and began serving the first tiki drinks, elaborate concoctions with fresh juices and lots of ingredients. Then came Trader Vic’s. And then came the New York Times to ruin it all with a sour mix of white guilt and leftist puritanism. At its heart, tiki is about fun, creative drinks in a transportive environment. A new wave of industry professionals is reimagining these delicious contributions to cocktail culture, looking to shed the appropriation and racism that have accompanied tiki since its inception. We spoke to a few of them about the ways they’re working to shake up the biz for the better. The region has “higher rates of poverty, lack of access to essential services and more burden from climate change,” Kunkel adds. …. [Bartender Chockie] Tom also reinvests in the groups whose cultures have been historically appropriated. “There’s a beautiful opportunity to use what drew people to the aesthetic to help some of these communities,” Tom says. “Frankly, if you’ve been profiting off their imagery, it really is time to give back.” “Spirits specialist and educator” Kelvin Uffre lectured: To go into a bar and see mostly white guys in Hawaiian shirts presenting this fetishization of a culture, when the people of that country can’t even escape what’s happening to them. That’s dark,” he said. But, he added, “I just had a Mai Tai last night, that’s a good drink! Leave it to the Times to make anything fun a problem to be worked out: It’s not “last call” for tiki. But the work for those in the industry is just beginning to make these tropical oases inclusive to all, which will benefit both businesses and consumers.