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A Match Made in Paradise: The Story of Chinese-Tiki

Often the most reliable place to find a tiki cocktail—even if it's a bad one—is at a Chinese restaurant. But why? The answer is part of a greater story of cultural appropriation, culinary assimilation and the American thirst for the exotic.

Chinese Twin Dragon Restaurant Tiki Cocktails

Even if you’ve never heard of Hop Louie, there’s a good chance you’ve seen pictures of it. The restaurant is located inside one of the most iconic buildings in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a baroque, five-tiered pagoda structure with each level slightly smaller than the one below it, like Russian nesting dolls stacked in reverse.

When it was constructed, in 1941, it was the tallest building in the neighborhood—a triumph of thematic Oriental architecture and the crown jewel of a recently debuted, tourist-friendly “New Chinatown.” For a few decades a Cantonese restaurant called the Golden Pagoda occupied the space, but sometime in the 1980s a man known as Uncle Hop Louie Woo (former Senior Vice President of Far East affairs at Caesars Palace Las Vegas) took ownership. The dining room, which served as a backdrop for such acclaimed films as Lethal Weapon 4 and Mystery Men, was heavy on red pleather and faux gold leaf.

The last time my wife and I were at Hop Louie, about a year ago, we’d shuffled over after drinks at a nearby cocktail spot called General Lee’s. We shared a “Special Dinner Combination Plate,” or something to that effect—a prix fixe assemblage of foil-wrapped chicken, wonton soup, BBQ pork chow mein and crispy lemon chicken soaked in a neon yellow sauce so sour it could have been made with powdered Country Time lemonade. Full and already buzzed, we agreed on a nightcap at Hop Louie’s downstairs cocktail lounge, a noir-era relic from the days when drinking dens were labeled as cocktail lounges without a hint of irony.

Nearly everyone in the bar—art school kids, mostly—were drinking either bottles of Tsingtao or Scorpion Bowls, that lethal built-for-two tiki drink that is as much a provocation as it is an alcoholic beverage. I asked for latter, of course, and my wife promptly shot me that you’re on your own look. I’d barely gotten through half before a sudden sting of heartburn hit my chest like a screeching air raid siren—a warning for the college-freshman hangover that awaited me the next morning.

By itself, a lackluster Scorpion Bowl made with bottled juice and bottom-shelf rum didn’t strike me as all that interesting. But blended-to-order inside an old Chinese restaurant, that lone tiki drink signaled a broader type of idiosyncrasy.

I. The Chinese-Tiki Connection

Hop Louie isn’t the only Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles where you’ll find Scorpion Bowls, Zombies and Mai Tais flowing freely. In the neighborhood of Pico-Robertson—often referred to as LA’s Kosher Korridor for its ample Jewish population—are two beacons of Cantonese-American cuisine, Twin Dragon and Fu’s Palace, located not more than a few blocks apart. Twin Dragon, which opened in 1962, was remodeled and revamped a few years back, and while it lost much of its retro luster, an illustrated cocktail menu still hangs behind the bar, next to a long illuminated fish tank filled with koi. Options include the Flaming Virgin (with a floating lemon garnish set aflame), Blue Hawaii, Navy Grog and Banana Daiquiri.

Fu’s Palace, by contrast, has retained its kitschy ‘60s splendor, complete with a faded-green thatched roof and paper Zodiac mats on every table. Once a grand and spacious restaurant in its glory days, Fu’s is now best known as home to an extra-potent Scorpion Bowl, which functions as a tropical Long Island Iced Tea for rowdy and occasionally lascivious UCLA kids. The place is sometimes referred to as “F.U. Palace,” short for “fucked up.”

As it turns out, Fu’s had actually replaced an even older Cantonese restaurant called Wan-Q sometime in the 1970s, which was owned by a man named Benny Eng and known for its flamboyant tropical cocktails. Wan-Q, too, had a rival located just a few blocks away, a now-closed Cantonese establishment called the Kowloon, which served Polynesian delights like pineapple Peking duck and a Tahitian Rum Punch. On a number of message boards and tiki fan sites users have chronicled long-forgotten Cantonese restaurants like these not only in Southern California—Yue’s Cantonese in Gardena, Edwin Tan’s Chinese Gardens in San Bernardino, China Inn in Pacific Beach, Mandarin Tiger in Tarzana—but all across the United States, including a few that had managed to survive over the decades.

Chinese Twin Dragon Restaurant Tiki Cocktails

There was the beloved King Yum in Queens, Lun Wah in New Jersey, Chef Shangri-La in the suburbs outside Chicago, Zom Hee Chinese in Florida, Shanghai Lounge in Oklahoma, Ho Kong in Rhode Island—the list stretched onward. It’s been estimated by Chinese Restaurant News that 80 percent of the 40,000 or so Chinese restaurants in America serve what is considered Chinese-American food (egg rolls, sweet and sour, chow mein, tomato beef, cashew chicken, etc.). If even a small percentage of those restaurants also served tiki drinks, it would easily dwarf the number of tiki bars and restaurants left in America by a wide margin. What wasn’t ready available was an answer as to why. How, exactly, had Chinese food and tiki drinks become so intertwined in America?

On a basic level, their marriage was one of commercial opportunism. “Tiki bars were having great success with serving [their own] version of Cantonese cooking in the 1950s,” says Martin Cate, author of the book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. “Basically the Cantonese restaurants all started to say, Hey, they’re already serving our food, why don’t we serve their drinks? Many Chinese restaurants at that time had separate cocktail lounges attached, so they added some bamboo and thatch in there and started rolling out the tiki drink menus.”

But to write the pervasiveness of tiki in today’s Cantonese restaurants off as a remnant of a burnt-out fad would be to miss the larger parable. If I wanted to understand the full story behind their enduring relationship, Cate told me, I would have to start at the very beginning.

II. Just Mysterious Enough

Ernest Gantt—the man who would later be known as Don the Beachcomber, the founding father of the tiki movement—grew up, according to some sources, the son of a wealthy Texas oilman. When he turned 19, his father handed him a large sum of money, ostensibly to be spent on a college education. Gantt decide to pack his suitcase instead. He spent the next five years traveling the globe—the Caribbean, Central America, Hawaii, Singapore, the Philippines.

After he had exhausted his inheritance, Gantt landed in Los Angeles, where he worked various odd jobs: dishwasher at Chinese restaurants; valet at celebrity-filled nightclubs; set designer and technical consultant for schlocky, low-budget “adventure” movies. By 1933, Gantt had scraped together enough money to open Don’s Beachcomber Café in Hollywood, a palm frond and bamboo-clad shack that showcased island knick-knacks picked up from his travels; he completed the 24-seat island paradise with his own brand of “Rum Rhapsodies”—intricate cocktails influenced by both Caribbean-style rum punches and tropical juice drinks popular in the Philippines—and would later legally change his name to Donn Beach, taking on a bohemian persona that fell somewhere between Paul Gauguin and Jimmy Buffett. In an era when themed bars ruled LA, Don’s quickly emerged as a rollicking hotspot for Hollywood high society.

While Beach was busy planting the flag for exotic cocktails, Americanized Chinese food (cooked by mostly Cantonese immigrants) was breaking into the mainstream. Over the past few decades, Cantonese cooking had slowly expanded beyond the confines of Chinatowns, developing, as Andrew Coe puts in his book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, a broad appeal as food that was “cheap, filling, and just mysterious enough.”

In 1937, Beach and his new wife, Cora “Sunny” Sund—a former Minnesota school teacher turned LA waitress—decided to expand their wildly successful bar (now renamed Don the Beachcomber) across the street into a much roomier space with a full kitchen. Beach, though a visionary in many ways, wasn’t know for being a particularly shrewd businessman. It took the foresight of Sund to realize that serving Cantonese food, tweaked with just enough Polynesian flair (read: pineapple) to label as their own, would be exotic enough to entice, but not intimidate.

“Among [Sunny’s] first moves was the hiring of a Chinese chef. With Don and the chef, she set to work to devise a South Seas-Cantonese cuisine to outdo any cuisine ever tasted in the South Seas or Canton,” wrote the author of a (rather condescending) 1948 profile of Don the Beachcomber in the Saturday Evening Post.The usual victual Chinatown dishes up for Americans are composed largely of celery and bean sprouts, both inexpensive. Don and Sunny decided to use chicken, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots with a lavish hand… They also began to import oyster sauce, wild-plum sauce, lichee nuts and lotus nuts from China, an issued an ukase that there would be no chop suey and chow mein on their menus.”

At the new restaurant, large portholes were installed in the dining room so diners could peer into the brightly lit kitchen while immaculately dressed Chinese waiters were on hand to supply explanations for any dish that seemed unusual. Menu prices, while still relatively cheap (profits were supplemented by the high-margin rum drinks), were elevated just enough to distinguish them from the bargain chop suey joints across town.

It would be easy to dismiss Don the Beachcomber’s approach to Chinese food as unabashed cultural appropriation by two enterprising white folks—which it most certainly was—but in a broader sense, the restaurant marked an early shift toward legitimizing Chinese cooking as an elevated and distinguished cuisine in the eyes of many non-Chinese Americans. At that point in the country’s dining culture, if you were a restaurant that wanted to attract celebrities and other stylish segments of society, you generally served steaks or French cuisine. Not only did Don the Beachcomber serve something altogether foreign, but it was able to convince customers to actually pay more for it.

That same year, 1937, another budding entrepreneur in Oakland named Vic Bergeron added Chinese food to his tropical-themed bar, Hinky Dink’s, and renamed it Trader Vic’s. Bergeron was a world traveler with a taste for the island life, but unlike his rival he proved to be much more astute about growing a national empire. Bergeron realized that most of his customers would be turned off by actual Polynesian food (“Who wants to eat poi?,” he once quipped, according to Cate) and so created faux-Polynesian hits like the pupu platter, a combination of Cantonese-ish appetizers like shrimp toast, egg rolls and sticky-sweet pork ribs arranged over a flaming bowl. For the most part, what Americans soon came to identify as Polynesian food was in reality a carefully curated strain of rich Cantonese food, adorned with pineapple and copious amounts of rum.

Although tiki pioneers like Beach and Bergeron were, on some level, culinary carpetbaggers, they were also extremely earnest in their passion for other cultures. Both were known for treating and paying their staff well in an era when discrimination against Asians was still rampant. Both were exceptionally knowledgeable about global cuisine—especially Bergeron, who became a sort of proto-authenticity advocate and later expanded his menu to encompass food that no one else was serving at the time, including Malaysian curries, Thai satay and even sushi decades before they were well-known. As actual Chinese chefs like Cecilia Chiang began to expose the country to a more authentic genre of regional Chinese cooking in the 1950s, Bergeron would go on to borrow from her style as well, even going as far as to have traditional Chinese ovens installed in Trader Vic’s kitchens.

The Twin Dragon

It was only natural, then, that the growing number of Cantonese restaurant owners across the country would capitalize on the appropriation of Chinese food by the tiki movement, retrofitting their own existing cocktail lounges with palm thatching and elaborate exotic drinks to attract thirsty customers. 

By the 1950s, the tiki fad had gone mainstream. There were tiki bowling alleys, tiki apartment complexes and tiki furniture stores. The tiki aesthetic soon seeped outward from cities into the booming suburbs, and in the process had become democratized and commercialized. Restaurants could order everything from tiki mugs to bamboo table skirts to carved totems through mail-order catalogues, or from exotica-themed restaurant supply companies like Orchids of Hawaii and Dynasty Wholesale (which explains why so many tiki bars across the country use the same ceramic bowls for Scorpions).

Drink recipes, once closely guarded secrets, became widely available as former bartenders, waiters and managers at chains like Trader Vic’s or Kon Tiki—many of them Chinese-American—left to work at other restaurants, took over for their retiring bosses or, in some cases, opened their own establishments. Like a giant game of telephone, tiki culture became looser in interpretation as it expanded into Cantonese restaurants. The Dr. Funk, a rare tiki drink actually invented in the South Pacific (by Robert Louis Stevenson’s personal physician no less) was often renamed the Dr. Fong, and served in Fu Manchu mug. Bamboo wallpaper mingled with hanging red lanterns. And Polynesian dishes like crab rangoon (a Trader Vic invention) became firmly planted in the Chinese-American canon.

Once the trend had reached peak saturation, however, its devolution was inevitable. As Sven Kirsten, the accomplished author and historian behind Tiki Pop and Tiki Modern told me, “the mythology behind Polynesian restaurants was never about authenticity, but rather presenting these unknown flavors and sensations in ways that seemed exotic.” As Americans began to view the now ubiquitous Cantonese-American cooking as lowbrow—greasy chow mein, fried stuff in sticky sauce—it lost much of its allure for the thrill-seeker. As quickly as “Polynesian” cuisine had leapfrogged into the national consciousness, it began to fade from relevance.

III. The Post-Polynesian Era

During the dark ages of tiki—a period which, and this is open to interpretation, stretched from the late 1970s until the early 2000s—the most reliable place to find a tropical cocktail across the country was almost certainly at a Chinese restaurant.

Nowhere was this Sino-Polynesian alliance more impervious to change than areas like suburban Massachusetts—and the greater Northeast in general—which isn’t surprising given the affection Boston still holds for lovably bastardized dishes like Peking Ravioli and American Chop Suey. Brother Cleve, a musician, bar consultant and tiki enthusiast widely considered the paterfamilias of Boston’s cocktail scene, recalls being given free Scorpion Bowls and pupu platters after playing a show at a local Chinese joint called the Kowloon (established 1950) in his early touring days. When fellow tiki pioneer Otto Von Stroheim flew out from LA to visit in 1997, Cleve says that Von Stroheim was astounded that “you could walk out the front door and within five minutes find yourself a Scorpion Bowl, Fog Cutter, Mai Tai or Suffering Bastard, all at Chinese restaurants.”

In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee describes Chinese restaurant culture as fundamentally “open-source,” to borrow a term from the tech world. “Good ideas have historically rippled quickly through the Chinese-restaurant system, carried by word of mouth, and by the experiences of dispersing immigrants,” she explains.

If something proves successful—General Tso’s chicken, for instance—it gets duplicated everywhere, a theory that explains why tiki drinks continued to find a home in Chinese restaurants even as the Polynesian trend began to wane in the late 1960s. According to Lee, Chinese food—especially when found outside of China—is above all else, malleable: “A driving force behind Chinese cooking is the desire to adapt and incorporate indigenous ingredients and utilize Chinese cooking techniques… Chinese cooking is a not a set of dishes. It is a philosophy that serves local tastes.”

If there are any glimmers of an update in the world of Chinese-tiki, it might be best personified in part by a decorated Boston bartender named Ran Duan. Duan’s parents own a Chinese restaurant, called Sichuan Garden II, located in the suburban city of Woburn. Back in 2009, the restaurant served bad tiki drinks.“We had all the classic Chinese tiki recipes, which basically meant that nothing was done properly… It was all sour mix, well booze—which can still be great. It’s become America’s Chinese classic now, you know, but it wasn’t really what I wanted,” Duan told Bevvy.co in an interview last August.

The self-taught bartender picked up cocktail books by Trader Vic and Beachbum Berry and crafted a menu based around quality tiki drinks, one that also pays homage to the Chinese restaurant his parents created. “It’s weird when you walk in and you see a Sichuan restaurant in an old, colonial-style house and now it has two tiki-centric cocktail bars,” Duan said. “But it works.”

Back in Los Angeles, there are further hints of a reimagined connection. Bryant Ng, chef and co-owner at Santa Monica’s wildly successful Cassia, is the grandson of two Cantonese immigrants who emigrated from Hong Kong to Santa Monica in the 1950s. Ng’s family manufactured and sold laundry detergent in China, but decided to open a Polynesian restaurant called the Bali Hai when they moved to the U.S.

“They served typical Polynesian foods like pupu platters and crab rangoon, but also Chinese-American staples like egg rolls, barbecued honey ribs, silver-wrapped chicken, pork chow mein, sweet and sour pork, egg foo young, Peking duck,” Ng told me. “I love looking through the old menus.” Cocktails included the Doctor Wong, the Tonga Cooler, the Mr. Chan and, of course, a flaming Scorpion Bowl built for four and served with 20-inch straws. Bali Hai closed in 1968, around the time the popularity of both tiki and Cantonese food were beginning their decline.

Ng is now a third-generation restaurant owner, one that deals in a more au courant style of Asian fusion, but there are still nods to the past, in dishes like a classic Cantonese fried rice tossed with cured Chinese sausage (lap cheong), salt pork and preserved fish, and an evocative pineapple-coconut Lava Flow—the favorite drink of Ng’s wife, Kim—topped off with a swirl of strawberry-balsamic gastrique.

While Cassia and Sichuan Garden II pay homage to the now timeless connection between tiki and Chinese restaurants in America, there won’t ever be a way to replicate places like Hop Louie or Twin Dragon. They were born from a mixture of commercial opportunism, exotic fantasies and ethnic distortion, all thrown together into the whirling blender of pop culture. We’re probably too obsessed with culinary authenticity these days to get swept up in such blissful ignorance again.

Last September, after nearly 76 years in operation, the family behind Hop Louie decided to close their long-tenured restaurant. Running the place required too much work of its aging owners, I was told. To the relief of many, though, they decided to keep the cocktail lounge downstairs open, albeit only for the time being. There’s comfort in knowing that until the final day comes, that Scorpion Bowl will be on the menu, unchanged, like a rum-soaked fossil preserved in amber.

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