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In Conversation

The Problem With Tiki

August 13, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

photo: PUNCH

A conversation between Samuel Jimenez, Mariah Kunkel and Chockie Tom, three spirits professionals parsing a reckoning decades in the making—and shaping what comes next.

When the heavily armed libertarian movement known as the Boogaloo boys began donning Hawaiian shirts at counterprotests following the death of George Floyd earlier this summer, tiki fanatics across the country took issue with their apparel. The perceived co-opting of their group’s attire by individuals who shared neither their values nor views enraged them and, frankly, hurt.

For critics of tiki, it was an ironic turn of events, offering an opportunity to engage in discussion about the ways in which one group’s appropriation of another group’s aesthetic might similarly incense individuals from the aesthetic’s originating, parent culture.

These conversations are hardly new. Tiki’s reckoning has been stewing for decades, bubbling just below the surface of the revival’s most recent wave. But in the current climate, in which racial inequities and personal accountability are put under a microscope, tiki’s history of appropriation and cultural insensitivity are receiving overdue attention. Leading the charge in reexamining the genre’s place in modern cocktail culture are Chockie Tom, co-founder of Doom Tiki, a non-appropriative pop-up series, and Mariah Kunkel and Samuel Jimenez, founders of Pasifika Project, an organization by and for people of Oceanic descent working in the hospitality industry.

In a new series of conversations that we’re publishing on PUNCH, we’re asking leading voices in drinks to have a discussion about the topics that are most important to them. Here, Tom, Kunkel and Jimenez talk about the problems with challenging tiki’s status quo and what the future of the genre looks like.

Mariah Kunkel: It is really nice to be able to talk to both of you at one time, because I have a lot of experience working with each of you, but not necessarily together. I think we should start with introductions: I was born and raised in California, I’ve been in the spirits industry for approximately seven years, most recently as brand development manager for Banhez artisanal mezcal. … I personally identify as Black and Indigenous. Through my mother I am a descendant of the people enslaved at the plantations of Mount Vernon and Arlington House. Through my father I am CHamoru, the Indigenous people of the Mariana Archipelago in the West Pacific. My family is from the island of Guåhan, or Guam.

Chockie Tom: My family is Pomo from California and Paiute from Nevada—Walker River to be exact, which is most noted for Wovoka, who was responsible for the Ghost Dance. And my family is also Georgian, from the country… I have been bartending for almost two decades and now I’ve crossed over to the brand and marketing side, currently I’m the BA [brand ambassador] for Ming River Baijiu. And then, with Austin Hartman, I founded Doom Tiki, which is a fundraising non-appropriative pop-up that likes to bring attention to a lot of problematic issues while benefiting different cultures and communities that are still dealing with the aftereffects of colonization.

Samuel Jimenez: I am half Samoan, half Mexican—first-generation on both sides. Both of my parents immigrated here: my dad from Guadalajara, Mexico, my mom from Tula, American Samoa or Tula, Tutuila. I’ve been in the beverage industry for … about five years. In terms of this conversation that we’re having today, a lot of the work just kind of started over the past two years by being vocal on social media about my opinions on tiki and the issues within the tiki drinks genre. That kind of turned into leading a seminar called Making Waves: Tiki Through a Polynesian Lens.

MK: I think because our numbers are not quite as great as perhaps some other cultures, that sometimes … people [only] encounter our cultures through a lens of media, like Peter Pan cartoons, or Lilo & Stitch, you know? So, if you don’t have any sort of truths or real human beings to counteract that … it’s easy to play on stereotypes.

I just want to help to uncover and amplify real stories, real people and help people understand why some of these things are harmful in terms of, you know, generational trauma and replicating colonization through tiki, and through hospitality environments that are not necessarily very hospitable. Because at the end of the day people are trying to create these wonderful bar experiences, [yet] I noticed a sort of creeping dread when I would have to go into these types of [tiki] bars for the brands that I’ve worked with in the past. I’m just sort of trying to reconcile, like, is it OK that I don’t feel great going into these bars? Is that just something that I’m supposed to deal with?

CT: Even the name is annoying for me because as much as we want to switch it to “tropical,” we can’t actually start the conversations and [reach] the people that we want unless we refer to it as “tiki.” Our main focus is to lead by example, to work with different bartenders from different cultures and kind of be like, “You can create an experience that takes you somewhere else without stealing from somebody else’s culture and community.”

MK: What do we think the current status quo is in terms of tiki?

CT: Right now, we’ve got this changing thing… There’s the old school and then there are the newer people. And the old school tends to be a lot of gatekeeping, out of touch, appropriative, older white dudes that are like “this is our thing” and “this is our culture” and “the Polynesian people should be grateful that we are aware they exist because we respect their culture and we value them.” But there are also a lot of newer people that are more cocktail-oriented that aren’t into neocolonialism or colonial roleplay or LARPing or whatever. But even within those communities … there still needs to be a lot of conversations about cultural appreciation and working with each other instead of profiting off of the pain of another group of people.

SJ: As messed up as it may be, I think there is a little bit of validity to the fact that Polynesian pop and tiki allowed for people to open themselves up to Pasifika cultures… The majority didn’t do it and don’t care about it, but there have been the few that have gone on to do the work to further understand why these things are problematic. Actually, with the new school, I often see a lot of those bars being more thoughtless… There are some that open very carelessly with no thought and no respect to the culture, to the people of the past, and that have no desire to even do that work and research and are only attempting to profit off of this most recent wave of tiki by being like, “Oh, we’re a tiki bar, too. Everybody loves tiki bars. Let’s open a tiki bar and not think twice about anything that we put in it.”

If it is appreciation that you have for our people, for our islands, for our cultures, for this aesthetic, for our words-then help us.

MK: I think there’s a distinction that should be drawn between cocktail bars—sort of industry darlings—and bars that are more consumer-facing, where I don’t see as much change as I might see within the [cocktail] industry. It’s really about filtering down some of this activism and some of these conversations to see how we can impact a larger audience.

CT: One of the positives I am seeing is, you know, when I’ve given talks, when Sam has articles and when you [Mariah] give talks, I see a lot more people tuning in than I expect … even tried-and-true so-called “tiki personalities,” so that’s a very positive change.

MK: You have to consider tiki has been sort of this trend that has had waves that have receded, gone away, and then come back again. It seems to always resurface when times are hard, when people need, you know, some sort of escape into a beautiful place and to be transported to tropical islands. Sometimes I worry that this will just lose steam before any positive change can be effected.

CT: I’ve been trying to lead by example by doing something completely different: creating escape differently and allowing different people from different backgrounds to redefine how they want to be showcased. Not even showcased, that’s not the right word, but reclaiming your power in the situation.

I think this is also part of a big conversation in the whole entire industry that needs to happen around the stereotypes and racism that we find even within agave spirits and Mexican drinking holidays… We need to create a greater awareness so as things trend in and out, people will be inclined to be less terrible about it.

MK: I think [progress] does require a lot of conversation, a lot of opening up to uncomfortable situations. … You have to think about who that [tiki] fantasy is oriented around. It’s not oriented around someone like me. It’s not oriented around any of the people that are on this call right now. And glorifying that worldview, how does that play out in hospitality?

SJ: The drinks genre itself is rooted in colonialism and imperialism. To me, there’s no way around it. To me, non-appropriative tiki doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. It can’t be a thing. But I’ll be a 100 percent honest—for the Pacific Islands, for Oceania, for Pasifika, the problems that we face in this world are greater than tiki. Our islands may cease to exist in the next 10, 20, 50, 100 years. Our cultures, our languages, our islands may be lost to climate change. We may not have homes to return to. The diaspora continues to lose aspects of culture year by year, moment by moment. So to me, even when I talk to people about tiki and when I try to educate people on our islands and our land and our people and our culture, if I’m being 100 percent honest, I’m like, “You guys can keep tiki if you want tiki,” but recognize that the cultures that you’ve taken a lot of inspiration from—if that’s what you want to call it—cultures that you’ve taken a lot from to create this aesthetic have modern issues that are seriously threatening the future of our people.

MK: I think a lot of times with indigenous tribes in the United States and also in the Pacific, people assume that these cultures are extinct, that they’re gone, that these people are not here, they’re not being impacted by really important issues.

In my heart of hearts, I would love for something entirely new to be constructed. Something that felt good, something that encouraged actual representation and input from the people whose cultures are being taken from.

SJ: If it is appreciation that you have for our people, for our islands, for our cultures, for this aesthetic, for our words—then help us. Then care about our issues… Pay attention to our peoples, pay attention to our diaspora, pay attention to the issues that we have going on right now. I care more about that than whether tiki exists or not… At the end of the day, I try not to get too down on it and just continue to focus on the process of educating people about … why these things are problematic. And then from there either creating something new out of the ashes or evolving.

CT: I don’t think there’s a future for tiki in its current form, change is necessary. If we want to change things, I think creating experiential bar[s] is different and that’s worth changing. But again, I think that there needs to be a lot of transparency in the history of rum and colonization and the fact that every single bar in America is on stolen land and maybe cement that has my ancestors’ bones in it. I think there needs to be more of a conscience about how that drink got into your glass.

MK: You have the whole culture as costume situation, which impacts many people, indigenous people especially. I always come back to the Enchanted Tiki Room [at Disneyland]. That was one of my favorite things when I was little and now actually unpacking the attraction itself, where you have four narrators—a German bird, a French bird, a British bird and a Spanish-speaking bird—it’s like this colonizer phantasmagoria.

CT: Part of the reason that we like to cause problems by using satanic iconography [in Doom Tiki] and are kind of disrespecting your religious iconography is because we want to provoke people into actually having to think about what’s problematic.

MK: To me it comes back to understanding how tiki sort of adds to the representation of colonized people, of indigenous women and how that continues to communicate how we value these cultures, these people—women especially—and I would really like to move past that. I don’t necessarily think that there is a checklist of things that you should or should not have in your bar, but I think it’s really about considering some of these greater, more complex themes that run through these establishments, and the history of colonization and imperialism in the Pacific.

CT: I think a good general rule is: Don’t be an asshole. If you think it might be a problem, it probably is.

MK: At one time I was like, “Oh yeah, you know, just, like, get rid of the mugs.” But the deeper that I get into this, the more thoughtful I am about it, the more people that I talk to, the more I have to concentrate on it, I really do feel like there needs to be a thoughtful examination of this. And I don’t necessarily mean slash and burn because honestly, this segment of the hospitality industry provides a lot of jobs for people that are of Pacific descent… It’s a very tricky, nuanced situation, but in my heart of hearts, I would love for something entirely new to be constructed. Something that felt good, something that encouraged actual representation and input from the people whose cultures are being taken from. 

CT: There needs to be cultural exchange, not appropriation. If you want to do something you can be respectful about it, but you need to talk to people—and not like this monolith of a cultural idea that you’ve built up in your head. ’Cause I can tell you one thing, a lot of people are disappointed that I don’t have braids, I’m covered in tattoos and I go to metal shows.

SJ: I’m a big believer in the idea that for any culture to survive, it has to adapt and it has to evolve… so I tend to believe in the good in people in that sense, and in the good in people nowadays to move forward with new knowledge and to try and do better.

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