I grew up during the "Tiki Era", the golden age of a sub-section of American culture which I've recently heard termed "Polynesian Pop". The Tiki Era lastly from roughly the mid 50's to the mid 70's, since which time, Tikis and the exotic elements they symbolize have slipped from favor with the American people and have been steadily vanishing from the commercial landscape.
I miss them.
It recently dawned on me that Polynesian Pop, taken as a whole, is one of my many obsessions. I hadn't quite realized this before, because I tended to focus on the smaller obsessions that are encompassed by it: Hawaiian shirts, Easter Island statues, Gilligan's Island, long hair, etc.
It also dawned on me that I'm obsessed with something phony. The paradise I long for is the magical idea of paradise conjured up by Polynesian restaurants and Tiki theming. The real Polynesia, at least the part I've seen firsthand (Hawaii), isn't really very much like my imagined tropical paradise. Oh, sure, the exotic elements are there, but it's life-sized. It's not the oversized, extra-tasty, brightly colored illusion I grew up thinking it would be. Hawaii is wonderful, but it isn't Gilligan's Island.
It further dawned on me that Polynesian restaurants have all but died out, at least in the DC area. This is a real tragedy. There used to be a bunch of them: The Luau Hut, the Diamond head, Kona Kai, and so on. But one by one they've closed up and disappeared. Even Trader Vic's, the granddaddy of them all, closed its doors a few months ago. The only Polynesian restaurant I'm aware of within driving distance of me is the Aloha Inn in Gaithersburg.
Something I find interesting, though, is that most Chinese restaurants have some of the elements of the classic Polynesian restaurant. The pu pu platter, the separate menu of exotic drinks served in Tiki goblets, and even perhaps the general focus on thick, heavy sauces one finds in many items on the typical Chinese food menu are not Chinese at all. Nor are they Polynesian. They come from the mythical Land of the Tiki.
But while some of the Polynesian food lingers on, the ambiance has slipped away. Chinese restaurants are well lit places full of golden pagodas, red cloth with tassels, dragons, Bhuddas, and that tinkly oriental music. Polynesian restaurants, on the other hand, are dimly lit places decorated with palm fronds, bamboo, volcanoes, waterfalls, masks, and most of all, giant Tiki statues. They give you a colorful plastic lei when you arrive, the music consists of tribal drums, and there's a good chance that something you order will be on fire when it arrives at your table. In short, the whole meal is like a trip to a tropical island paradise... to a place so magical, I now realize, that it doesn't even exist in real life.
I miss these places. It saddens me to think that the this sort of dining experience is unable to compete in today's restaurant marketplace. I mean, who wants to sit around looking at a chaotic assortment of old junk nailed to the walls, when they could be whisked away to a south seas island paradise?
Luckily, though, it seems as if organizations spontaneously form to save things whenever things become endangered. Polynesian Pop is no different. Among these recent realizations of mine is the fact that I'm not alone in my nostalgia for the lost Land of the Tiki. Just as I was astonished some years ago when I learned of the existence of World's Fair collector's organizations, I am amazed to find that there are lots of people out that who are interested in the preservation of Tiki-oriented stuff. There's a newsletter called the "Tiki News", a mail order catalog, web pages on the net, and so on, plus there's even been a convention, Exoticon '95. So perhaps all is not lost for Tiki-lovers like myself.
See also: The Tonga Room