Lately there’s been a lot of anti-tiki backlash in the bar world because tiki bars fetishize Pacific Islander culture. While I agree that fetishizing PI culture is gross, there’s something about this anti-tiki conversation that is missing.
As someone who is part Filipina, I realized that I needed to take the time to unpack: how exactly do I feel about tiki bars? I know that someone of my fellow PI people feel uncomfortable going into tiki bars, but personally I have always loved tiki bars, especially the trashier, kitschier and more throw back tiki bars. To me, there has always been something blatantly gauche about the tiki bar, kinda like a bad racist joke we all know is racist but we still laugh at anyway. Yo, this shit is ridiculous. Granted, there is that subset of Alameda white people who take tiki culture very seriously, but, again, weren’t we always kinda laughing at them?
But that’s not it. That’s not how I feel about tiki bars. To me, tiki bars are quintessential Americana. And seeing as I’m a quintessential American, I think there’s a lot to be said about how and why America has manifested tiki bars as an okay thing in our culture. On a grander level, America is all about colonialism, cultural appropriation, and separating people from their heritage. Let’s be honest about what America has become: it’s a place that people can go to so that they can become lost children. So that they can divorce themselves from their heritage and traditions. So they can start something new, irreverent and iconoclastic, all morality be damned. Whether by choice or by coercion, America is a land of inauthenticity. And what’s more inauthentic than a tiki bar?
But that’s still not it. There’s still my personal experience of tiki bars. Or, rather the mentality that spawned this land of tiki bars. Or, to be blunt: yellow fever. Yup, that’s right, I am a yellow fever baby, born of white father who indiscriminately loved all things Asian. Which is why he married my mother, who is half Filipina. (And also why he had a variety of hob nob Asian ephemera around the house, including Korean wedding dolls, a Chinese scroll painting, and a few Japanese knick knacks. Not a very discerning man, clearly.) My father married my mother in the 1960s, back when race mixing was still fairly taboo and before we had the language and the awareness with which to unpack the various racist microaggressions that white people committed against people of color. So it will come as no surprise for me to tell you that, yes, my father committed a lot of racist microaggressions towards my mother. It’s something that I grew up witnessing, and, unfortunately, because of that, perhaps became a bit comfortable with.
Which is why I like tiki bars. My parents’ favorite date night spot was Trader Vic’s, the original tiki restaurant. There is something about the white fetishization of Asian culture that is normalized to me on such a fundamental psychological level that I don’t think I can ever truly divorce myself from it. So walking into a tiki bar feels…familiar. Comforting. Perhaps a bit like Stockholm syndrome, but, fuck it, sometimes there’s something comforting in the things that are bad for you. Like alcohol.
This is what’s missing from the current conversation about tiki. For those of us who are too far gone into whiteness, what does tiki mean to us? What does it mean to be the product of the yellow fever mentality? When PI activists say that the white fetishization of PI culture is wrong, how do we feel about our parents? About ourselves? How are we supposed to feel when the tiki bar, which in some ways is a reflection of our lived racial experience, is branded as ‘wrong’ and ‘bad?’
I’ve always been confused about how to feel about being mixed. A lot of mixed people feel that way. So this is nothing new to us. I have always felt that I belonged at the tiki bar. That I made sense. The garish fetishization of PI women, the culturally insensitive reproductions of religious artifacts, the cultural erasure masquerading as cultural celebration – yup, I am very comfortable with that. I don’t think it’s right, but I know how to be okay with it because growing up in a mixed household, I had to be okay with it. Granted, being at a tiki bar felt okay for me, but I definitely looked around at all the other mother fuckers sitting there and wondered why the fuck they were okay with it, too. The tiki bar can be home for me and all my other hapa friends, but everyone else? What the fuck were they doing there?
Here’s what’s missing from the conversation about tiki bars: interracial dating. To me, that’s what tiki bars were all about: white men fucking Asian women. White men who kicked it at tiki bars were basically signaling that they were down to fuck Asian women. Which at a certain time was a risky thing to do. I guess what’s interesting to me now is that within white tiki culture, you don’t see nearly as much race mixing as before. What’s worse: a white couple at the tiki bar or a mixed Asian/white couple at a tiki bar?
Eh, I don’t care about which is worse. So much of this irritates me. What irritates me the most, however, is mezcal. Or, let me back up for a second here and take it back to my personal background. My father married my mother because she is Asian, and he wanted to piss off his white mother. However, my mother is half Filipina and half Mexican. She was raised by her Mexican side of the family and despite being mixed identifies more with her Mexican heritage. But that’s not why my father married her. In fact, he pretty much ignored the fact that she was Mexican and treated her like she was 100% Filipina. So in addition to being a witness to Asian fetishization, I also have the lived experience of the cultural erasure of my Mexican heritage by my father.
Which brings me back to mezcal. And mezcal bars. Specifically, white owned mezcal bars. Can we have a reckoning about that? Can we do that now? Before white owned mezcal bars become so normalized that it gets absorbed into American culture as something that’s just fun to do like the tiki bar? Because that’s what’s happening right now, too. I guess there’s something sickly ironic about the fact that tiki culture was born of the Korean War and Hawaii’s statehood. Tiki culture flourished here in California after the Japanese were put in internment camps here. And this love for mezcal is exploding during one of the most xenophobic presidencies in the history of this country and while Latinx children are being locked up at the border. It’s almost like: as soon as we oppress a culture we can then start to reinterpret it as American and reabsorb it into our bloodstream. Like I said: a country full of lost children and inauthenticity. It’s what we do, and we do it well.
Redefining the tiki bar isn’t going to change America. It’s not going to change the fact that we are all Americans, and that means that we are in some way complicit beneficiaries of America’s tradition of cultural atrocities. Of course I support the anti-tiki activists. But I am still very confused about my place in that, about my racial background, about what it means to be American. I’m not sure if I should be loud about this or if I should just…yeah, I don’t know what to do. Does being part white invalidate my opinion on tiki bars? Or does being part Filipina prove their point. Is my existence violence? Or am I overthinking this. I don’t like Asian fusion food because it’s just white washing Asian cuisine for people who think that Chinatown is too ‘ethnic.’ I resent that every mid-tier American restaurant now has tacos on the menu because how can tacos be good at a restaurant where they don’t make their own tortillas and salsa? It’s lazy menu writing. But preferring authentic cuisine isn’t a referendum on my existence as the product of interracial dating.
I love the Black Lives Matter movement for bringing these new conversations about race to the table. Credit where credit is due: we wouldn’t be talking about tiki bars if BLM hadn’t empowered us to talk about our race, too. Thanks for that. But it was only a matter of time before these conversations became personal. Or, rather, interpersonal.
All of this is just to say: if bars were still open, I’d still be drinking at tiki bars, and I’d be judging everyone else there, while at the same time feeling very confused about how and why I was there. But bars aren’t open, so I guess I’ll just be drunk at home indefinitely, which is great because drinking at home means I don’t have to confront the moral crisis of racism in my kitchen full of non-ethnically charged decor and glassware. Cheers to that.