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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 9, 2002

Tiki Culture carves a niche in 21st-century America

By Wade Kilohana Shirkey
Advertiser Staff Writer

Move over, feng shui. And forget Southwestern decor: Tanned hides and antelope prongs are so passe, darling.

So-called "Tiki Culture" — for better or worse — is hot.

After simmering seemingly unnoticed for three decades, hibernating in bamboo-accented basement bars and thatched-roof barbecue pits of Mainland America, suddenly Tiki bars and restaurants are The Thing.

Web sites devoted to Tiki abound with kitschy memorabilia, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman music, books and entertainment. There's one site just for "FAQ," frequently asked questions about the Tiki lifestyle. And Tiki is now capitalized.

On Tiki sites, chat rooms and bulletin boards on the Internet, "posters" such as "BeachDude" and "Tiki Fish" share jpegs of Minneapolis tiki bars and fire-retardant sprays for grass and reed. You'll also find links to a veritable pupu platter of Tiki topics, from Tiki tattoos and lu'au dances — and, auwe, a Tiki ban in New Jersey, "snooty Tiki art" in Portland ... even Tiki toilets.

A third generation of Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron peddles his "umbrella-ed drink" mixes and Tiki mugs from Web sites and catalogs worldwide. Mugs that once cost $5 — said to be the quintessential Tiki prop — go on eBay for upward of $150.

Home Depot peddles Polynesian paraphernalia, from Tiki mugs to Tiki torches.

Once the bastion of tiki-ism, Trader Vic's now offers up its allure in restaurants from Bahrain to Beirut, Egypt to England, and Thailand to the United Arab Emirates. There are four Trader Vic's locations in trend-conscious Japan.

The trend toward Tiki-ism began, it is said, with the end of World War II, when the homecoming of GIs from the Pacific coincided with the introduction of the mai tai. By the '60s, South Seas-themed restaurants such as Don the Beachcombers and Trader Vic's abounded.

Tiki Culture is "totally mainstream" today, says Michael Souriolle, who carves tikis in his 'Ahuimanu back yard to sell on the Internet. "current cutting edge," he says.

Souriolle, 32, who is Filipino-Tahitian, recalls how an uncle in his native Philippines carved tikis for export to Hawai'i during the post-World War II craze. His uncle's work inspired him to take up the craft himself. With crude chisel, he carved his first tiki — partly from memory of his uncle's authentic Filipino, Hawaiian, South Pacific tikis and partly from the popular "kitsch cartoon style" of the day.

"The California interpretation of the Hawai'i experience is always sorta kitschy and primitive," he said. His first work was reminiscent of the revered Hawaiian war god, Ku — but "with a pineapple on his head!"

It was a minimal investment: Mom traded some of her famous chicken adobo for the Mexican fan palm log used for the carving. He parlayed that first $200 sale into the tools that sustain his hobby today.

He carves usually for special orders worldwide, producing two to three pieces a week. The images, about 2 to 7 feet tall, sell from a little over $100 to several hundred dollars. They end up in home decor, surf shops, bars and restaurants worldwide, even rentals for Hollywood sets and, locally, Don Ho's Island Grill and the new Tiki Grill and Bar in Waikiki.

His work ranges from authentic re-creations of Hawaiian ki'i, to Cook Island fertility gods and New Guinea female mythological figures to a 2-foot-high tiki resembling the popular Tiki Culture bar drink, the "Suffering Bastard."

He also meets up with what are called "Tiki Socialites," fellow enthusiasts coming to Hawai'i to see the real thing. "A lot come just to look for old tikis," he said. To be sold elsewhere, of course.

The trend is comforting, he said: "After (Sept. 11), people want to escape to a paradise. In a little tiki bar, with thatched roof, (Hawaiian) music, tikis and tiki torches, you escape to the South Pacific (and from urban stress) for a little while."

"It's the 'Gilligan's Island' syndrome," he said.

If the words "kitsch" or "schlock" come to mind, the trend's detractors think the same. "Tiki culture — or tiki-lite?" shouted one recent Honolulu editorial. Words like "cartoonish fixation," "trivialization" and "cultural plundering" criticize "all things Tiki."

Nevertheless, Souriolle plans to push the envelope, envisioning girls in 1920s-style hair and attire posing for tiki carvings, and adding wood panels, thatched roof, air-brushed tikis and tiki hood ornament to an old VW van.

The Tiki reproduction of the "woodies" cars of yesteryear will be totally happening. Totally Tiki.