Friday, August 25, 2006

This Beat is Tikitronic

tiki mask 1

tiki mask 2

Two vintage tiki masks adorning the soon-to-be-bulldozed Jasmine Tree restaurant, near PSU in downtown Portland. (Shiny new condo tower, coming soon, courtesy of local taxpayers. I'm resisting temptation to go off on a rant about that, but see the user comments on the above link.)

The Jasmine Tree is one of our city's last vestiges of "tiki culture", something I never really got into, but which is near and dear to a surprising number of people. For example see these reviews and writeups about the restaurant at,, and NWTiki

I did happen to go there on New Years Eve a few years ago. There was a sort of dinner-theater musical revue show that was supposed to culminate in champagne-soaked revels right on the dot of midnight. They actually ran out of material about ten minutes shy of the witching hour, so there was a bit of awkward standing around until we got to the champagne. But hey. If you've never heard "Proud Mary" sung in broken English in a tiki-themed Chinese restaurant on New Years Eve, you may have already lost your last chance to. Dinner included a nice big platter of that sliced, cold BBQ pork, with the hot mustard and sesame seeds. I don't care whether it's authentic. I loved the stuff as a kid, and having it once again with a fruity parasol drink in hand was just freakin' sublime. Ok, this was after the second or third fruity parasol drink, if I recall correctly, which I probably don't.
After a couple more parasol drinks, I finally started to understand the weird animatronic "Enchanted Tiki Room" show at Disneyland, which until that moment had just mystified the hell out of me. That moment passed, and the singing animatronic birds once again mystify the hell out of me.

The funny thing is that the New Years excursion was my parents' idea. They were going with friends, and invited us to come, so we were going with a bunch of people who were all huge tiki fans back in the day and didn't see anything ironic about it at all. It was just like the old days, I gather; couples going out for dinner, parasol drinks, and a show. This was probably the right way to do it. When people see chop suey on the menu and start laughing derisively, it really ruins the whole mood.

The only worrisome part of the evening was how a few mai tais in a Tiki bar can bring out the un-PC-ness in people of a certain age. I've tried to explain, very patiently, that it's not ok to refer to people as "Oriental", but the advice doesn't really take even at the best of times, and it's far from the best of times when you put people in a restaurant that reminds them of when they were 23. At least the place was noisy, and I don't think anyone overheard them. Or at least, I didn't see anyone I knew there, so if anyone was offended, at least they were perfect strangers, which is something, I guess.

Let's be honest here, the JT is a total dive. It's survived as long as it has because it's near the college, and it offers cheap mixed drinks and karaoke in a weird retro setting, and you can get a bento to go for lunch (a distinctly non-Tiki practice). Let's not pretend it's a cultural treasure here.

Here's a Christian Science Monitor article discussing the hipster-driven resurgence of the Tiki phenomenon in recent years. I don't really know (or, quite honestly, care) all that much, but I do have a few theories, or, ok, notions, of my own about why people found this stuff so appealing at one time, and why some do now. I'm sure there've been many books written, probably even doctoral dissertations written, on this topic, and we could go look at those, but where's the fun in that? I mean, this is a blog. Uninformed speculation is the heart of what blogging is all about.

People enjoy the temporary fantasy of an exotic, non-urban, magical land, where life moves at a slower, more sensual pace, and there's always time for another drink, and the friendly (if a bit simple) natives bid you a hearty welcome, or aloha, or arrivederci. I say "arrivederci" because I gather that in the 21st century, rural Tuscany has replaced Polynesia as Pop Culture's distant, exotic land of choice, just as Polynesia replaced the 1920s-era fixation with "Arabia". The retro fad isn't really about Pacific island culture, either; the yearned-for distant land in this case is 1959 America, not Polynesia. (By "Polynesia", I mean the pan-tropical Tiki universe, which also included China, "the Orient", Florida, and sometimes Cuba. And Bali, and maybe the rest of Indonesia. And Singapore. Anywhere with palm trees, basically. It was the 50's & 60's, and nobody really knew or cared about the differences between all these places.)

Tiki had a bit extra going for it, in that it provided an excuse to show a little skin, in an era when an excuse was needed. Consider the old National Geographic policy on nudity: You could show it, so long as the people being photographed were "innocent" natives who didn't know it was sinful and wrong. The plethora of tropical island B-movies from the era took the same tack. You could show skin, anywhere from flashes of bare midriff up to substantial nekkidness, so long as everyone acted like it was no big deal. Island maidens could splash around in the lcal waterfall all they liked, wearing nothing but a smile, so long as they remained blissfully unaware there was a movie camera lurking in the bushes. I think it's telling that the genre started to die out in the late 60's, when the, uh, taboo receded a bit.

A couple more Tiki-retro articles here and here, if you're interested.

If I was a Real Journalist (and not merely part of the unwashed blogging rabble Real Journalists alternately sneer at and quiver in fear of) I'd go visit the city's soon-to-be only vintage tiki bar, the Alibi up on Interstate Avenue, and interview people at both places, and do original research and so forth. Pshaw! It's not that I'm opposed to going to a corny retro bar and downing mai tais, per se, it's just that I haven't had time, what with having an RL job and all, and I can't write it off as a business expense, and basically I'm just lazy & haven't gotten around to it. Plus, if I go at a later date, I can use that for a followup post, which will make me look far more dilligent than I actually am.

Word on the street is that someone's going to be opening a brand new tiki outfit called "Thatch", somewhere in off the hipster regions. Somehow it just won't be the same. I can't really put my finger on it. It's sort of like how old B monster movies are great, but new B monster movies (like the stuff you see on the SciFi Channel) are godawful trash.

I mentioned tiki / tropical island / jungle B-movies earlier. Here are a few, most of which I've seen. I have mentioned I'm a B-movie dork, haven't I? I thought about doing mini-writeups about each of these, but I've already spent far too long working on this post. Each link takes you to the IMDB page for the movie, and there's plenty of info there if you're interested.

And there's Gilligan's Island, of course, which is sort of a spoof of all these silly movies they kept making. More seriously, the University of Hawaii has an extensive database of films relating to the Pacific, with a focus on documentaries. Why the weird title? Fads come and go, and what could be more unfashionable than 1990 dance music? Not old enough to be retro, maybe will never be retro, since nobody can ever predict that in advance. Well, that's my justification, but it really came about because I was trying to come up with a play on words involving "Tiki", and I came up with "Tikitronic" because I'm a geek, and that in turn reminded me of a song from long ago. So there you have it, if you care.

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