Tiki culture first came into American consciousness in the 1930s, when Texas-born Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who had journeyed throughout the South Pacific, opened Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood. The Polynesian-themed restaurant offered Cantonese cuisine and exotic rum concoctions in a tropical ambiance of blazing torches, leis and brightly colored fabrics. Following the standard set by the Beachcomber, Trader Vic (Victor Bergeron) established his first Polynesian style restaurant in Oakland, which was to become a chain of restaurant worldwide. The popularity of Trader Vic restaurants peaked in the 50s and 60s, riding on the wave of the Tiki craze at the time, but the popularity of the restaurant chain eventually waned when Tiki lost its appeal to newer generations. In recent years, resurgent interest on Tiki culture also sparked interest on Tiki-themed restaurants and bars, as more young people come to appreciate the strong drinks and unique atmosphere of these places.
Another catalyst in the introduction and the eventual widespread acceptance of Tiki are the stories and souvenirs brought home by servicemen who fought in the Pacific during World Ward II. The fantastic stories about the exotic and magnificent islands inspired James Michener to write his book Tales of the South Pacific which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. A year later, the book was used as basis for the award-winning South Pacific musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which won a Pulitzer Prize and swept the Tony Awards. The musical in turn was the basis for the movie adaptation released in 1958.
Hawaiian statehood in 1959 brought about the golden era of Tiki popularity in the US. Americans love the exotic culture from the faraway islands that was romanticized in restaurants, bars, music, Broadway and Hollywood. Polynesian inspired design began to permeate many facets of American life, from home decorations to landscapes to architecture.
Now, having said all that, the question that comes to mind is: what exactly is Tiki culture? Are these just the mind-boggling drinks and exotic food? Tropical ambience brought by richly colored tapestries? The striking statues, masks and other collectibles that are just too irresistible for their camp value?
One definition of culture is that it consists of customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a social group that are transmitted from generation to generation. In short, it is the way of life of people in a given area that is uniquely their own. Thus, Polynesian culture from which Tiki is derived consists of the cultures of the South Pacific islands taken as a whole (though each island may have its own customs and beliefs that is quite different to the next island). Tiki culture, then, is an amalgam of the things that Westerners came to appreciate about the South Pacific islands: the friendly people, fascinating traditions and practices, lively music, imaginative artworks, practical architectural forms, exciting trinkets that are not only decorative but functional as well.
Unfortunately, it is not possible for Americans to transform their communities and homes into a tropical paradise symbolized by the Tiki culture. Thus, they settled for the next best thing- making Tiki artifacts part of their environment to somehow give them a feel of paradise. It is for this reason that Tiki statues are in high demand: a small statue as a table centerpiece or a rather large one in the garden are not only great conversation pieces, but also transform rather drudge settings into something with more warmth and life.