by W.S. McCallum
Stranger In A Strange Land
For me, many a sedentary moon had passed in Wanganui and the urge to venture back out into the wide world and travel grew ever stronger with the passing of the days. But where to go? As a well-travelled man of the world, I had already had my fill of the usual exotic destinations. Lounging with lemurs in a tropical rainforest, the hubble-bubble of Egyptian hookah cafés, running with the bulls in Pamplona, or the thrill of surviving in a Turkish prison no longer held the appeal they once did in years gone by.
I needed a different sort of travel experience, something that would take me back to my cultural roots as an inhabitant of a remote corner of Polynesia. Yes, I needed to find the source of... Tiki culture.
According to the oracle...
… it all started in a land called Cali-for-nia.
I needed to go there, but I had to be properly equipped:
The journey would be an arduous one - California was a land of bears...
and the tribes of Cali were renowned for their savagery:
In addition to which, their paramount leader was a fierce warrior chieftain:
It was said that the people of that strange land were vehement in their beliefs, and that they worshipped a confusing array of pagan idols, none of whom should be idly mocked:
I thought I was ready, but would I really be equal to the rigours required of a California Tiki Tour?
Part One: I set off...
At Auckland Airport, a friendly Customs officer took me aside in order to explain the inadvisability of taking a machete to California. While it was true that the citizenry of that land did indeed regard it as a God-given right to bear arms, it was, he said, a right that they guard jealously for themselves and do not see fit to bestow on outsiders, whom they look down on as "non-citizens" or even as "aliens".
What's more, the friendly Customs officer explained, there was an elite body of guardians protecting California who call themselves "Homeland Security" who make it their special job to isolate outsiders who they might consider to be "undesirable aliens" or even "enemy aliens" and subject them to inquisitorial practices above and beyond the criminal fingerprinting and mug shots they normally subject all foreigners to on the wise grounds that, being foreigners, none of them can be trusted in the slightest. Any such non-citizen foreign alien type person found in possession of a machete would doubtless at the very least undergo the arcane ritual known as the Anal/Rectal Search and would be kept under close scrutiny until he passed stool, which their seers would then examine closely for signs of portents from the Gods. If the reading was not good, the suspect traveller would then be incarcerated in one of Cali's many rapidly-expanding penal establishments, where he would make interesting new friends and would likely receive the opportunity to become personally acquainted with the California Bear lifestyle on an intimate basis...
I gulped, thanked the good man for his sage advice, and left my machete at his counter.
It was an arduous Pacific crossing, fraught with turbulence, spilled cocktails, and perilous toilet use. Regarding this incident, I need not say more.
My contact in San Francisco, my port of arrival, was Ms. Nouméa, who was to serve as my guide and interpreter. Whilst she had grown up in the land of Cali, she was nonetheless descended from New Zealanders and, although their good stock had been diluted through several generations of intermarriage with indigenes, and her family had long since lost contact with their gentle land of origin, down through the generations they had nonetheless managed to retain some vestiges of the speech and mannerisms of their ancestors. The upshot of this was that, when conversing with Ms. Nouméa, I had at least a 50/50 chance of understanding her weird utterances and, with any luck, could prevail upon her in fractured pidgin to request a Mai Tai or other essential provisions from one of the locals who, I suspected, would consider my vocalisations with much the same attitude of bemused intolerance that they would adopt when dealing with the local village idiot or a passing Canadian.
Ms. Nouméa was aghast at my explorer's clothing, and professed amazement that Homeland Security had not automatically "ARSed" me based merely on my appearance the moment I had disembarked. Thus I came to learn the critical importance of "profiling" and blending into one's environment in order not to arouse suspicions. She told me that if I was going to enter tiki bars dressed like THAT, then my chances of successful interaction with the natives would be very slim indeed, if not impossible. I was told in no uncertain terms that I would do better to burn my uniform whilst she set about acquiring accoutrements which she referred to as "hipster's gear". Dressed in this apparel, strange though my mannerisms may be, locals would assume I was merely a dreadful bohemian rather than an undesirable alien, and thus I would only be the butt of occasional derision and drollery rather than the target of suspicion or even outright hostility. "And", she added "you're not going anywhere till you grow a matching goatee!"
Thus my fate was sealed. I was to enter California's tiki kingdom disguised as a hipster...
Part Two: My first sortie into the wild
Holed up in Ms Nouméa's gritty pied à terre in Oakland (one of the nation's murder capitals, so I am informed), I waited and let nature take its course. Stubble grew to facial hair which grew to a beard-like protuberance that was hacked and beaten into shape until it passed Ms Nouméa's exacting quality tests.
She taught me that unlaboured pose, that loitering insouciance so characteristic of the Bay Area hipster. In an endeavour to rid me of my proper English, I had strange expressions like "don't 86 me" drummed into me until I could flick them off at the drop of a ciggy butt with just the hint of an uncaring sneer on my lip.
I studied useful on-line "teach yourself how to be a hipster" literature:
And I was shown special videos to assist me with assimilating myself into my new environment; Oakland:
I was a dedicated pupil, and it was not that long before I had (I thought) mastered the basics of hipsterdom.
By that time, I was raring to go out: "What about the Stork Club? Can't we go tonight?"
She rolled her eyes. "The Stork Club!?! Ever heard about not running before you can walk? They'd eat you alive down at the Stork Club!"
"Well I can't stay here forever - surely there's somewhere I can go?"
"I've got just the place."
And that was how I got to visit the local branch of Trader Joe's and saw my very first Californian tiki:
Elated by this momentous event, and breathless from the excitement of returning intact from my first foray into the wilds of the Bay Area, little did I suspect then that even greater things were to come...
Part 3: Do You Know The Way To San José?
"So why are we driving to San José again?"
I was bored with the endless concrete vista offered by the freeway, interrupted periodically by more concrete shaped into various sorts of buildings.
"Because it's temporarily a center of tiki culture." Ms Nouméa was slightly annoyed at having to answer this question yet again.
"Temporarily? What does that mean?"
"You'll see when we get there."
The freeway turned into an off-ramp which turned into a main street, lined with various ethnic restaurants, and soon we were downtown in San José.
Then there was a side street and an underground carpark. Followed by a lift, and a short walk around in circles in the town hall until someone behind a desk helpfully pointed us in the right direction, and then we were there:
"This is the guy whose works were reproduced on all those tiki restaurant menus and matchbooks etc." said Ms Nouméa. "And these are the original artworks they stole from."
I read on:
Then there were the murals themselves; so big I could barely fit them in the camera frame:
"Native Dwellings of the Pacific Area" mural.
"Native Means of Transport in the Pacific Area".
"The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific".
"Hey, look at the cute animals for New Zealand!" exclaimed Ms Nouméa:
And then there was the "Peoples of The Pacific" mural:
"Hey, look at the Maori warrior!" she exclaimed:
"Hold on," I grimaced, "that doesn't look right. Why is that crazy Maori stomping up and down on Te Waipounamu? That's sacred land - the source of Ngai Tahu greenstone! The site of Mount Aoraki! Has that Mexican painter no respect?"
Ms Nouméa was starting to get annoyed: "So what's your problem?"
"Well, I don't see no Native American stomping up and down on Mount Rushmore over in YOUR country, do I?" I said, gesticulating at the appropriate part of the mural.
Ms Nouméa looked skywards, further up than the top of the mural even.
But there was worse to come – “The Economy of the Pacific” mural:
"So why has he painted it so it looks like that sheep is pooping on Auckland? And what's with the cow's butt? And what on earth is going on with that fish swimming straight towards the cow's butt? With a faint smile on its face even..."
Ms Nouméa was not impressed: "You're crazy! It's just a painting!"
"And why is the cow standing on Mount Aoraki too? Did this Covarrubias guy have some sort of anti-New Zealander thing going? I feel I ought to know...."
"Nuts! Completely nuts! I'm going back to the car!"
And so ended our trip to San José.
Part 4: San Francisco
"San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.”
I could hardly go to the Bay Area without visiting its hub, the home of...
Mammy Pleasant, the Voodoo Queen:
The Trailside Killer:
... and the most notorious of all; Zippy The Pinhead:
Finally, the big day came; I was to be let loose in the streets of Frisco.
Ms Nouméa grimaced as we drove across the Bay Bridge towards our destination: “Don’t call it Frisco!”
“Well that’s what they call it in the songs – “that mean old Frisco and that low down Santa Fé!” as Muddy Waters used to sing."
“You’re not in the 1940s now - call it “San Fran”!”
She spent the rest of the passage across the Bay Bridge explaining to me the many differences between Oaklanders and San Franers...
“And don’t call them San Franers!” she reprimanded. “They’re San Franciscoans.”
“That’s long winded – could I just call them Friscoans?”
Anyway, I learnt from her that, unlike Oaklanders, the hill people of San Francisco live in a land of perpetual fog and that they are lacking in various hallmarks of advanced civilization such as driveways, stand-alone letter boxes, and street parking. I was sternly warned that living cheek to jowl with each other all crammed together in little boxes on that tiny peninsula meant that they were all stir crazy and were unpredictable at the best of times. I was advised to be on my guard and to say as little as possible, as the charlatans and tricksters amongst their ranks were legion. And although the locals were used to having foreigners in their midst, they were frequently only interested in them as a potential source of pecuniary gain...
Our first stop was the Fairmont Hotel’s legendary Tonga Room...
Which turned out to be closed until happy hour started somewhat later in the day.
Back on the street five minutes later, I suggested Chinatown as our next destination:
“I’ve always wanted to see one of those opium dens!”
Ms Nouméa rolled her eyes skywards: “They don’t have opium dens in Chinatown!”
Which turned out to be true; although we did find one at the Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf.
I did however revel in the exoticism of the Chinatown, and wondered about the supposed multi-culturalism of my homeland; a country that has had Chinese immigrants as long as California has, but where the Powers That Be made sure that nothing resembling Chinatown survived; to the extent that its despised Wellington equivalent (complete with opium dens, gambling houses and brothels) was eventually bulldozed out of existence in the 1930s:
Somewhat at a loose end, we wandered and then drove around the streets, taking in historic spots, such as the corner of Washington & Kearney Streets (the site of the very first topless bar in the United States - 1885):
The house where Charles Manson lived (at 636 Cole Street at Haight) during the Summer of Love:
And the the bank that Patty Hearst robbed when she was with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 (on 1450 Noriega at 22nd Ave):
Finally, Ms Nouméa finally had an idea that saved the day: a visit to the de Young Museum! Which happens to have a world-standard collection of art from Papua New Guinea:
Fortunately, by the time we had finished perusing the artifacts, the museum was about to close, and happy hour at the Tonga Room was about to begin...
Part 5: From San Francisco to Emeryville
The Tonga Room both did and didn't live up to its reputation. The décor was wonderful - the Polynesian village at one end of the "lagoon" and the sailing ship smorgasbord area at the other; the periodic thunder and lightning accompanied by a tropical downpour; and the diners.
A couple of tables across from us were three generations of males from the same family (or at least they certainly looked related) - grand-dad, dad and junior (who would have been about 12 years old). All three were wearing conservatively-cut suits with slightly overstated shirts and ties, and the Tonga Room was obviously a family ritual. Classy - they fitted the place perfectly, unlike the sloppy tourists in their track pants etc. Ms. Nouméa and I were also dressed formally in black evening wear; she was in a very nice black dress, while I wore a black Italian suit, with a white Pierre Cardin shirt, a black patterned Burberry tie, and a trilby, which I had the good manners to remove when I passed through the hallowed portal, unlike various philistines roaming around in baseball caps.
Then there was the party of Polynesian ladies beside us, who also fitted in perfectly. They were dressed in style; island style, but not garishly. They commented that the Tongan royal family dined there when they visited SF (sorry "San Fran"). I tucked into my smorgasbord fare with the assurance that if the place was good enough for Tongan royalty, then there was no reason for us palangi commoners to worry about cultural correctness.
But, alas, there were down sides too. The Maitre D that night was a bit offhand to us. Having dined in Parisian restaurants where condescension is part of the evening's entertainment, I did not find this off-putting, but others certainly would. And, sadly, I found the food and drinks disappointing, which is why we ended up reversing our last-minute decision made at the door to have a full meal, and opted for the happy hour food and drinks option instead. The drinks were OK, and so was the food, but there was definitely a gap between the level of the décor and the level of what we were served that evening.
Overall, the tiki restaurant that impressed me the most in the Bay Area was the newly remodelled Trader Vic's, in Emeryville. I have already commented in the TV Emeryville thread about my first meal there, so here are some photos taken there instead:
Whoops! Wrong Trader...
Part 6: Las Vegas
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the fringe of the desert, when the sugar began to kick in. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded – it’s just as well I’m not driving!” Twelve hours on the road from Oakland, dodging the hellish mayhem caused on the highway by a lemming-like rush of both nuclear and extended families deciding to take their seasonal vacation, had by now taken their toll.
There was an incessant roar all around us, the road full of oncoming SUVs and people carriers, swooping and screeching and driving too damn close, on a two-lane road with only the faintest suggestion of median road markings.
“Holy Jesus!” I exclaimed. “Who are these goddamn animals?”
But I had come prepared: I had two bags of trail mix, a box of chocolate peanuts, seventy-five chocolate gold coins of the world in a little string bag, five slabs of industrial-strength artisanal fudge, and a whole array of chocolate in various forms, from some of those little cherry-flavoured foil-wrapped jobs, right through to bars of the hard stuff:
Not to mention the dregs of a bottle of Fanta, a maxi-sized cup of Sprite from a roadside chain eaterie which shall pass unnamed, and the remains of a burger and fries takeaway meal settling uncomfortably in my stomach. Not that I needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious sugar collection, the tendency is to push it for all it’s worth. The only thing that really worried me was the fudge. There is nothing in the world more depraved than a man on a fudge binge, and I knew we’d be diving into that head-spinningly sugary stuff pretty soon.
As we approached, the shimmering lights of Vegas grew ever-brighter on the horizon until, finally, we were in their midst. Whilst remonstrating with Ms. Nouméa to keep her eyes on the road, my gaze too was drawn to their glistening promise of sleaze, hedonism and moral depravity. Fighting their siren call, I looked at my watch (it was well past midnight), guzzled some more chocolate and slouched down in my seat, hoping their tendrils would be unable to grasp me. In my reckless quest for tiki culture, had I finally come too far?
The morning brought bright sunshine and the most tropical mid-winter’s day I have ever experienced in the Northern Hemisphere. A quick breakfast at the Golden Gate diner and we were off to see the sights. And there were interesting sights to see. Being stuck in traffic on the Strip seems to usually involve vistas such as this:
“Imagine that!” I exclaimed: “Girls... that want to meet ME! Someone must have told them I had arrived.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet they’re all psychic,” commented Ms Nouméa.
Our first stop was the Atomic Testing Museum, where we learnt about how clean, safe nuclear weapons kept the world free during the Cold War.
And yes, while the powers behind the museum did admit in their informative displays that the bombs were indeed exploded on Indian reservation land, just 65 miles away from Vegas, and that once the tests went underground, they also created the possibility of radioactive materials leaching into aquifers, there was clearly nothing to be worried about, because they’re all infallible scientists and they know exactly what they’re doing. Ms. Nouméa was so shocked afterwards that she felt nervous about even drinking the local tap water. I told her not to worry – as casual visitors in town for just a few days, we were fine; it would take years of drinking the local water before there was any possibility of hideous mutations developing.
But there was no denying that as the result of the tests, Las Vegas was a zoo, full of mutants. These second-class citizens, shunned by the more fortunate locals who have not developed hideous deformities, are reduced to working in menial occupations such as being doormen:
Or even panhandling, for want of any other means of making a living in a society that shuns their kind...
But enough of such sad matters – I came to Vegas in quest of tiki culture. My first sign of it was Tiki Lee’s joint at the Charleston Antique Mall:
And there were even signs of tiki culture to be witnessed as we wandered around the mean streets near Charleston Boulevard:
And mean streets they were. We were walking to El Cortez Casino when I overheard the following tale loudly being retold by a homie to his bro walking just ahead of us on the sidewalk: “So there I was man; he was lookin’ at me and I said “Well I’m packin’ a gun, and you’re packin’ a gun, so whatcha gonna do now?””
I didn’t wait to find out the outcome of the story. I steered Ms. Nouméa (who hadn’t heard a thing), across the street and well away from them. It may have been broad daylight and they may have been in a jovial mood, but I didn’t want to put it to the test.
In spite of it being in the process of receiving a facelift, the Downtown area still had rough edges that had not been smoothed off. One ground-floor apartment we walked past had a large sign taped to its window stating “THIS IS NOT A DRUG HOUSE”. There were handwritten notes taped to street furniture advertising pharmaceuticals, and even local landmarks bore the traces of violence. The Atomic Bar, which closed late last year due to gangsta violence:
Atomic Bar bullet holes:
Still, for most, Vegas is a land of fantasy, and we too pursued it. I was intrigued by some tiki shot glasses from the Mandalay Bay Casino that I saw in the Charleston Antique Hall, and we found some traces still left from a more exotic past when we walked around the giant complex:
There were function rooms at one end of the complex with South Pacific names that hinted at a more tiki-oriented past, but apart from the occasional mural, there was little other sign of such things.
Indulging in another theme, we decided to dine at Red Square while we were there.
Who wouldn’t want to dine in a restaurant with a giant headless statue of Lenin outside, and that had a waitress who was so authentic-looking that I initially mistook her for a Russian hooker when I entered the joint? Not to mention the wonderful food, and absolutely outstanding cocktails, out of which The Chernobyl was the high point.
Wobbling our way back along the Strip to our hotel, we marvelled at the supersized surrealness of it all. Las Vegas is an endless giant spectacle; a town you need never leave because they have created a version of the entire world along this one street. We laughed at the silly things we saw:
And gasped at the monumental architectural reproductions:
We watched the cops and villains at play:
And even came across a bit of tiki culture:
But the high point of our time in Las Vegas was Frankie’s:
Frankie’s was perfect – the décor was just right, the drinks were great (and prepared phenomenally quickly), they had the coolest bar jukebox mix I have ever come across, and the ambiance was very relaxed – the perfect way to end an evening after navigating through the oversized craziness of The Strip.
But before finally leaving Las Vegas, there was one last place which could not be missed:
We pushed our way through hordes of ghastly little tykes dragging along their long-suffering parents, and shielded our eyes from the period Hammer Horror circus design nightmare that was the building’s interior, forcing ourselves ever onward until we finally reached it:
Only to find that it was now a soda shop. Well, there was no booze, and definitely no Hunter S. Thompson, but we did see this guy:
Part 7: Los Angeles
L.A. offered the ultimate tiki challenge: we only had 24 hours in that city. Could we get to the heart of L.A. tiki culture in just one day?
We kicked off what was shaping up to be an all-day bar crawl by paying homage to the master barfly himself: Charles Bukowski.
The Huntington Library in Pasadena was holding an exhibition devoted his life and works called "Poet On The Edge" and it was too good to miss.
The exhibits included his typewriter, an old wine glass, and even the radio he used to listen to when he was doing his writing.
From there we had quite a distance to drive to get to Huntington Beach - you'd think the library and the beach would be closer together given they have the same name... On the way a fleeting glimpse was caught of one of the original Golden Arches:
We reached Don The Beachcomber in time for a late lunch, in a nearly empty restaurant, with just one other table occupied.
Everything was looking very festive. The foyer was very cheery:
Lunch was kicked off with the best Mai Tai I have ever have, followed by some tasty Asian cuisine, which included the hottest chili pepper I have ever had the misfortune to inadvertently swallow. Copious amounts of water and three glasses' worth of ice later, I had stopped literally seeing red and was able to stagger around the place snapping lots of photos:
The Waitiki 7 and Robert Drasnin (Mr Voodoo himself!) were scheduled to play as part of the Waitiki New Year's Festival that evening, and we were lucky enough to hear their music drifting through the premises as we dined. That's Mr Drasnin in the back of the room:
Don's is an absolutely incredible venue - so much space, so many facilities, and fantastic decor, but it was only the first stop on our L.A. tiki tour...
Ms Nouméa did sterling work getting us from point A to B in one piece. Our next stop was Whittier Boulevard:
I was just as impressed by their collection of artifacts as I was by the range of goodies they had on sale.
From Whittier, we moved on to Rosemead:
Any place that has an anti-aircraft gun at the entrance is bound to impress me, so all the fish tanks inside were like the icing on the cake.
While the decor at the Bahooka was great (one of a kind!), the drinks were watery, although not unreasonable for the price, as we arrived during happy hour.
The night was still young in any case, and there was more to see yet. It was time to head over to Hollywood...
... and visit the Tiki Ti's bustling, cosy bar.
Apart from the incredible variety (around 90) of the impeccably made drinks, I was particularly impressed by their zombie puffer fish:
What topped off Tiki Ti for me was the fact that they were playing Neil Young's album "On The Beach" in the background, which may not have been tiki, but was perfect for that particular time and place.
Trying to get back onto the freeway to get to North Hollywood, we accidentally stumbled across this treasured tiki landmark:
Somewhat disappointed that they were no longer offering "live naked girls" on their shingle, I decided it was time to move on to North Hollywood.
Tiki No was the polar opposite of the crowded, jostling Tiki Ti; a quiet place where you can go and sit and chat. We took up position at the bar and admired the view.
And they had a nice collection of carvings up the back which gave the place some atmosphere.
The drinks were fine - I had a Blue Hawaiian that hit the spot nicely. What I liked about Tiki No was that they were taking an old formula and trying something new with it. Not a place to suit everyone's tastes, but a sign that tiki bars in L.A. are still coming up with new approaches.
Having not only driven over a hundred miles, but also having visited four bars and been drinking intermittently over a period of several hours, it was definitely time to have dinner, so the day was rounded off with a visit to Ernie's Taco House, where I sampled a culinary legend: the Skylab Burrito.
Thus ending what has to be one of the finest days in my life: thank you L.A.!
Part 8: Alameda
Alameda is a wondrous island that stands apart from the rest of the Bay Area. Crossing over from Oakland is like travelling to another country; a strange place where things seem more civilized than what surrounds it. It has long been a hub for shipping and naval operations departing for and arriving from the South Seas, so it is little surprise that, for example, it is the only place in the US with a New Zealand tavern, where you can dine on real mince pies, although at a price that would be alarming in their country of origin.
Alameda was to be the last stop on my Tiki Tour of California, ending in style at Forbidden Island's Tiki-lypso New Year's Eve Party:
The soundtrack that evening was provided by DJ Tanoa, who spun hits from the 50s through to the (shudder) 80s and 90s, and there was live music from the duo Apocalypso Now:
The smorgasbord food was very tasty and filling, as were the drinks. After 3 or 4 of Forbidden Island's superb drinks, admittedly, the quality of my photography started suffering:
I do however recall meeting Suzanne, our host for the evening, and presenting her with a tiki calendar.
So my trip came to an end, with great sadness and some regrets. There were many places I missed (I didn't even get to San Diego), but nonetheless, my expedition in quest of the beating heart of Californian tiki culture turned out to be successful.
To close, I offer big thanks to Ms. Nouméa for putting up with me, and without whom none of it would have been possible.
© W.S. McCallum 16 January 2011 - 3 June 2011
Web site © Wayne Stuart McCallum 2003-2016