In Search of Tiki on Built-up Waikiki
Is it too late to indulge a baby boomer’s teenage fascination with the exotic carefree style of postwar Hawaii?
By Wayne Curtis | From Preservation | Spetember/October 2003
The Mai Tai is inescapable at Waikiki Beach. This sunset-hued cocktail, accessorized with a rakish little paper parasol, clutters tables and bar counters in every restaurant and lounge within a half-mile of the beach. Holding out the promise of great tropical ease, the mai tai is the distilled essence of the place—never mind that it was invented in California.
So it was with little surprise that on my first night in Honolulu, I found myself outside at the Mai Tai Bar of The Royal Hawaiian hotel smack on the beach. With waves lapping just yards away, I could only marvel at the drink placed before me. Adorning it was a tropical diorama as lush and tidy as a Victorian conservatory. A large wedge of pineapple roosted on the rim, presiding over a shrub of mint, a ruby of a cherry, a floating purple orchid, and a bonsai-sized parasol. That the thing was nearly large enough to hide behind proved handy when the lounge crooner veered near, recruiting customers to sing along. ("Remember that one? It's by a guy named Neil Sedaka.")
The Royal Hawaiian is close to what I had come to Honolulu to find, but it's a bit too old. Dating to 1927, the Moorish-style cotton candy–colored confection was the first of the great Waikiki resorts developed by the steamship companies to attract tourists. Mid-20th-century Hawaii is what has long haunted me, although more in the sense of Casper than of Jacob Marley. Too young to have lived it, I still got a glimpse, mostly through grainy photos in my seventh-grade social studies textbook and a misspent youth absorbing Hawaii Five-O TV episodes.
The images were vivid in my mind: Hawaii was the home of the low-slung, lava-rock hotel and restaurant compounds set amid lavish, well-tended gardens, often just off the beach. They had tiki bars—those Polynesian-themed joints marked by blowfish lamps, gape-mouthed totems, and lurid drinks served in ceramic tiki heads or coconut shells. Hawaii epitomized the carefree, indoor-outdoor style advocated by Sunset, a magazine even more exotic than Playboy to an East Coast adolescent.
So during a five-day stay at Waikiki Beach late last fall, my first trip to Hawaii, I rented a bicycle and went in search of my much-imagined haven of exotic midcentury Hawaii. How hard could that be?
Tracking down a lost era is like capturing a sound in an echo chamber: Every era dimly reverberates with an even earlier one. In Hawaii's postwar tiki phase, visitors streamed in by airplane, looking for the same things sought by earlier travelers on cruise ships. The number swelled from fewer than 30,000 annually before the war to 250,000 by 1959 (That number would grow to three million by 1976 and to seven million today). The prewar palm-thatched beach huts and open luau grounds were quickly dispatched to make way for motels and restaurants that could provide tropical exotica in wholesale quantities.
In midcentury photos, the new architecture emanates an almost palpable energy. Particularly eye-catching are the buildings of architect George "Pete" Wimberly. A native of Washington State, he came to Pearl Harbor during the war as a young military architect and stayed on to exert a powerful influence right up until his death at age 80 in 1995. He designed a slew of striking structures for booming Waikiki Beach before moving on to large and prominent resorts throughout Hawaii and the South Pacific. Today the firm of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo is among the world's preeminent firms for themed resort architecture.
On a predictably sunny afternoon, I walked around one of Wimberly's more memorable buildings, the 1956 Waikikian on the Beach Hotel—or what's left of it. I had admired photos of the place in books and postcards: pure Elvis, c. Blue Hawaii. "It was patronized by about half locals and half tourists," said David Scott, executive director of Historic Hawaii Foundation, when I stopped by to visit. "People had gathered to sing around the piano for 40 years"—until it closed in 1996.
Looking past chainlink fencing and stern warnings against trespassing, I saw that most of the buildings had been bulldozed. Wimberly's Waikikian once had a sweeping hyperbolic roof at the entryway and pathways lined with tiki torches. Aficionados loved the two-story motel-style section called the Tiki Gardens, its rooms graced by overhead fans and acres of rattan and woven grass mats. At the hotel's Tahitian Lanai restaurant, diners angled for seats in single-party grass huts and ordered fare involving pineapple or flames or both. A 1982 travel guidebook reported, "Some call the Tahitian Lanai a little corny, but what's sarong with that?"
Now, all that remains is the seven-story Waikikian tower, and probably not for long. The adjacent Hilton hotel bought the property for $20 million. Plans call for a 35-story tower of time-share units. (The master plan for the expanded Hilton complex was designed, in one of those little twists of fate, by Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo.)
Five minutes away by bike on Kalakaua Avenue, I found Wimberly's wonderful 1966 Bank of Hawaii tower, its exterior screen evidently inspired by pineapple crowns. Yet little else remains of the flamboyance with which Wimberly infused Waikiki in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Gone from Kalakaua Avenue is the thatched restaurant of Don the Beachcomber, the inventor of the tiki bar. So is the locally beloved Canlis' Restaurant; it was torn down to make way for a downtown shopping mall in 1998. The Kau Kau Jr. hamburger stand; the Kapi'olani Bowl; the Royal Theater; Bishop National Bank; the McInerny department store with a coconut tree extending through its awning; Tops, Coco's, and Popo's, coffee shops encrusted with lava rocks: all kaput. Even the surviving Bank of Hawaii must now be entered ignobly through a minimall themed to look like a Mediterranean port, complete with a massive faux cruise liner at the dock.
I was beginning to comprehend the immensity of my challenge. Don the Beachcomber's close cousin, Trader Vic's, had fallen, too. Indeed, as it turns out, Waikiki lacks a single original tiki bar. Other than a few traces—a radio shop, the Kaimuki High School—midcentury Honolulu has largely been erased, consigned to picture books, which themselves are hard to find.
Of course, once vanished, an era becomes sorely missed, especially by the generation that narrowly missed it. Entrepreneurs get scent of this yearning and scramble to re-create what's been lost. Mainland tiki bars have thus passed into the realm of kitsch, and elaborate reproductions have started to crop up in urban areas around the world—nudge-and-wink kinds of places with thatched roofs over the bars and colorful menus offering pu-pu platters.
One day I dropped by the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, overlooking Waikiki Beach near the Duke Kaha-namoku statue, which commemorates a pioneer of modern surfing and beach boy culture. Here I found the final touches being applied to one of these new retro tiki bars. Peering through the plate glass windows, I saw that it drew heavily, if ironically, on an earlier era: Today's decorators simply don't use fishnets, carved war clubs, and eight-foot tiki statues without irony. Yet the place utterly failed to jibe with my notion of a classic tiki bar. It had glossy, polished floors and big windows overlooking the sandy strand. The furnishings were spare, as if designed by a Tahitian Ikea. It was freakishly light and airy, nothing like the dim caverns of the '50s. The echo of midcentury Hawaii was here very faint indeed.
A mile from the beach I discovered some scraps from the era, like flotsam washed ashore after a distant shipwreck. At Bailey's Antiques and Aloha Shirts on Kapahulu Avenue, I admired Trader Vic matches, tiki-style salt-and-pepper shakers, and vintage aloha shirts. Actually, a lot of aloha shirts.
David Bailey, who opened his first Hawaii store in 1980, now stocks 5,000 shirts, both old and new. They hang from racks, rafters, and every other available space. "I thought when the price went to $80, things were getting crazy," Bailey told me. Now he can command up to $5,000 for a rare vintage shirt. "Half of the shirts we're selling are being framed and put in restaurants or bars or even homes," he said. Kitsch, it turns out, is getting a little gray around the temples.
I persisted in my quest. David Scott had mentioned La Mariana Sailing Club, a restaurant, bar, and marina located in an untrendy part of Honolulu, several miles northwest of Waikiki Beach. "The food isn't very good," he reported, "but the ambiance is almost edible." He hinted at tikis.
It seemed worth checking out. After an hour's biking, I turned down a side road into a charmless industrial area of blank concrete walls and dusty roadside debris. Another turn at a small sign in the shape of a sailing pennant and I found it: a compact, overgrown waterside oasis of palms and dense vegetation right next to a manufacturing plant processing crushed aggregates.
Inside, it took a few moments for my eyes to adapt to the gloaming. And what emerged amazed me. Few square inches of the restaurant had been left unmolested. There was a waterfall behind the tables in the main room, and colored lights twinkled throughout. Corky, an unsocial African gray parrot, occupied a cage and performed pitch-perfect renditions of car alarms and digital telephone rings.
This is where Waikiki's tiki culture had migrated. As the old bars shut down, owner Annette Nahinu, now 88, fastidiously gathered up bits of the past and installed them here. The wood dining tables were from Don the Beachcomber's, the blowfish lamps from Trader Vic's. The huge clamshells next to the waterfall came from the Hyatt's Tiki Room, and the tiki posts from the Sheraton's Kon-Tiki. When the Waikikian's Tahitian Lanai shut down, La Mariana acquired not only the woven lauhala walls but also Ron Miyashiro, the bar's former pianist. He plays now on Friday nights, and the place fills up, often with regulars who moved here with him.
At the bar I ordered—what else?—a mai tai, which came amply adorned with flora. It was a quiet afternoon, and the bartender, Tito Calace from Uruguay, gave me a capsule history of the place: how the building and its 83 palm trees had been moved from 50 feet away in the 1970s after Nahinu lost her lease; how Japanese investors had offered some $8 million for the place about a decade ago (Nahinu stipulated payment in U.S. dollars delivered in suitcases—"like in the movies," she recalled in her history of the place); how the deal fell through when the Japanese market tanked.
We talked and talked, and Tito served me a second drink. Not many tourists track them down, he reported, but the locals still come religiously. "They like the aloha," he said.
I could see why. Sipping my mai tai, I realized that I also liked the aloha. The pleasing sensibility didn't come from the vintage décor; it was the simple, friendly, timeless nature of the joint. Here, for the better part of an afternoon, I finally basked in what I had long imagined of Waikiki in the 1950s.
The aloha. The mai tai. They were both indescribably sweet.
Read Wayne Curtis' story, "Remaking Madewood"
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.