You’ve seen him before: fierce grimace roaring from a snarling mouth, mysterious glowing red eyes, a wooden and sometimes stony disposition. … Tiki is hard to miss. You might have seen him at the local gag-gift shop, propped on the end of a svelte bamboo torch, or lasciviously loitering around a couple of wiggly-hipped grass-skirted hula honeys.
But you may not know much about Tiki’s long and rich history. His career took a nosedive in the ’70s, but lately he’s made one hell of a comeback, bolstered by a new generation of dedicated followers: people who’ve devoted years, sometimes decades, to collecting his visage in its many shapes and forms, turning their entire homes into altars in honor of Tiki. They’re Tikiphiles, and they’re swarming all over metro Detroit. Furthermore, the eyes of these devotees are raptly focused on the fate of one of Tiki’s long-lost temples of worship, which has lain dormant in the Motor City for more than two decades.
Anxiously, the Tikiphiles await the resurrection of this holy temple — and hopefully no sacrifices will be necessary.
Tiki’s rise and fall
Much like the “Star Trek” phenomenon, Tiki is a completely imaginary, 100 percent fabricated culture. Lovingly and whimsically created by the purveyors of midcentury pop culture, Tiki is essentially “Polynesian pop” — a conglomeration of American kitsch and authentic art from the Pacific Islands.
According to Tiki expert James Teitelbaum of Chicago, author of the just published Tiki Road Trip, Polynesian influences began trickling into American culture as early as the 1930s, but didn’t reach a fevered pitch until after World War II, when soldiers stationed overseas brought home tales and souvenirs of exotic paradises in the Pacific. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific was a best seller, South Pacific was a Broadway smash and there were similar hits at the movie theater and (eventually) on TV. When Hawaii became a state, aloha shirts and flowing muumuus became the rage. Americans thought of the South Seas as an exotic paradise, an escapist fantasy — and to capture that fantasy, several Polynesian-themed restaurants came into being, among them the Don the Beachcomber’s and Trader Vic’s chains, the latter of which remains in operation today.
The decor of these establishments was a mishmash of ocean flotsam and art from Hawaii, New Zealand, New Guinea, Easter Island and other Pacific destinations. It included a heaping dose of bamboo, rattan and palm fronds, accented by spears, carvings, masks, and the now-famous Tiki idol.
“It wasn’t about authenticity, it was about escapism,” Teitelbaum writes. “As long as it was Oceanic, it fit. In these pre-politically correct times, no one worried about how the islanders themselves might have reacted to these mutated effigies of their deities or ancestors ending up nailed to a bar.”
A fundamental concept of the Tiki bar was clutter; the idea was to cram as many objets d’art as possible into the room, so one was never at a loss for something new to gaze upon.
A “faux-Polynesian” cuisine was cooked up to fit the atmosphere; it included lots of pork, pineapple, the occasional dish set afire, and elements of Chinese cuisine.
To accompany the exotic eats, a wide array of flamboyant alcoholic beverages was created. The drinks quickly became a fundamental cornerstone of the Tiki bar. The potent potables utilized lots of top-quality liquor — mostly rum — and tropical fruits, and were christened with such names as the Zombie, Suffering Bastard, Missionary’s Downfall, Fog Cutter and classics like the Mai Tai and Singapore Sling.
The Tiki drink became an art form, with increasingly creative and complex drink recipes. Eventually bartenders guarded their custom creations with a ferocious secrecy; in some joints, the drinks were mixed in another room and then carried out — just in case the customer was actually a spy from a competing establishment.
A sound track was also conjured to round out the carefully crafted atmosphere. Artists like Martin Denny and Les Baxter combined lounge and jazz with vibraphones, congas and bird calls. The resulting genre was coined “exotica” after Denny’s first album, and was “just as contrived and phony (but ultimately pleasing) as the decor and chow,” according to Teitelbaum.
Thus, with a complete culture fabricated, Polynesian pop exploded across the nation, climbing to its heyday in the 1950s with Tiki bars and restaurants popping up at a rate akin to the Wal-Marts of today. Tiki-themed hair salons, motels and bowling alleys soon followed.
However, after a good 30 years of Tiki madness, the trend fizzled out in the 1970s. The relaxed, escapist atmosphere of the Tiki bar just didn’t vibe with the fast-paced glitter and glitz of the 1970s, or, as Teitelbaum puts it, “someone had figured out that the whole thing was rather tacky.”
Tiki bars began collapsing like dominoes. Some were closed and remodeled, and others demolished. One of the most elaborate and sumptuous of all, the Mauna Loa, was built in Detroit in 1968, at the then-astronomical cost of $21 million. It closed just a year later, and was eventually razed.
Some Tiki bars scattered across the nation have survived, but many are in disrepair or running on their last legs. Only a handful of truly classic, grand-scale Tiki meccas remain.
And one of those last remaining meccas is located here in Detroit.
Whither Chin Tiki?
Marvin Chin began construction on the Chin Tiki in 1965, and opened his doors the year of the 1967 Detroit riots. A former engineer for Ford, Chin designed the 2121 Cass Ave. restaurant himself, and had a hand in most of the construction. A supper club, nightclub and banquet hall, the Chin Tiki was a truly swinging hot spot of downtown Detroit in the late ’60s. Chin claims such celebrities as Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand and Joe DiMaggio visited while in town.
On the lower level, a waterfall and bamboo bridge led the way to dozens of romantic, thatch-covered booths, where moony-eyed couples dined on Polynesian delicacies. An enormous aquarium mural glowed under black light, and framed a long, elegant rattan bar. The journey upstairs led to an even larger waterfall; the rock-like walls curve around a wave-shaped bar with dozens of Chinese coins suspended in Lucite. The small rattan stage once hosted live music of all genres; an authentic Polynesian floor show, complete with Hawaiian dancers and fire-breathers, was held weekly.
Like any good Tiki bar, the Chin Tiki had no windows — it was truly escapist, with no reminders of the outside world. And at the time, the outside world was crumbling.
The riots hastened Detroit’s infamous white flight; manufacturing jobs disappeared as the city took a nosedive into disarray; by the dawn of the ’80s, the “Paris of the Midwest” was mired in an economic crisis. And thus, one day in 1980, Chin bolted the door to his Polynesian paradise and left it untouched for more than two decades.
“The city closed. I went with it,” he says.
For two decades, the Chin Tiki remained in limbo, a source of fascination for locals and visitors who drove past the striking exterior and wondered what treasures lay inside. And not too long ago, one of those gawkers turned out to be a Hollywood hotshot.
While scouting locations for Eminem’s semiautobiographical film 8 Mile, production designer Phil Messina stumbled across the Chin Tiki, and was entranced. Universal Studios then contacted Chin and contracted use of his facility for filming. During a brief scene in the movie, the Chin Tiki is featured as a favored hangout of Eminem and his crew.
During filming, Chin stopped by. His long dormant club was bathed in light once again, crammed to the bursting point with young kids drinking, laughing, pulsating with life.
“It was inspiring,” says Chin. “With all those kids dancing, there was all this energy. And I thought, why don’t I open up again?”
And the heads of Tikiphiles everywhere snapped up in anticipation.
While the Chin Tiki gathered dust and mold for the past 20 years, retro culture began creeping onto the radar once again. With renewed interest in swing music and dancing, Bettie Page, leopard print and lounge, good ol’ Tiki suddenly began to experience a rebirth. Internet resources like tikinews.com and tikicentral.com provided a forum for fans to learn Tiki history, swap vintage drink recipes, show off their prized collector’s items, and simply talk Tiki. Teitelbaum’s book, a comprehensive cataloguing of the remaining Tiki bars in the nation, sprang from his original Web version, The Tiki Bar Review Pages.
To meet new demand, a company named Tiki Farm (www.tikifarm.com) began producing and distributing all sorts of neo-Tiki paraphernalia. Renewed interest in Tiki grew so strong that two prominent neo-Tiki bars were born; the Rock-a-Tiki in Chicago and Taboo Cove in Las Vegas. Each attempted to re-create the classic Tiki bar from scratch. Recently, conventions have become the rage; Tiki gatherings are increasingly frequent in Florida and California, and last month Chicago hosted “Exotica,” a four-day weekend packed with Tiki tours and special events, drawing hundreds of Tikiphiles from across the nation.
The new Tiki phenomenon has a particularly widespread appeal; heavily tattooed Gen X trendsters and older, more mainstream family types both share a fascination for the captivating little red-eyed idol.
“Everyone has their own port of entry,” says Teitelbaum. “Some like to carve Tikis, some like to collect menus, some are experts at mixing drinks, some are into the history and ‘urban archaeology.’ We’re starting to see a new generation of hep twentysomethings getting into Tiki, but we also get old-timers who come out of the woodwork, always full of great stories about Tiki bars that closed before I was born.”
Metro Detroit has plenty of its own fanatical Tikiphiles, but the region is seriously lacking in authentic Tiki bars. The solution?
Build your own.
Tim Shuller’s basement isn’t your average rec room. Dozens upon dozens of rare Tiki masks, mugs and carved poles are accentuated by a fog machine, red and yellow mood lighting, and the soft, trickling sounds of an exotica album.
Shuller is better known as DJ TIMTIKI, the same moniker that marks his vanity license plate. Even the last four digits of his phone number spell TIKI. He’s notorious for Memorial Day Tiki bashes which include smoking cocktails and a mini-volcano. His entire house, inside and out, is marked by Tiki — even the waist-high tree stump in his front lawn will eventually be carved into a Tiki idol.
Oddly enough, Shuller has been a staple in the goth/industrial scene for years, not a genre one normally associates with eye-popping orange Hawaiian shirts. In fact, several years ago the ever-creative Shuller cooked up the idea of a Tiki fetish show. Yes, a Tiki fetish show.
Shuller DJs at the Labyrinth, which regularly hosts Noir Leather’s Hellbound parties, a monthly series of themed fetish shows. Shuller pitched the idea, then used pieces of his collection to accessorize the show — of course, the near-naked model suspended by a spit with an apple crammed in her mouth was a nice touch.
Shuller has collected Tiki for more than 12 years, but his obsession started at the tender age of 6, with a trip to Disneyworld’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
“I was always really fascinated by the whole mood of it, the dark and exotic feel, something that you wouldn’t normally see,” says Shuller.
His collection began while he was studying at Oakland University; he became fond of dining at the Oceania restaurant in Rochester.
“I’d go and order takeout, and while I was waiting for my food I’d order a drink, which were served in Tiki mugs that you could keep. I kept all of them, my whole kitchen was full of them.”
Shuller has done extensive research on the history of Tiki, and keeps a scrapbook of his visits to famous Tiki meccas, such as the legendary Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, and the Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio, which closed in 2000. Shuller swiped a handful of Kahiki napkins, which now sit on his bar.
He estimates he’s spent $3,000-$4,000 on his Tiki collection over the years. He’s gone thrifting at garage sales and Tiki hunting in Florida; he has a huge stock of rare Hawaiian liquors, and goes through a lot of dry ice (the secret to smoking, bubbling cocktails).
“There are recreational fans of Tiki, and then there are people who are obsessed — I’d put myself into that category,” says Shuller. “I have dreams about finding Tikis at garage sales.”
Shuller, who lives with fiancee Amy Sargent and 2-year-old son Aidan, has kicked around the idea of forming a “Detroit Tiki Appreciation Society,” to meet other Tiki-obsessed brethren.
“It would just be an excuse to go drinking and have parties,” says Shuller, “I’d like to sit at a Tiki bar that’s not my own.”
Like other Tikiphiles, Shuller has waited with bated breath to see what will happen with the Chin Tiki.
“I’d like to see it reopen but keep its old-school charm. I drive by it two, three times a week, and for years I’ve been hoping something would happen with it.”
With wiggling fingers and an Om-style chant, his fiancee demonstrates their drive-by ritual: “O Chin Tiki! O Chin Tiki!”
Stepping into the Chin Tiki today is like walking into a time capsule. Inside the cold, damp and musty interior, half-full liquor bottles are piled among boxes of moldy drink umbrellas. The menu caddy still holds the yellowed drink and food menus, and a rusty metal rack holds the time cards, curled inward with age. A dirty Hawaiian shirt is draped on a Donna Reed-era blender, while a lone, ratty sarong hangs in a dingy closet. A cluster of 5-foot Tikis are huddled in a corner, ghostly lit by a lone construction lamp.
Chin is an affable old fellow with a rounded face and watery eyes, happily spinning yarns about the heyday of his tropical mecca. Flipping open a scrapbook, Chin points to a worn photo, dated 1969, of a coquettish young lass with teased hair and fat false eyelashes, draped in a blue sarong that creeps up midthigh.
“They always like the girls running around in sarongs,” he says with a smile.
He fondly recalls the real gardenias that floated in the Chin Tiki’s custom drinks, often served in seashells or coconut husks.
“People would collect [the gardenias] and try to make a lei out of them, but by the time they left, after that many drinks, they wouldn’t walk out of the bar, they would fall out,” Chin laughs.
After Universal finished their filming, Chin returned to the bar with hopes of reopening it. He received a nasty surprise. Chin claims the crew severed his electric wiring and damaged murals, and that extras stole memorabilia, including Tiki mugs, matchbooks, and autographed photos from celebrities who frequented the establishment in the ’60s.
Chin says he was paid $20,000 for use of his facility, but says the cost to rewire and replace stolen items will be significant.
He began working on restoration midsummer; with doors finally open, the curious flocked to the site, full of queries. On any given day when the door is open, passers-by rubberneck and some immediately do a U-turn. Chin says he has inquiries every day from pedestrians who stop by and want to know the fate of the bar.
Midsentence, Chin is interrupted as a skinny young kid, hair in cornrows, sticks his head against the metal gate that guards the door. “Hey, I saw this place in 8 Mile,” he says, craning his neck to get a look beyond the gate. “Y’all gonna open it again? That shit would be dope.”
Chin looks slightly confused, but nods politely.
Recently, he fell ill and all work on the Chin Tiki ceased for two months during which a sign seeking “venture capitalists and entrepreneurs” was posted on the door.
“I was just trying to get a feel for the market,” says Chin, who has regained his health and is working on the building again.
Marvin Chin comes from a long line of restaurateurs. Before the Chin Tiki, he built Chin’s in Livonia, a Chinese restaurant with Polynesian influences that is still in operation — it’s now managed by his son Marlin. Marvin’s brother, Marshall Chin, co-owns the upscale Chinese restaurant Mon Jin Lau. Marvin is partnering with his son to reopen the Chin Tiki, and has brainstormed and consulted with his brother.
However, the odds are not favorable.
The Chin Tiki has been closed longer than it was open, and neither nature nor time have been kind. Although the upstairs portion is in good condition, thanks to the cleaning efforts of Universal, the downstairs has suffered considerable water damage and rotting. The plumbing needs a complete overhaul; Marvin no longer has a liquor license for the Chin Tiki and doesn’t own the adjacent parking lot.
Furthermore, some locals have pondered whether the Chin Tiki stands on prime ground for a new hockey arena; it’s just a stone’s throw from the baseball and football stadiums, and the surrounding area is already a sea of Olympia parking lots.
Chin has no concrete business plan, and has not decided whether the Chin Tiki will reopen as a classic Tiki bar, or have a modern spin — he has mentioned a hip-hop night, based on the interest generated by 8 Mile.
But Chin doesn’t even offer a guesstimate of when the club might reopen. When prodded, he responds, “Soon. One day. If I had 100 men working, I could open it tomorrow.”
Each day, he ventures down and tinkers with the site with a crew of one or two cleaners. A handyman, Chin fixed the electrical wiring on his own, and is now repainting damaged murals. He’s financing the project with his own money .
“I don’t think Marvin is being evasive, I think he honestly doesn’t know when he’ll open again,” says Marshall Chin. “He’s doing things at his pace, and I think it’s just a matter of time.”
The Chin Tiki “has been sleeping for so long, it will take a while to wake it from its sleep,” says Marshall Chin.
“I would just like to see it open again, instead of just sitting here, paying taxes on it,” says Marvin Chin, as he takes a seat in a carved Tiki chair and gazes at his dimly lit creation. “People really loved this place. They remember it. There’s nothing else like it, there never was.”
“But then, you know,” he adds, “If someone wants to buy it, well, anything for a buck, right?”
A landmark club
Freddy Fortune’s Tiki collection is legendary among Detroit musicians. His basement recording studio hosts numerous hot garage bands, and sits adjacent to Fortune’s expansive, hand-built Tiki bar. He even has a 7-foot Tiki residing in his kitchen.
“Detroit needs a landmark club like the Chin Tiki to be proud of,” says Fortune. “I think lots of folks would visit the Motor City just to go there. I used to go to Columbus just for the Kahiki supper club.
“But let’s just hope it is run properly and remains authentic,” he cautions. “Please no big-screen TVs, and no techno, rap or other garbage.”
Authentic atmosphere is a big concern for Tikiphiles; when the neo-Tiki bar Taboo Cove opened in Vegas, Martin Denny was a mainstay on the sound track. It flopped. To boost attendance, management switched the music to Top 40, much to the chagrin of certain Tiki purists. The Rock-a-Tiki in Chicago followed a similar format change.
Some wonder if a revived Chin Tiki could meet the same fate.
“It’s definitely a fear,” says Shuller. “They’ve done the techno thing in other Tiki bars, and it completely ruins the whole atmosphere. It’s horrible.”
Fanatical Tiki collector Nancy Hay thinks a circa 1968-style Chin Tiki would be a phenomenal hit in Detroit.
“If it reopened, it would be the biggest thing to hit Tiki in the nation,” says Hay. “Everyone in the country in the Tiki scene would come here for it.”
Hay co-owns the Cat’s Meow store in Royal Oak with husband Keith. The couple’s entire home, from top to bottom, is covered in an astonishing amount of Tiki. Furthermore, the Hays’ perennial funky mom-and-pop shop is the only consistent source for Tiki-themed books, glassware and clothing in metro Detroit.
“All kinds of people like Tiki,” says Hay, noting her clientele. “And I think literally all kinds of people would come to the Chin Tiki if it were to open again. It really does amaze me how many different people are into it, from younger to older, from rockabilly, to quote-unquote normal people. It’s so big right now.”
And, adds Hay, “The more people that like it the better; it could mean more Tiki places that stay in business.”
An information technology executive and married father of two, Ray Eifler would probably fall into the “normal” category of Tiki freaks. A chance encounter with one little Tiki mug paved the way for his bona fide obsession.
“Once I found out how deep the Tiki culture actually went, my obsessive nature kicked in and I started doing voracious research on the subject,” says Eifler, who eventually transformed his entire basement into a Tiki island. “I wasn’t familiar with it all before, and I was amazed by how rich the culture was and how long it lasted, and how it suddenly vanished in a puff of smoke.”
Aside from the occasional e-mail, Eifler hasn’t personally met others who share his Tiki obsession. He too yearns for the Chin Tiki to return to life, to serve as a meeting point for Tikiphiles.
“I was excited for the Chin Tiki to reopen, because it would be sort of a gathering place for like-minded people,” says Eifler. “We need to get a big consortium of people who love Tiki to buy the place and keep it going. I’d hate to see it turn into another parking lot.
“The Chin Tiki closed right when Detroit closed, and to see it reopen would be a wonderfully symbolic reawakening of the city, as opposed to what we expect to happen in Detroit — it gets razed.”
“Besides,” he laments, “it would be a shame to have to drive all the way to Chicago to get a Zombie.”
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.