There are certain facts of life that those who grow up in Massachusetts accept without question. Package stores sell liquor. “Frappe” is the proper word for milkshake. And Chinese food often comes with a side of bread and tiki flair.
With Chinese New Year celebrations beginning this week, families will sit down to feasts of steamed fish, rice cakes, and other dishes that bear little resemblance to those served at restaurants that long flourished on the local landscape: self-described Chinese-Polynesian places like Aku-Aku Islander off I-290 in Worcester, a now-defunct tiki lounge-slash-comedy club. Luau Hale in Lenox. South Pacific in Newton, which closed in 2012 but had enough of a following to spawn its own memorial page on Facebook. Tiki Port on Cape Cod. Huke Lau in Chicopee. And, of course, Kowloon in Saugus, the enduring success story that seats 1,200 and was recently instated into the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Hall of Fame.
At Chopsticks in Worcester, my first favorite Chinese restaurant, the big-ticket item was always the pupu platter, the compartment tray of fried and greasy snacks with a flaming Sterno in the middle, perfect for warming skewers of beef teriyaki, then lighting the skewers on fire. The smorgasbord also included hot-pink barbecued spare ribs (the best), aggressively battered fried chicken (insipid), wings (standard), and crab Rangoon (eh). And, of course, there were the drinks. Every menu devoted a page to photos of fruity, flamboyant cocktails served in tiki-head cups, faux pineapples and coconuts, and volcano bowls, basically flammable soup tureens for 151-proof rum. The names dazzled: Mai Tai, Scorpion Bowl, Fog Cutter, Zombie, Suffering Bastard.
So how did this version of the Chinese restaurant come to be? The answer is complex, informed by business savvy, suburban race relations, America’s obsession with the Asian Pacific, and a midcentury fondness for dinner as entertainment.
It all traces back to the 1930s, when Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, two California tiki dens, introduced the public to the indulgent pleasures of grass-thatched huts and tropical rum cocktails. Pseudo-Cantonese snacks, like crab Rangoon and rumaki (chicken liver and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon), soaked up the booze and added a vaguely Asian flavor to the proceedings. Both restaurants expanded to major cities around the country; Boston soon had its own Trader Vic’s. Copycats flourished. By the 1950s and ’60s, according to James C. O’Connell, author of “Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History,” Chinese and Polynesian food in Massachusetts were practically interchangeable.
The country’s fascination with the Asian Pacific was fueled by many factors: America’s expansion into the region following World War II; a push for tourism to Hawaii, the newly minted 50th state as of 1959. Best-selling books on South Pacific exploration by the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl were consumed voraciously by the American public, and the musical “South Pacific” swept the 1950 Tony Awards. The Polynesian-themed restaurant also came into its own at a time when Disneyland had just opened and Las Vegas was booming. “After World War II was when theme restaurants really got big,” says O’Connell. “You find other aspects of theme dining at the time. Places that served steak became ‘Ye Olde Beef House.’”
For Chinese restaurateurs, the Polynesian restaurant model made economic sense. As the dishes were riffs on (or ripoffs of) what Chinese restaurants were already serving, why not adopt tiki and capitalize on the trend? In many instances, like Kowloon’s, owners transformed existing restaurants into temples of Polynesian dining.
“My grandparents originally had 50 seats back in 1950, when the restaurant was called the Mandarin House,” says Bob Wong, one of Kowloon’s third-generation owners. His parents, William and Madeline Wong, took over the business in 1958. William had traveled to Florida and Hawaii and, having seen the Polynesian craze firsthand, decided to reboot Mandarin House as Kowloon Restaurant. The new place included a tiki lounge, dishes like flaming ambrosia, and a Hawaiian band with dancing seven nights a week.
But the blithely inauthentic Polynesian-Chinese hybrids were more than just kitsch. “Mass suburbanization happened across the United States, and that’s a critical part of this story,” says Mark Padoongpatt, assistant professor of Asian and Asian-American Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Developments restricted people of color from moving into those neighborhoods. Whiteness becomes synonymous with suburbia.”
It was in this environment, says Padoongpatt, that suburban tiki lounges became a form of entertainment catering specifically to a white, middle-class clientele. “This is where they’re allowed to encounter Asians, and the idea of Asia and the Pacific, in a very contained way, not in public, not out in cities or in urban areas,” says Padoongpatt. “This is a safe way for them to interact with an ‘exotic’ culture.”
Irene Li, co-owner of Chinese-American food truck and restaurant Mei Mei, knows these restaurants from her childhood, and can appreciate what makes them pleasurable and problematic. “I think at this point we experience Polynesian food knowing that it is a bizarre, anachronistic, carefully curated mashup of lots of things, some Asian and some not,” says Li. “But in that the still-existing restaurants haven’t changed much in decades, there is a charming, earnest, authentic kind of inauthenticity.”
Decades after the trend first hit, there is a fresh appetite for tiki. Adding to the legions of OG enthusiasts (see tikiroom.com), a comeback is cresting under the auspices of the craft cocktail movement, with newer establishments like the Baldwin Bar, Café ArtScience, Shojo, and Tiger Mama serving lovingly made tiki creations. Wong, too, has noticed the renewed enthusiasm, and is ramping up the old-school offerings at Kowloon, which, over the decades, has added Sichuan, Thai, and sushi chefs, plus a comedy club, to keep up with changing tastes.
Wong put more tiki drinks on the menu, is selling branded barware on Kowloon’s website, and has restored some of the interior flourishes to their original sparkle. “Whether the customer base thinks it’s new and exciting or something old that’s being recycled again, we’ll see,” he says. “It’s not like we just opened a new tiki bar in the middle of Boston. We’ve been here 66 years.”Follow Gabriella Gershenson on Twitter @gabiwrites.