The rebirth of tiki chic: Hong Kong’s best Polynesian-style bars

Created by ‘Don the Beachcomber’ in Los Angeles in 1933, tiki bars thrived until the 1970s, and have made a comeback over the past 10 years. We talk to the people behind Hong Kong’s four ‘modern tiki’ outlets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 5:59pm

It’s hard to think of an example of kitsch with more staying power than “tiki” – a wholly inauthentic representation of the cultures of the Polynesian Islands, thrown together in California in the 1930s. The name derives from a Maori creation myth.

Tiki design themes remained fashionable right through the 1960s. Two notable examples of quiet good taste (I’m being ironic here) from the style’s heyday were the Jungle Room of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and the pool area of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.

However, most people got their taste for the look, and its associated sweet rum-based cocktails, in bars, restaurants and bowling alleys.

The Tiki themed bar and restaurant chains founded by Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach and Victor Jules “Trader Vic” Bergeron were particularly successful.

“Tiki declined a lot in the 1970s,” says Max Traverse, founder of two of Hong Kong’s four Tiki businesses, and the man responsible for introducing what he calls “modern tiki” or “tiki chic” to the town.

“The hotels got rid of their tiki bars. Only a few survived. Then it started to come back as ‘modern tiki’ in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

Trader Vic’s London operation at the Hilton Park Lane - open since 1963 – survived the cull, but Traverse says it was a nightclub in nearby Dover Street that opened in 2006 that really got the revival going in earnest.

“It started with Mahiki. London really reinvented tiki. It brought chic to it, with the old-fashioned style but more sophistication. It became the place to be in London with all the celebrities – Princes William and Harry and so on,” Traverse says

Modern tiki bars look a lot less rustic than their counterparts of 40 or more years ago, and the Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge, which Traverse opened in Central in 2012, is a good example.

The familiar carvings and mugs remain, but the bamboo is polished, and the design less cluttered. Modern tiki bars are urban retreats, often hidden away almost like speakeasies, and the dress code is smart casual, not beachwear.

“You have two kinds of tiki bar – the kind influenced by Polynesia and the kind influenced by the Caribbean and South America,” explains Traverse.

Honi Honi is his Pacific style operation, although most of the 200 or so rums behind the bar come from the Caribbean.

It serves such traditional tiki favourites as the Mai Tai and the Zombie, but Traverse, bar manager Mario Calderone and his team have developed a long list of original cocktails in the tiki tradition, using artisanal spirits, and not just rums.

Calderone’s Mister Honi is served in a tiki mug – customers can buy them to take away and many do – but is made with Michter’s rye whiskey. Honi Honi currently ranks 29th in Drinks International’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.

Traverse’s Mahalo Tiki Lounge in Wan Chai, which opened in 2015 and is home to the annual Hong Kong Rum Fest, ranks 47th on that list, and started out stressing a Hawaiian strain of Tiki culture.

However, Traverse says he is now moving towards a more Caribbean/South American cocktail list of what he calls “Miami Vice” drinks – although you will still be able to get an excellent Mai Tai there alongside the Daiquiris, Mojitos and Caipirinhas.

Bar review: Mahalo Tiki Lounge in Wan Chai - go Hawaiian

The drinks in modern tiki bars have probably evolved further in their in taste than in their presentation. The once excoriated but now beloved tiki mugs are still garnished with fruit kebabs and even the odd paper parasol.

“Historically, the drinks were very syrupy and had a lot less freshness – not so much fruit,” says Traverse. “It was all about liqueurs, syrups, rums and ice. Of course you need syrups and liqueurs, but we’ve reduced the sugar and maximised the fresh fruit.”

Bar review: Wahtiki Island Lounge in Central - authentic taste of the South Pacific

At the new Wahtiki Island Lounge, which opened in Central in January, the bar team has been trained by Shi Wah Lee, a long-serving bar manager of Trader Vic’s in London, and there is a less progressive agenda.

According to Lee’s entrepreneur son, Philip – a headhunter by trade, which is appropriate enough for a tiki bar owner – Shi Wah Lee was about to retire, but his son persuaded him that his skills should be passed on to a younger generation of Hong Kong bartenders.

Philip Lee says, “We’re not here to design new stuff. It’s the golden years of tiki recipes that he has brought to the menu.”

Foremost among these is the Mai Tai, the original authorship of which both Trader Vic and Don The Beachcomber claimed, although their recipes differ.

Honi Honi serves versions of both, but Wahtiki – the “Wah” is in Lee Senior’s honour – is sticking to Bergeron’s formula.

“This is the original Trader Vic’s Mai Tai,” says Philip Lee. “We’re not saying it’s the best tasting. That’s subjective. But it is the original beyond question. Nobody can challenge [my father] on what the Mai Tai should taste like, because he learned from the guy who learned from the inventor.”

Bolstering that claim is the fact that his father is one of a small number of Trader Vic’s managers who was trained in how to make the chain’s original orgeat syrup-based Mai Tai mix. This means the Wahtiki Mai Tai may be truer to the original drink than the one now served in the Trader Vic’s outlets.

“[My father] says if you look at the Mai Tai mix now it’s totally different to the one that was made back in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s now a lot sweeter and more orange in colour,” says Lee.

The décor, Lee says, is more feminine in character than that most Hong Kong bars, and images of scantily clad island girls, usually integral to the tiki aesthetic, are notably absent. “Mai Tai Mondays” when the drink – which packs a formidable punch – is served on a two-for-one basis all night, should be popular.

Bar review: Tikitiki Bowling Bar Sai Kung brings Polynesia to the New Territories

Drinks matter as well at the Tikitiki Bowling Bar in Sai Kung, but the vast bar/restaurant/bowling alley complex is geared more towards the business of big party groups.

Bartender Raymond Lau prepares tiki cocktails such as the Fire In A Hole, made with Bacardi 151, Falernum, fresh passion fruit and peach liqueur.

The drink is served with straws in an elaborate sharing vessel, designed for up to four people, and featuring a “volcano” in the centre fuelled by a flammable mixture of rum and brown sugar. Lau also mixes a pretty good Mai Tai.

“Tiki is about enjoying cocktails outside, and a beach lifestyle,” says Lau. “That’s what this place is about – relaxation, the food, the drinks and the bowling. We do a lot of special events – tiki parties.”

Are we going to see more Tiki bars opening? Traverse thinks not.

“I don’t think there will be more in Hong Kong. It would be difficult to do something distinctive. You would have to spend a lot of money to come up with something new,” he says.

If Wahtiki is a success, however, Lee – who has a track record of investing in successful food and beverage businesses – sees the potential for another branch on the other side of the harbour, and possibly further afield.

“If this brand goes well I’ll be looking to open other outlets, maybe based around Asia, on the same theme. From what I understand there are very few tiki outlets in Asia particularly authentic ones.”

Hong Kong’s tiki bars

Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge, 3/F Somptueux Central, 52 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2353 0885

Mahalo, 29/F QRE Plaza, 202 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, tel: 2488 8750

Wahtiki Island Lounge, 3/F Sea Bird House, 22-28 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2793 0308

Tikitiki Bowling Bar, 4/F Centro, 1A Chui Tong Road, Sai Kung, tel: 2657 8488