Paradise, Polynesian-Style


It looks like a production of “South Pacific” run amok. Inside the Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, sailors in white uniforms are spinning Betty Grable look-a-likes on the dance floor, while guys in loud Hawaiian aloha shirts and women in Polynesian-inspired dresses cavort over huge tropical rum drinks. Both sexes show off tattoos of palm trees, hula girls, and South Sea scenes on their arms and legs. Not the temporary kind, either; the real deal, cousins to the ones Sailor Jerry used to ink on Hotel Street in Honolulu back in the 1940s.

In a corner of the Molokai Bar, a lithe, blonde contortionist in a grass skirt and bikini top does a burlesque routine, arching her back until her golden locks are almost sweeping the floor, while a goatee-bearded bandleader with a beatnik air pounds out a jungle-tinged tune on the vibes.

Welcome to Hukilau. The event, held each spring in Fort Lauderdale (this year’s festivities run from June 6–9), is the largest annual gathering of “Polynesian pop” devotees on the East Coast.

“This is my favorite part,” says Christie White. “Looking at everyone that has spent their money and their time coming from all over the world to celebrate with us, and seeing them have a good time. That’s when I know I’ve done my part.” White, a buxom redhead who is, by turns, cheerful, demanding and doting—one gets the feeling she’d make a great Cub Scout den mother—is the co-founder and organizer of Hukilau, which launched in 2002.

Tonight, she’s wearing a vintage 1960s sleeveless print dress, the better to show off the tattoo on her upper right arm. “It’s my tribute to Eli Hedley,” White explains. “He carved the Moai tiki outside the Aku Aku Restaurant in Las Vegas, which is now gone. So I decided to get the whole Aku Aku sign, and that was done by an artist by the name of Hoffa.” From somewhere in the crowd, White hears her nickname, “Tiki Kiliki,” and she spins away.

For the uninitiated, Polynesian pop encompasses all facets of America’s 20th-century obsession with the South Pacific. It’s more than just aloha shirts, tattoos and dashboard hula girls—it’s also rum cocktails, backyard luaus, Martin Denny records and, of course, tikis, those ubiquitous carved representations of island gods. The fascination with the latter is such that popsters refer collectively to their various pursuits as tiki—or “tiki culture”—and to themselves as tikiphiles.

This near-religious fervor for paradise, Polynesian-style, might seem a bit odd, until one recalls how big a phenomenon tiki was the first time around…

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