Business for Cloud Davidson has perked back up recently, after his Irish pub turned tiki bar—one of five restaurants owned by Davidson in his 10 years of entrepreneurship in Corvallis—gained national attention over public concerns of cultural appropriation committed by the restaurant.
“It was really bad for a while,” Davidson discloses, who, within a week of opening, found his restaurant at the center of a raging social media debate.
This sparked from one local Polynesian citizen who took offense to some of the tiki bar’s decor, namely the display of tiki masks—traditional religious symbols in Polynesian culture and common in tiki restaurants—and the name itself, Hapuna Kahuna.
Davidson named the bar after Hapuna Beach in Hawaii, where he spent a sizeable chunk of his childhood. Many echoed concerns over social media that the name and traditional symbols were appropriations of native Polynesian culture.
Others disagreed, and Davidson recalls getting equally positive feedback from some members of the Polynesian community. Social media aside, Davidson wishes he’d been presented with the problem before having to confront it on Facebook.
“This could’ve been totally different if we had just sat down and talked,” he says, “Realistically it was just a couple of things that were pointed out to me that were a little bit wrong… It wasn’t the whole thing.”
Davidson did what any rational business person would do: submitted a public apology via Facebook and got to work making changes. Now the restaurant’s under a new name, the masks removed, yet the tiki theme remains.
All Aboard the ‘Salty Dog’
Davidson played it safe this time, spinning off his original franchise and tiki bar’s neighboring restaurant, the Downward Dog, to dub the sea-inspired Salty Dog. From the outside, the once Irish pub looks unchanged, despite a spanking new nameplate. But step inside and things start to get tropical.
The Salty Dog’s walls are covered in stripped bamboo and beachy wall art, which includes ship paintings, a surfboard, and most impressive: one constructed volcano perched above the restaurant’s best feature, the tiki bar.
According to Davidson, the product load has remained “virtually the same.” Fully-developed Pan-Asian, Polynesian menus lay at every table, featuring a selection of historically significant tiki cocktails.
“There’s these really great stories behind each cocktail on our menu. Each of them names a bar and a time period and sometimes a bartender,” says Davidson, “There’s lots of literature out there of these people who were infatuated by tiki culture.”
But what is tiki culture, and where does it fit in with the concept of cultural appropriation?
Cultural Exchange Vs. Cultural Appropriation
Tiki culture “certainly is borrowed from other cultures,” admits Davidson.
Tiki bars originated in the United States in 20th century Hollywood, when Louisiana-born entrepreneur Donn Beach created the first of its kind, out of romanticized interpretations of his cultural encounters while sailing south pacific islands. From there, the Trader Vic chain franchise was born, and tiki bars began popping up throughout the country, eventually spreading to other nations, including Hawaii, where numerous tiki themed establishments now thrive.
“I didn’t try to recreate something traditional,” says Davidson, “This is just an interpretation of my past and trying to create this cool experience.”
Consider various other restaurants in Corvallis owned by white American businesspeople: Les Caves, Koriander, and Taco Vino to a name a few, all of which seemed to have slipped under the radar of what constitutes cultural appropriation. Reading the slatherings on Facebook, one is left in a state of haze, questioning where to draw the line between fraudulent cultural exploitation, and acceptable reproduction or cultural infusion. Between appropriation and exchange.
Davidson references Portland’s recent Kooks Burrito controversy; an incident where two women were accused of cultural appropriation after gathering insight on the art of tortilla making from Mexican women, while on vacation at Baja California Village.
“If anyone thought critically about the Kooks Burrito issue… the most asked question [was] what about Pok Pok? Nobody wanted to talk about it,” says Davidson.
Caucasian American Andy Ricker founded the highly successful and well-respected Pok Pok franchise. He doubles as the main chef, presenting authenticated Thai cuisine.
What is the threshold then, for authenticity? Is it in presentation, of food and decor—what is received as tacky or tasteless versus what we find classy or upscale?
Perhaps timing plays a part. It seems some restaurants fall under the radar, while others get “caught in the snare,” as Davidson puts it, attributing the phenomenon in part to patterns of history, pings in time where there is heightened political activity–change, corruption, transparency–and sensitivities rise.
Facebook certainly plays a role. The more interaction a post gets, the longer it tops our news feeds.
“We all know at this point with how the algorithms work something gets noticed and it rises to the top,” says Davidson.
And what about intention? Davidson just wanted to create a “cool space,” not intentionally profit from the language and traditions of a culture. He understands, however, that “just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean that the effect is really that different.”
He continues, “If I would have known a fraction of what would’ve occurred, I would’ve done it differently.”
Davidson was initially surprised by the amount of social scrutiny. He announced the change a month before opening Hapuna Kahuna, and hadn’t heard any objections.
“The only objection was ‘oh, I’m so sad that the lamb burger is going away.’ Nor have I ever heard of something like this in association with a tiki bar.”
Ironically, Davidson points out a celebratory tiki con in Portland taking place during the height of public controversy surrounding his tiki bar.
Calculating The Loss
Davidson put everything he had into the tiki idea, and was excited before it all came crashing down.
“There’s some quantifiable loss and there’s also some hard to quantify loss of the whole thing: stress, uncertainty… I feel like it’s very easy to forget that there are real people behind the idea of a business,” he explained.
The issue consumed Davidson’s personal life, “Everything came screeching to a halt,” he says, referencing his other businesses, employees, children, and wife, Hillary, who was diagnosed with cancer for a third time days before the Hapuna Kahuna’s opening.
“When you look at the balance sheet of what the issues were and what needed to be done… with all the stuff that happened around it, it’s hard to even fathom how unbalanced that was,” says Davidson.
Sifting through all the criticism and seeking the help of Oregon State University’s Asian and Pacific Cultural Center, Davidson eliminated the aspects perceived most offensive from the space he created, and carried on.
The cultural center has since withdrew their support for Davidson’s businesses, which spurred media twists that they bullied or pressured Davidson into changing the tiki bar.
“The only pressure I felt was the pressure I put on myself to do the right thing,” he says.
Both the cultural center and the original Facebook poster were unresponsive to the paper’s request for comment.
Life Goes On
“In the middle of all that stuff I can think of millions of awful things happening in the world,” Davidson submits.
As the controversy raged on, discussion over local homelessness had reached a crisis, as civilians grappled with the fact that there won’t be a men’s nor family emergency winter shelter this year. Downtown chalk wars raged on, messages of hate spreading through streets, countered with messages of love. Meanwhile, President Trump ordered the discharge of transgender armed forces via Twitter. The list goes on and on.
“Either way, I was happy to come to an understanding and make any adjustment I needed to. I’ve never been afraid of changing,” says Davidson.
He simply did what he had to do, with the support of his family, community affiliations, and Chuck Norris, now presented near the bar’s cash register. Davidson chuckles when I notice the portrait–the ultimate sign of resilience.
“We’ll never know where the truth lies with cultural appropriation with food, with music, with art,” says Davidson.
Maybe cultural appropriation is too hairy a topic to gracefully navigate. I won’t argue for or against the sensitivities of a culture I have no inherent ties to, though my personal belief is that people are connected through humanness over identifying factors like skin or religion. Each battle against oppression and stereotyping is a shared battle for human equality.
One wonders, is social media an effective platform for change? Are we directing our attention in the right places by engaging in verbal wars behind a virtual curtain? I’ll let you decide.
By Stevie Beisswanger