Birthdays tend to stir up a lot of emotion. They force us to take inventory of the choices we’ve made, the decisions we’re grappling with, and the people we’ve chosen to spend our lives with. They’re a reminder of how far we’ve come, where we’re headed, and what our impact has been and hopefully will be. A good birthday party, in a sense, is an outward expression of those themes.
Of course, I didn’t expect all that significance when I was invited to attend the 75th Birthday of the Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s. I just figured I’d get rum drunk, listen to a bunch of people talk about Hawaii, and binge on some raw fish. This was a birthday party for a cocktail, after all. Why would it go any deeper than that? Who gets all philosophical at the anniversary of some boozy flavored syrups?
Yet there I was two weeks later, taken by surprise to discover that this little birthday gathering included party favors with a lot of depth. Along with coconut drinks and a pretty view of the Emeryville Marina, I got a full crash course in one of the most accepting, inclusive, and weirdest cultures I’ve come across in recent years: the culture of tiki.
First, what is tiki culture? Through its decor, it’s revealed as a mishmash of island-inspired motifs rich with Polynesian crafts, umbrella drinks, and lots of imported palm trees. Kitschy and fun (all lovingly-yet-blatantly appropriated from various tropical cultures). Through its people, it’s a way of life that centers around tropical escapism, dressed in an aesthetic that I can only describe as pin-up meets luau meets misfit theatre kid. (Imagine if a person could dress as the sort of surfboard that a non-surfer would keep hanging above the mantle.) Through its customers, tiki is a chance to journey to an over-water bungalow in Tahiti but also grab an Uber and be home by 9.
I learn all of this on the fly, at the party itself, while munching on a bowl of Kung Pao Chicken, crab rangoon, and crispy prawns piled to the point of absurdity. As I eat, I listen to the story of Vic “The Trader” Bergeron — the man responsible for inventing the Mai Tai and for bringing his travel inspiration back home, where he would eventually create an empire of tiki-themed restaurants and products, AKA Trader Vics.
But even with all these overwhelming stimuli — did I mention zydeco and exotica playing in the background? — I can’t help but notice a table of two adult couples, both in matching outfits with their significant others. They’re laughing, gleefully sipping their rum cocktails, and waving to other patrons as they walk by like we’re at some kind of small-town church social. This strikes me: who are these people? Why do they all know each other? Have I wandered into a cult? What customs do they have besides a shared love of rum and wood carvings of the South Pacific?”
Clearly, I have to intervene. I waltz over to the table and announce “I’m Chelsea, and I’m obsessed with you.”
The couples turn to me, in unison.
“What’s going on here?” I ask, emboldened by a few too many Mai Tais. “Where did you get matching outfits? Is this a regular thing? Do you seriously have a tattoo of a hula skirt on your forearm?”
One of the women laughs. She introduces herself as Deborah Kopec. She’s got short hair, sleeves of tattoos running up her arms, and wears deep blue eyeshadow. After some back and forth, she begins to launch into what tiki culture means to her, as she sees it.
“It’s beautiful,” Deborah says. “A pan-cultural, island-specific, vacation whenever I want it.” She waves her bright green and purple floral dress back and forth and adjusts the flower garland in her hair. “I’m from New Jersey, I’m a nurse, I’m black. When I’m not at work, I can be on vacation any day of the week because Trader Vic’s is my local tiki bar. And they accept me and they love me here.”
Deborah’s similarly tattooed husband, Anthony Kopec, describes tiki as the next incarnation of the punk rock scene.
“It’s still escapism,” he says. “It brings a lot of that same adventurism, you get to push your own boundaries in different ways, but you get to celebrate a unique style at the same time.”
Fair enough. Punk rock but with Hawaiian shirts instead of lip rings and cool, ceramic mugs instead of heroin. I can dig that.
From the Kopec’s and the rest of the people at the Mai Tai’s 50th birthday celebration, you get the sense that Trader Vic was stirring up more than rum, Orgeat, and lime. He was stirring up a culture of misfits, of weirdos, or simply regular people who needed to escape the stressors of American life. Through his cocktail, he offered folks a chance to find solace in a bamboo-adorned restaurant where patrons could listen to island crooners instead of Top 40, eat seafood inspired by Carribean classics, get a little buzz, and take a load off.
Vic stirred up a culture of acceptance. He stirred up an alternative way of life. And as I leave the mai tai’s 75th birthday party, I can’t help but feel glad to have been a part of it.
Uproxx was hosted for this story by Trader Vics. However, they did not review or approve this story. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.