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How Chinese Restaurants Shaped Tiki Culture In LA

A postcard from Bali Hai, a Culver City restaurant that was popular in the 1950s and '60s. (Courtesy of Bryant Ng)
(Courtesy of Bryant Ng)
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In 1933, a charismatic drifter named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt opened a tiny bar at 1722 North McCadden Place in Hollywood. He called his cheerful hut-like establishment Don's Beachcomber and filled it with stolen shipyard paraphernalia and bottles of spiced rum. Within four years, Gantt, who would eventually legally change his name to Donn Beach, relocated the bar to 1727 North McCadden Place.

September 6, 1963: "Members of San Fernando Stake, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will stage an authentic Royal Hawaiian Luau featuring professional Polynesian entertainers."

Described by his great friend David Niven as "good-looking, philosophical and raffish," Beach would become the godfather of tiki while his wife and business partner, Sunny Sund, exported tiki culture across the United States. "Donn drew his inspiration for the drinks from the Caribbean and rum, his decor from the South Pacific and his food from Cantonese restaurants," says Martin Cate, author and owner of tiki bar Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco.

"The South Pacific was already a source of American fascination in the 19th century in the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the early 20th century, the music of Hawaii became very popular and the inspiration for many Tin Pan Alley songs. Donn helped create a fantasy world that was not centered around any one place but, rather, centered around the notion of escape at a time during the Great Depression when people could not afford to travel. It was mysterious, exciting and glamorous."

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Beach's amalgamation of Pacific Island culture appealed to white Angelenos who loved all things other. Think of the Mayan-inspired architecture of Lloyd Wright, the "desert" movies of Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, the career of Cincinnati-born "Egyptian goddess" Theda Bara (her name is an anagram for "Arab death") or the entire town of Venice.

"It was born in Hollywood and certainly the element of theatricality plays a part," Cate explains of the tiki phenomenon. "Many of the great bars during the heyday were built by Hollywood set designers. Celebs loved tiki bars in the Golden Era, so that helped, too. California's proximity to the South Pacific, trade and cultural connections also played a part, and as the often final mainland shipping off point for GIs to the Pacific Theater, it cemented those connections."

There was also the fact that tiki, with its elaborate, fruity cocktails, laid back music and Rococo take on tropical décor, was a lot of fun.

"It's totally kitschy and a little cheesy, which I love," says chef Bryant Ng of celebrated Southeast Asian restaurant Cassia in Santa Monica. "That's the soul of it. It's playful and it doesn't need to be that serious. I think that maybe, if you interpret it incorrectly, it becomes something super serious and then you lose that fun, jovial part of it."

Tiki-inspired restaurants and watering holes, like the Trader Vic's chain, began popping up all over the Southland in the 1930s and '40s. While many people of Asian descent, like Donn Beach's right-hand man, Ray Buhen (the future owner and operator of the Tiki-Ti in Los Feliz), worked as chefs and bartenders at Cantonese and tiki restaurants, most of the establishments were owned by white people.

That began to change in the 1950s, at the height of tiki's mainstream popularity.

The fabulously sophisticated and elegant Sylvia Cheng, known to Los Angeles as Madame Wu, opened Madame Wu's Garden in Santa Monica the late '50s. She served her famous shredded chicken salad, a highbrow dish for that era, as wells as Cantonese cuisine to the likes of Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

Around the same time, Bryant Ng's great uncle, James B. Wong, asked his grandfather, Po Yuen Chau, to partner with him in a large tiki restaurant at 13222 W. Washington Blvd. in Culver City.

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The family members were unlikely restaurant owners. Originally from the Canton region of China, factory owner Chau and his family had moved to Hong Kong during the Chinese revolution. They immigrated to Los Angeles in the early '50s to further their children's educational opportunities — and to get cancer treatment. Bryant's grandmother was sick with cancer.

Ng points out that a lot of people who opened restaurants in the U.S. had worked in other careers and trades in their home countries.

"In my grandfather's case, he's a business person who owned soap and detergent factories," Ng says. "But clearly that's not something you can do when you come over as an immigrant. So it became something of necessity, like many immigrant stories. My grandfather became a partner and my family — my uncles and aunts and my mom — actually helped to work at the restaurant as well."

The family named the restaurant Bali Hai, after the hit tune from the musical South Pacific. It opened in Culver City in the late '50s.

"Bali Hai was a lively, festive restaurant yet had the romantic and casual atmosphere where families brought their children to gaze and enjoy the Polynesian themed decorations," Pauline Ng, Bryant's mother, remembers. "The decor outside resembled a tiki hut with bamboo and dried palm trimming. Inside, there was a small wooden bridge, which led to the dining area, the long bar and the performing stage."

Pauline's brother Jack Chau was the chef. Another brother, Sunny Chau, had gone to bartending school in Hong Kong so he made elaborate tiki cocktails like the Zombie, the Fog Cutter and the Shark's Tooth. Pauline's favorite was the Scorpio, which she describes as "a tweaked version of a Tiki drink that came in a big seashell with gardenia petals floating on top and was big enough for two to share."

When she was not studying to be a microbiologist at Cal State Northridge, Pauline worked as a greeter at Bali Hai.

"It was really a fun place," she writes. "Especially on weekends where customers enjoyed their tiki drinks and food while waiting for the hula show. There were two men (in native costumes) and three women (in hula skirts) who performed the Polynesian hula show consisting of various hula dancing, fire breathing and fire wheel spinning. Customer participation was part of the show, as they learned to hula dance."

You enjoyed the entertainment while munching on a pu pu platter heaped with bongo bongo Polynesian fried chicken, crab Rangoon and Peking boneless duck. Although the snacks had been popularized by Beach, who had reportedly worked as a dishwasher at Chinese restaurants, they were a century in the making.

"They called it Polynesian-Cantonese cuisine," Ng says. "I think, in reality, it was simply Cantonese cuisine. But if you take that even further, it's actually Chinese-American food. Chinese-American food is very strongly rooted in Cantonese cuisine. You have, in the United States, very early on especially, when you're building a railroad during the gold mining era, a lot of Cantonese people coming over. Of course, they're adapting food to their palate. They were just trying to make it flavorful and remind themselves of home."

The new style of Chinese American cooking continued to evolve at restaurants like Bali Hai as dishes were reconceived to appeal to Anglo-Americans.

"You see this development of Chinese-American food, which is pretty cool because it's a uniquely American creation born out of necessity [and] creativity, by Chinese people who are opening restaurants," Ng says. "We're going to use their nomenclature so that it's approachable to our guests."

"Chinese friends would criticize the food, saying it wasn't authentic," Madame Wu once said. "But I told them, 'Look around. Do you see any Chinese dining here?'" And there, in a paper-thin egg roll wrapper, is the tension at the heart of culture, cuisine and commerce in the United States.

Like many mid-century tiki and Cantonese establishments, Bali Hai primarily attracted Caucasians. Because Bali Hai was close to Culver City with its movie and TV studios, Santa Monica with its aerospace companies and Marina Del Rey with its tourism, "The clientele were mostly executives and young professionals," Pauline Ng writes.

The restaurant was home to countless birthday parties, retirement shindigs and even one divorce celebration. In 1964, popular Los Angeles Times columnist Art Ryon described the way Bali Hai roasted its chestnuts:

"Chef Laurence Chan is so particular that he roasts his own chestnuts in the sand. The hot sand, continuously stirred, surrounds the chestnuts with medium heat. The chestnut meat becomes soft and fragrant like well-baked sweet potatoes. Chan tells me that, when other methods of roasting are used, the chestnuts are likely to remain partially raw because of uneven or interrupted heating."

Bali Hai thrived through the mid-1960s but by the end of the decade, tastes had changed. The restaurant closed in 1969.

Although the tiki craze had waned, elements of it had permeated American culture. You could see it in hula shirts and miniature cocktail umbrellas, in Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, in the perennial popularity of mai tais and pina coladas and, later, in the songs of Jimmy Buffet. Since then, tiki has enjoyed waves of popularity. Since the 1990s, it has seen a steady resurgence as bartenders have embraced its complicated mixed drinks, influenced by the books of tiki historian Jeff "Beachbum" Berry.

"During the 1950s, it was an escape from the relentless push of both modernism and the hard-driving American work ethic," Martin Cate explains. "It was also an escape from geo-political anxiety. Author Sven Kirsten called tiki bars 'emotional bomb shelters for the atomic age.' Today, it's to get away from political anxiety, economic uncertainty and a bit of a response from the seriousness of cocktail culture."

For Bryant Ng, though, it's important that enthusiasts remember that tiki culture began with a white man's cultural appropriation.

"It doesn't require outward malicious intent to perpetuate ideals of colonialism, oppression and white supremacy," Ng says. "The late Jonathan Gold, in his review of Cassia, said 'Ng colonizes the colonizers,' referencing my approach to the cuisine at Cassia within the context of French colonization of Vietnam. In a sense, my grandparents did the same with tiki culture. It began with a white person taking elements of their heritage and making it popular in the mainstream, then my grandparents recognizing that and taking it back as their own."

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