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Looking for Pago Pago

One of my favorite buildings in Chicago’s South Loop was recently demolished: an old brick one at the corner of South Wabash and East Van Buren. I don’t know what the building was, and already I can’t remember much what it looked like. I never went inside it. What I liked about it was this old ad on its northern side:

What was Pago Pago?

I was reminded of this yesterday while screening The Big Clock (1948) for some students. [That’s a truly excellent film, by the way. Briefly: Ray Milland stars as a man forced by his boss and circumstance to lead a manhunt against himself. John Farrow directs in a fairly snappy fashion, with lots of long crane shots that slink their way through lobbies and conference rooms. The villainous, time-obsessed boss is played by Charles Laughton at his most feline (and who at times seems to be doing a Hitchcock impersonation). Even more delightfully, Elsa Lanchester turns in a small role as a gigglesome artist. It’s one of the kookier noirs (and a clear inspiration for The Hudsucker Proxy). It was remade (rather, the source novel was re-adapted) in 1987 as No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner, Sean Young, and Gene Hackman.]

About thirty minutes into the film, Ray Milland goes on a bender, and Farrow indulges in a bit of Impressionist montage. Along the way we see a sign flash: “Pago Pago.”

I assume it’s a different restaurant by the same name. But what was it?

Thanks to L’wikipedia, I now know that the original Pago Pago is:

[pronounced “Pango Pango” by native Samoan speakers,  and] is the capital of American Samoa. In 2000, its population was 11,500. The city is served by Pago Pago International Airport. Tourism, entertainment, food, and tuna canning are the primary industries here. From 1878 to 1951, this was a coaling and repair station for the U.S. Navy.

But Pago Pago, the restaurants in Chicago and The Big Clock, were tiki bars:

If one is to believe the photographic evidence presented here [the Chicago Pago Pago ad], there was once an incredible trio of Tiki Bars right in Chicago’s business district!  However, we checked out all three addresses listed on this billboard, and all three are currently run of-the-mill Chinese food joints.  Two of them have no Tikiness about them whatsoever – not the slightest trace.  One of them has a very small stinky basement bar area, redecorated in the 1980s in salmon and mauve, with a single crusty old tropical drinks menu stuck on the side of the cash register.

Imagine walking around downtown Chicago back in the Tiki Heyday, and having three Pago Pagos, a Kon Tiki Ports, Don the Beacjcomber [sic], the Shangri-La, Tommy Wong’s, and Trader Vics [sic] all within a few blocks.  You’d be hard pressed to go for a stroll without stumbling across (or into) a Tiki Bar or four!

When was “the Tiki Heyday”? What exactly is a tiki bar? Once again, the Wikipedia saved my life:

A Tiki Bar is an exotic–themed drinking establishment that serves elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the “mai tai” or “Zombie cocktail”. Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their Tiki culture décor which is based upon a romanticized conception of primitive tropical cultures, most commonly Polynesian.

The interiors and exteriors of tiki bars often include “Tiki god” masks and carvings, grasscloth, tapa cloth and tropical fabrics, torches, woven fish traps, and glass floats, bamboo, plants, lava stone, Hula girl, palm tree motifs, tropical murals and other South Pacific-themed decorations. Indoor fountains, waterfalls or even lagoons are popular features. Some tiki bars also incorporate a stage for live entertainment such as Exotica-style bands or Polynesian dance floor shows.

Regarding “tiki culture,” a separate entry informs us that it “refers to a 20th-century theme used in Polynesian-style restaurants and clubs originally in the United States and then, to a lesser degree, around the world. Although inspired in part by Tiki carvings and mythology, the connection is loose and stylistic.”

As for Tiki, it:

refers to large wood and stone carvings of humanoid forms in Central Eastern Polynesian cultures of the Pacific Ocean. The term is also used as it relates to Māori mythology where Tiki is the first man. In the Māori language, the word ‘tiki’ was the name given to large wooden carvings in roughly human shape, although this is a somewhat archaic usage. The carvings often serve to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites. In Māori mythology Tiki is the first man, created by either Tūmatauenga  or Tāne. He found the first woman, Marikoriko, in a pond. She seduced him and he became the father of Hine-kau-ataata.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in that labyrinth that is the web, the tiki bar entry continues:

The first tiki bar was named “Don the Beachcomber”, and was created in Los Angeles in 1933 by Ernest Gantt (aka “Donn Beach”). The bar served a wide variety of exotic rum drinks (including the popular “Sumatra Rula” and “Zombie cocktail”) as well as Cantonese food, and displayed many artifacts that Gantt had collected on earlier trips through the tropics. When Gantt was sent to World War II, Don the Beachcomber flourished under his ex-wife’s management, expanding into a chain of 160 restaurants.

When Gantt returned from the War, he moved to Hawaii and created “Waikiki Beach”, one of the two canonical tiki bars. The bar was designed to evoke the South Pacific, with palm trees, tiki masks on the walls, a garden hose that showered a gentle rain on the roof and a myna bird that was trained to shout “Give me a beer, stupid!” The bar was located on the beach, lit by tiki torches outside which enhanced its primitive ambiance.

The other canonical bar is Trader Vic’s, the first of which was created by Victor Bergeron in Oakland, California in 1936. The quintessential tiki cocktail the “Mai Tai” was concocted at the original Trader Vic’s in 1944. Bergeron expanded the business to eventually include branches all over the world, as well as marketing cocktail mixes and other products for retail sale. Members of the Bergeron family still have a hand in the operations of at least one branch. The original Oakland location is gone, but there is still a Trader Vic’s located a few miles away in Emeryville, California.

The Tonga Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco is another iconic tiki bar operating since 1945, and undergoing a number of facelifts over the years.

The original Tiki bars flourished for about 30 years, and then soon fell out of vogue. In the 1990s, the Tiki culture was revived by a new generation of fans and new tiki bars (most of which looked to Trader Joe’s [sic] and Don the Beachcomber for inspiration) were founded all over the world.

So it would seem that tiki bars were in between around 1933 and the 1960s. That squares with my perception. I recall that, when I was a kid (in the 1980s), my parents would sometimes take me to a Japanese restaurant in Scranton, which contained what I now realize was a tiki bar. (I always got some kind of pineapple drink with a little umbrella in it. And then slept for hours…)

I haven’t been to Osaka in ages, but its menu still features the “Aku Aku Punch Bowl”:

A delicious blend of Vodka, Gin and Rum combined with top shelf Jim Bean [sic] and Dewar’s. We mixed all of that with Pineapple and Orange juice and topped it off with a flaming Volcano of 151 (large enough for two!!)

…and for two exclamation points. $13, no reservation needed.

On other occasions, we went to Cantonese places that offered dishes like pu pu platters and shady fruit-based drinks. Scranton being the cosmopolitan resort town that it is, I knew even then that I was dining in remnants of a craze twenty-five years past.

Regarding the Chicago Pago Pago, we learn from a comment at Yelp (this is research!):

My uncle used to work there.  I think they closed in the mid 90’s.

Polynesian-themed restaurants with their dressed up Chinese American food, umbrella drinks, tiki decor, and Hawaiian shirts were quite popular decades ago.  Now they are nearly extinct.  I believe Trader Vic’s in the Palmer House Hotel is still open though.

A subsequent comment informs us that Trader Vic’s still survives, and has moved to Rush Street. It’s actually on State, and it still offers “Tiki hour”:

You can read more about the origins of Trader Vic’s and the tiki bar craze at their site, on a very well-written and detailed “About” page. An excerpt:

In 1934, with a nest egg of $700 and carpentry help from his wife’s brothers – plus his mother’s pot-bellied stove and oven – the ebullient Victor [Bergeron] built a cozy pub across the street from the store and called it Hinky Dink’s. His pungent vocabulary and ribald air made him a popular host, as did his potent tropical cocktail concoctions and delicious Americanized adaptations of Polynesian food.

My favorite part is the last paragraph:

Trader Vic’s both tapped into the zeitgeist and helped shape it. South Pacific culture had a small but growing hold on the American pop imagination in the 1930s, as the middle class began to embrace a bowdlerized version of an old avant-garde favorite. Primitive art from the South Seas had fascinated the cultural elite since at least the paintings by Paul Gauguin in the late nineteenth century, and through a sort of obscure cultural alchemy, these primitive forms became popularized and marketed in the form of the tiki statue—an oversized carved wooden figure of a human form, often grotesquely exaggerated.

I may be biased, but everything I see these days seems traceable back to Gauguin and the other Asia–obsessed Impressionists. That Eastern obsession in fact precedes even Gauguin, stretching back to the 1600s, and the start of the Chinoiserie craze. The West has been trading in exotic Asian goods, both real and imagined, for centuries now.

Decades from now, Generation Z-sters will no doubt scratch their heads over obscure ads for restaurants serving pad thai and bánh mì. (“You guys seriously only ever ate at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants? Didn’t you have any Cambodian and Burmese restaurants then?”)

Right before they knock the buildings down.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

9 thoughts on “Looking for Pago Pago

  1. Sorry to hear that building was demolished – for years I’ve been meaning to photograph the Pago Pago ad, but like so many other things I never got around to it. Chicago had its very own Don the Beachcomber – I have a 1950s-era ad for it from an old theater playbill. And I think the new Trader Vic’s might include the old furnishings from the Palmer House location.

  2. I get that at this point the tiki thing has more to do with kitsch and white pop cultural history, but I still have some trouble squaring it with my politics, esp. considering Islander people still exist (I feel like the decontextualized and bastardized imagery, kinda like what we do w/ North American Indian imagery, erases the actual populations and/or places them outside history), are impacted by the neocolonial-ish tourism industry and some, like native Hawaiians, are still fighting sovereignty struggles and have a hard time getting taken seriously.

    …I guess my thinking is let’s appreciate the tiki phenomenon aesthetically but w/ some caveat abt what was/is fucked up about it.

    1. Oh, totally. In case it’s not clear, my interest in this very much so includes that fantastic, misrepresentative aspect. Indeed, I find the whole thing fairly perverse (and perversion is one of my main fascinations). And I have a very long-running interest in Orientalism, partly due to my time spent living in Asia.

      What I’m trying to do here is clarify what the phenomenon was. As I suspected, it’s something made up by white Californians (like so much of 20th Century US culture).

      Adding, I’m not sure that I, personally, appreciate the phenomenon aesthetically. I’m not a very kitsch person. My parents had a wooden tiki-head mug when I was a kid (it sat on a bookshelf), and the thing always freaked me out.

  3. Thanks for the photos and the tiki talk. Used to go to Pago Pago on Wabash when I was a kid, then to the tiki bar in Hyde Park when I was old enough for the mai tais. Tiki good.

  4. I was thinking about these huge parties that used to take place on the loft above the Pago Pago and landed on this page. I was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1985 to 1989 and some fellow students rented the loft and threw parties up there. In 1986, I decided to ask if they would host what I called “Poetry Performances”, which were basically open mics with multi-media. David Sedaris signed up to one or two of them, reading his stories. He was probably the nicest, unassuming guy of the whole bunch. It was a crazy time. But at the Art Institute, when people said, “Let’s go to the Pago Pago”, they meant the loft above the restaurant.

  5. One of these was still open back in 98-99 because my Pops worked downtown when I started working downtown as a 21 yr old admin assistant. Some of my best memories are meeting him for lunch at Pago Pago. It was super dark and cozy in there and I imagined people sneaking off to lunch in there with their work spouses to flirt and eat shrimp fried rice. My dad worked off south Wacker drive by the Sears tower so I’m guessing we went to the one on Jackson. Of all my memories of him, that’s one of my fondest.

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