Monday, March 9, 2009

Aloha, Chin Tiki

The Ilitch family ramped up their Detroit demolition spree this past week, taking down a couple more viable but not "contributing" historic structures in the area behind the Fox Theater. For a group of gajillionaires who love to squawk about "saving" the historic Fox they sure do love to tear down old buildings (with city/state money) and pave them over for surface parking. Or to build the ugliest new buildings in the world (do a google image search for Motor City Casino, I dare you).

One we lost this time around was the Chin Tiki, the old Polynesian restaurant on Cass Avenue. I knew it was coming - once the Ilitches buy a building you can pretty much guarantee it's coming down at some point, but also I saw workers emptying out the building about two weeks ago. Instead of just shaking my head at the waste of it all, this one hit a little closer to home.

Photo the unwitting compliments of Andy over at HotFudgeDetroit.

See, back in the day, when hipster meant swing dancing and
Combustible Edison instead of skinny jeans and Franz Ferdinand, I was a full retro tiki nut. I was super into collecting tiki mugs, as well as researching the history of American tiki culture. I would do the pilgrimage to extant tiki bars whenever I traveled, including a fantastic birthday at Chicago Trader Vic's. This is ... almost 15 years ago now? Wow. When I moved back to Detroit I used to enjoy driving by the Chin Tiki and imagining how amazing it would be to open a tiki bar (or a gay tiki bar!) in there.

This was also the advent of the internet age, and on one of my first personal websites (nerd alert) I transcribed a piece that originally ran in Left Bank, the awesome Detroit-centric magazine that Pure Detroit's Shawn Santo published in the 90s (an all-too-rare resource back in the days before you could just google any Detroit history you wanted). After I saw it the building coming down this week I went onto an old backup and pulled it up, so we can all remember the glory days of the Chin Tiki.

[In 1996 The Left Bank Publication published an interview with Dee Dee, one of the female impersonators who used to perform at the old Gold Dollar on Cass Ave. back in the '60's and '70's. In this excerpt, Dee Dee reminisces about the Chin Tiki, right down the street...]

Can I ask you about Chin Tiki? Do you remember anything about Chin Tiki?

Ummm. I was there quite a few times... it was a beauuutiful bar. They used to have a river coming right through the was just beautiful ... and the Polynesian dancers ... none of them were Polynesian - they were all neighborhood girls - but it was a good show. AND THE DRINKS...they used to have this one drink - I can't remember what it was called - but it was served in a conch shell ... with 7 straws and an orchid floating in it. And it cost like, seven bucks ... and honey, four people could suck on this drink all night and get GOONED. I have no idea what was in it but you had to order NO MORE ... it was wonderful and very relaxing, and the food was EXCELLENT ... that was a real bad thing when that place closed down. It's a shame ... I would love to see the inside now, it's been closed for years...

And they had a stage show?

OH YEAH. Oh yeah, they had Polynesian dancers every 1/2 hour - I mean it was just HULA girls and none of them really knew ... I guess if you were really Hawaiian or if you'd ever been to Hawaii, you'd probably laugh ... but when you're sitting there and you're half in the bag ... if was fun ... it was entertaining. You know - it was something to do and most people went there for the food anyways, not for the dancers ... but it was like Greektown and the belly dancers, it was on the same order as that. It was not some elaborate show - I guess the 'Dollar show was a whole lot better than that - but it was a lot of fun ... I really miss it ... I knew everyone who worked there, I guess that's what I miss ... all the girls from the 'Dollar would go down there in between shows ...

Back then too -- half the buildings are gone now -- there used to be a great big Chinatown ... GREAT BIG CHINATOWN .. and there were like, five Chinese restaurants, and the Chinese restaurant that was right next to the 'Dollar - the building's still there, but it's all gutted and everything ... Oh it was wonderful! They had all individual party-like booths, and they were open until ... whenever the people left. The Gold Dollar would close at 2:30, and everyone would go from the Gold Dollar right next door. It would be one great big party booth and everyone would sit in there and order food and just have a great time ... The ladies were all real friendly and they knew us ... it was nice. Mmmm, excellent. And then Chinese New Year - they'd block off the whole street and the dragon would run through and everything...

They did that in Detroit?
Oh yeah, for YEARS! Five or six years, before it started fading out, but oh yeah ... Chinese New Year is a big thing - they'd block off the whole street and bring in a big bandshell down there...

It was wonderful ...

You can see some more pictures and read about the history of the Chin Tiki in this Metro Times article from 2003 (only seven years after the peak of the trend, way to be ahead of the curve MT). And Dee Dee is still a denizen of the Cass Corridor - if you go to Canine to Five you can get your dog groomed by her!

As an aside, the Ilitch demolition of the Chin Tiki as well as this building a block away on Grand River is a perfect example of why there has been no progress in reviving a street level experience in Detroit. How in the world is a small business owner or developer going to open a business if viable spaces don't exist? Chin Tiki may not have been a whiteboxed space, but it was intact and could have been dusted off and reopened, a la D'Mongo's.

Instead all we are left with are spaces that are so blown out that nothing can be done short of a total rehab, or parking lots. That, ultimately, is what discourages me about the possibilities of an organic Detroit revival. If everything has to be built from scratch, it's going to look like the suburbs and cost as much (or more). And then all the interesting businesses that grow out of risk and inexpensive space can never happen. And then I have to move to another city because the douchebaggery makes me nauseous. And then nobody wins.


Woodwards Friend said...

I have no particular affinity for Chin Tiki. It was restaurant that closed around the time I was born, the end.

But your point about the streetscape is spot on. As much as I hate skinny jean hipster Detroitists buying nostalgia for a time they can't remember (to quote hurts me too), the Chin Tiki building could have been something useful. The structure had value. The vacant land has no value because land in metro Detroit has no value.

This notion that there's a hockey arena coming soon is daffy. The Ilitch Family had to go bank shopping to finance Comerica Park and that was in good economic times. In case people haven't noticed, no one is lending money right now. Marian Ilitch's giant Kenny Rogers Roasters, I mean Motor City Casino, is supposedly bleeding money. The Red Wings can't even sell-out their home games despite being the defending Stanley Cup champs. There won't be a new hockey arena for at least ten years.


Anonymous said...

WF is such a proverbial pollo du printemps. Old man that I am, I was born prior to 1980, when Marvin Chin padlocked the doors, and I still have a copy of that Left Bank issue kicking around. But it's not just about sobbing into my Triple Zombie over a restaurant that closed before, or after, I was born.

"Back in the day, when hipster meant swing dancing and Combustible Edison instead of skinny jeans and Franz Ferdinand, I was a full retro [everything] nut." Shakers, vintage geegaws, Trader Vics, vintage sharkskin suits, vintage everything, big Tiki heads from garage sales(many of which I sold to Al at Chief Ike's Mambo Room (I want those back). ..anything I could get my hands on. And Chin Tiki was like this big, huge totem of a time capsule, sealed up like a drum....just sitting there..beckoning...

So now it's gone, and that is sad. I would agree that there is no imminent hockey arena on the horizon. The money was set aside for the Ilitch's to use, and by gum that's what they're going to do. They have no plan other than to clear that land. They're a wheezing, dysfunctional corporation which is run like a third rate, fourth generation Macedonian pizza parlor in Garden City. Oh, wait...

So yeah, shit like this is pretty sad and pathetic.
The area is transformed into an unattractive moonscape, block by block. If something ever does happen, they can say "oh great, look at all this land we cleared for parking lots (see, e.g., Comerica Park, and realize how many structures they razed (or moved) from the lots between the park and Woodward), all to be replaced by...wait for it...parking lots! It's a sad and desolate step...maybe minor in the big picture, but emblematic of an urban vision that I would want no part of.


Anonymous said...

I remember it well. I was 17 and a busboy. The tips put me on top at school (Murray-Wright)) and the experience was thrilling. Hula dancers, Hawaiian shirts, floating orchids and sweet and sour sauce.

I had to manually light the torches out front with a 20 foot pipe and flaming paper towel.

Now just cosmic debris.

Anonymous said...

I found a Chin Tiki ashtray at the Goodwill today and ran across this article while doing some research. Dee Dee's interview is about the best thing I have read in weeks.

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