The endless sunsets of tropicalism
December 10, 2006, 10:25 am
Filed under: 80's, identity, intercultural, orientalism, style, tropical

In late 80’s a completely new genre of orientalism (or better: otherism) was starting to take shape. Inspired by various factors, economic growth, better living standard and a shift towards the trend-setting role of the newly established MTV, pop culture began to turn towards the west and seek for the new exoticism somewhere in the undefined tropical paradise.

Mostly, “tropical” meant “Caribbean”. Miami Vice TV series presented two flawless cops in sleek suits and T-shirts. The biggest star of the series, however, was the tropical aesthetics it advertised: “Each week’s episode began with a catalogue of Miami iconography: sun-baked beach houses, Cuban-American festivals, women in bikinis, and postmodern, pastel-colored cityscapes.” (J. Butler on Miami Vice) The worldwide TV audience was invited to fantasize about the endless sunsets on the tropical beaches.

miami vice

The tropicalism of the late eighties had a widespread influence. While the women of the time were busy putting on SPF 2 sunscreen, their husbands were dressed in Hawaiian shirts and their kids dreamed about getting their first real kisses in pastel sunsets.

sunset kiss

All kinds of exotic fruit, coconuts, mangoes and papayas, flooded the markets. The names of bars were refashioned to evoke the feelings of the tropical paradise (the general favorite being “Cocoloco”) and the drinks they drank were designed in the same manner.


The motivation that was pulling strings behind the pastel setting of the 80’s tropicalism was not very much different from the ideological structure of any other orientalism or otherism that came before. This was perhaps best summarised by the Beach Boys 1988 song Kokomo:

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you to
Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama
Key Largo Montego, baby why don’t we go
Ooh I wanna take you down to
Kokomo, we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow
That’s where we wanna go, way down in Kokomo.

Martinique, that Monserrat mystique…

We’ll put out to sea and we’ll perfect our chemistry
By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity
Afternoon delight, cocktails and moonlit nights
That dreamy look in your eye, give me a tropical contact high
Way down in Kokomo

Although the names of the places referred to some cartographic reality, the vaguely defined Caribbean paradise was not a real place, but a projection of a certain desire. It offered endless holidays and an escape from the hard-working business environment of the late 80’s, a retribution for the life spent in earning money, something you could afford and enjoy to get away from the life of everyday. But this setting was also a metaphor for the unspoilt sensual paradise. While the discovery of HIV virus began to lay restraints on the sexual freedom, the uninhibited sensuality and indulgence were still possible in these faraway lands of sandy beaches, neon lights and palm trees. Paradise was a holiday resort and the “tropical contact” was uncontaminated.

After all, the title wasn’t Miami Virtue.



Is it just the dress code?
November 19, 2006, 11:20 am
Filed under: identity, intercultural, orientalism, pidgin, style

Language isn’t the only medium we use in the pidginization of identity. Centuries ago, when Europeans set foot on the Chinese territory, they first used clothing to show their willingness for what will later be called “cultural exchange”. After the initial not-so-very felicitous faux-pas, when Jesuit missionaries tried to win recognition from their Confucian counterparts by dressing like Buddhist monks, they finally started to dress like Confucian scholars, as it is obvious on this picture of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and a Chinese convert:


(Ricci is the one on the left …)

All kinds of ethno-styles in contemporary fashion can also be understood as some kind of identity seeking process, although it is not directly intended to communicate with the cultural Other. Supposedly “Ethnic”, “Oriental”, “Tribal” or “Tropic” styles don’t refer to a particular cultural area, but mostly to some set of one’s own wishful (or fearful) imageries. This is a pidginization of sorts, but a slightly different one.

Anyhow, there still are some relics of the historical version of style-pidginization, when two cultures (or economies) meet: