Indigenous Advocacy, Doom Metal, and Fundraging: How Chockie Tom Is Shaking up the Cocktail Industry

published Dec 1, 2021
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The last time I saw Chockie Tom, Indigenous hospitality advocate and co-founder of Doom Tiki, in person was on March 10, 2020. A week later, most bars and restaurants in New York would be forced to shut down due to COVID-19. But that night, at Paradise Lounge in Queens, “Doom Tiki: Summon The Moon” was in full swing. At the far end of the bar, Chockie Tom sat with a clowder of cat-shaped ceramic mugs decorated in corpse paint: eyes bleeding black tears, inverted crosses etched on their smooth bellies, right paws in the air. Doom metal leaked from the speakers and a blacktip reef shark figurine, sporting a lei, hung from the ceiling. 

Doom Tiki, the brainchild of Tom and Paradise Lounge bar owner, Austin Hartman, is not your average tiki bar experience. A more typical encounter might involve imbibing a lily-laden rum drink next to a towering tiki head at Tonga Hut, Los Angeles’s oldest, still-running tiki bar. Or visiting Otto’s Shrunken Head, a tiki-themed dive bar nestled in the murky depths of Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Otto’s boasts live bands and the option to take your drinking vessel home for a mere $5. Perched on peeling plastic stools, New Yorkers sip saccharine drinks from ceramic mugs, their feet skimming a floor that could most generously be described as “damp.” Trying to conjure the feel of the tropics in New York City may seem like a bold move, but as Otto’s writes on their website: “Manhattan is after all, an island.”

But for the last two-plus years, Tom, whose work is informed by her Indigenous Pomo and Walker River Paiute heritage, has been trying to bring awareness to the fact that this genre of bars is problematic. Not only do they draw on food, language, and symbolism that has been stolen from a range of Pasifika and Asian cultures, but the iconography also tends to sexualize young, brown-skinned women.

“Hartman and I co-founded Doom Tiki in 2019 as a different re-imagining of Tiki that substitutes satanic imagery and doom and stoner metal in place of sexually exploitative and other problematic elements,” Tom wrote in an article the zine Discard titled “Thoughtful Tropical: The Necessary Evolution of Tiki.” One of the main tenets of Tom’s work is that she emphasizes cultural appreciation over cultural appropriation. Cultural appreciation, she writes, centers around, “a desire for knowledge and deeper understanding of a culture.” Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, “refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforce stereotypes or contributes to oppression.” Banning the use of tiki mugs that caricature or sexualize Pasifika people and encouraging guest bartenders and revelers alike to “be thoughtful, don’t be an asshole” are just two of the many ways Doom Tiki events aim to change the paradigm.

In October of 2020, Doom Tiki moved to Zoom Tiki and Tom, newly married, relocated to London with her husband. Nearly one year later, Doom Tiki has resumed in-person events both in New York (helmed by Hartman) and in London (led by Tom). They’re also in the midst of rebranding, and will soon be calling the pop-up “DT NYC LDN.” “Using the term ‘tiki’ is problematic,” Tom explained to me over Zoom in late October. “And our agreement with ourselves was that while it was important and relevant to [use the term to] get the right people to the conversation, the conversation has been happening long enough that those that want to be part of the future … and embrace themes of cultural empowerment [are here].”

Because the conversation about tiki now “needs to be led by Pasifika and Asian voices and Hawaiian voices,” Tom is taking a small step back and focusing on a plethora of projects beyond her pop-up. She’s writing articles for PUNCH, a media brand that covers drink culture, and is hard at work on a book. Recently, she conducted the first Indigenous-led panel for the Tales of the Cocktail® Festival and is teaming up with Portland Cocktail Week to create content that boosts Indigenous visibility. She has also been working to make November, “a month where our contributions and accomplishments and our people are lifted up and celebrated, as opposed to being portrayed as bit players in our own history.”

It’s no surprise that Tom has activist roots. Her parents, who met organizing, are both “very community-minded,” and always supported her desire to advocate for herself. After an incident with a problematic teacher, they took a fourth-grade Tom to the board of her California elementary school and demanded to have both the racist history textbooks and bigoted curriculum removed from its classrooms. They also ensured that Tom was taken out of the teacher’s care. 

“My dad [was my Indigenous parent and he] passed away 10 years ago, so I really wish he was here sometimes to guide me,” says Tom. “He was always instrumental in working for the community. He emceed a lot of powwows.” She also credits her dad with ingraining in her the imperative to give back — a theme that flows through all of Tom’s work. Each Doom Tiki event, for instance, “fundrages” in order to raise money for groups who have been displaced by colonization.

Tom’s mother, who is white and has a background in anthropology, never shied away from Tom’s Indigenous roots. “Just being a parent of Indigenous children, [she] made sure that we had strong Indigenous women and different community leaders … to influence us and show us that we could be strong and we could make change,” says Tom. In this light, it’s no surprise that Tom is so hell-bent on bettering the bar scene: “I don’t think I could have existed in this industry without helping facilitate or being part of change towards more equality, more visibility, and more opportunities.”

Lately, Tom has been thinking about how to combat stereotypes in the drinks industry — such as the falsehood that Indigenous people are more prone to heavy drinking and binge drinking. “Alcoholism and addiction in populations that have been affected by the things that have affected our community makes sense,” says Tom. “It’s a traumatic response.” But she cites a study executed by the University of Arizona that found that the rates of alcohol abuse are about equal for both groups Native Americans and their white counterparts.

“We’re actually less likely [to drink], and we have the same binge drinking behaviors as non-natives or white people,” says Tom. “And for years these myths have stood in the way of opportunities for us to work within the hospitality and drinks industry. I think every [Indigenous] person [working in the hospitality industry] I’ve talked to has been told things like, ‘Are you sure you should be allowed to drink?’” Tom aims to create awareness and education around the falseness of these tropes, so as to lessen their harmful impact.

The most rewarding part of Tom’s journey through the drinks industry has been finding community. “Sheer joy” is how she describes forming friendships with like-minded Indigenous bartenders. “Every single person that I seem to come across that’s Indigenous in drinks and hospitality also, like me, has to find a way to give back,” says Tom. “That seems to be deeply ingrained. And I’m inspired by the different ways they’re doing it, whether it’s food sovereignty, education, creating scholarships, doing classes, or simply just existing and being there.”