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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Tonga Room -- Historical or Hysterical?

Posted By on Wed, May 5, 2010 at 3:30 PM

You and I are passing through history. But the Tonga Room? It is history.
  • You and I are passing through history. But the Tonga Room? It is history.
The term "only in San Francisco" is overused. That's a given. But, honestly, in how many cities would one open the paper to read about a brewing preservation battle between developers and tiki bar enthusiasts -- with the city sympathetic to the tiki people?

To most folks, the Fairmont Hotel's Tonga Room on Nob Hill is more hysterical than historical. It's "kitschy" in the same way that Liberace was "flamboyant." But not to the city's planning department. It deemed the bar best known for its floating bandstand and indoor rain a "historical resource" which "represents a rare remaining example of a distinct phase of post-World War II popular culture, and includes a substantial number of distinctive characteristics."

I blame grad school for sentences like that.

It does bring up an interesting point, however. How many other vestiges of post-World War II popular culture have come and gone in this city without protests being launched on Facebook? We asked our favorite living historical resource: 84-year-old San Franciscan John Gaul.

click to enlarge John Gaul, a 65-year resident of San Francisco
  • John Gaul, a 65-year resident of San Francisco
Gaul arrived in San Francisco at age 19 after serving in the U.S. Army's occupation force of Japan. So he recalls "post-World War II popular culture" very well. He lived it.

"We used to go to Playland By the Beach. That was very popular," he recalls wistfully. "We went to the Cliff House before they did that modern one that looks like San Quentin. Those were just wonderful things."

Gaul and his compatriots lived in simpler times, where you could pass the day riding on old streetcars on Market Street. You'd hop aboard and tip your cap to the motorman. "Good afternoon Motorman," you'd say. He'd tip his cap, too. "Good afternoon to you, sir."

People went bowling and skated in circles in ice rinks. They'd go to the Japanese Tea Garden and drink Japanese Tea. They'd hop on the cable cars back when that was something locals actually did to get from Point A to Point B, ride it to the terminus, quaff a beer, and head back downtown.

"That's nostalgia. It was a slower, gentler way of life," recalls Gaul. "The Tonga Room fits that in some kitschy sort of way."

And would he miss the Tonga Room? Hell no!

"The Tonga Room never interested me. I thought it was icky," he said. "In my mind, I think they should blast it off the face of the map."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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