This video was produced in 1961, but I guarantee you that very little about Tahiti had changed between then and my first visit in 1970. The streets looked the same, the vehicles looked the same, the people looked the same.
However, in one of the most jarring transitions in the history of video, this one cuts directly from a priest riding a bicycle to a shot of Quinn’s Bar as the voiceover announcer says, “Quinn’s is best known of all Tahiti’s cabarets. It’s more than just a cabaret. It’s a gathering place for everyone….”
I don’t know about you, but when I see the word cabaret it conjures up images of worldly sophisticates wearing spats and monocles and top hats while sipping whatever drinks sophisticates sip.
In reality, Quinn’s was always known around the world as the fightin’est, drinkin’est waterfront bar in the South Pacific. To the best of my recollection, it was filled with drunken sailors and transvestites and there may well have been some crossover between those demographics. But that’s not the kind of thing that respectable travel videos could possibly mention back in 1961.
In 1970 I was excited to be in Papeete. Scared. Innocent. All at the same time. The phrase “straight off the farm” was a perfect description of my degree of naïveté. Aside from going away to small town college for two years, I’d spent my entire life on the farm. Until the plane touched down here in Tahiti, I’d never been out of the United States and all of a sudden here I was on an island in the middle of the Pacific. An island where, for god’s sake, they spoke French.
I ate breakfast early one morning at the waterfront cafe next door to Quinn’s. I’m sure my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when a group of hardened transvestites sat down at the next table and ordered breakfast after what had clearly been a full night out on the town. The bags under their eyes were bigger than the bags over their shoulders. Their short, skintight sarongs contrasted sharply with their five o’clock shadows.
Today I would pull up a chair and invite myself to sit down at their table for what would surely be a visit to an alien world. But back then I was satisfied to keep my head down and sneak a covert glance or two in their direction. Satisfied is not exactly the correct way of saying it. Fact is, I was afraid to do anything more than steal the occasional covert glance.
Let’s file this under “Opportunities Lost.”
Or as they say in French, “Opportunités perdues.”
UPDATE (August 14, 2022): I just stumbled across this colorful description of Quinn’s Bar. It was written by a Canadian traveler in 1968, just two years before I arrived in Papeete:
Quinn’s Bar, on the waterfront in Papeete, Tahiti, is said by those having authority in such fields to be the worst bar in the world, and I think this is very likely true. There may be worse bars in certain respects elsewhere, but for overall lack of refinement Quinn’s has a distinction that is pretty nearly unique. I’ve met travelers who have ventured into dives on the waterfront of Marseilles, in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong and on the back streets of Juarez, but who acknowledge that they had never tasted the full extravagance of descent until they entered Quinn’s.
I encountered Quinn’s early in life because my fictional tastes ran heavily to South Seas literature, and Quinn’s was a part of the standard background against which these stories moved. It was here, for example, that the drunken Scottish captain of the rusting copra freighter went noisily to hell after being betrayed by the Polynesian girl. It was to the florid literature of the area what Sidi-bel-Abbés was to the French Foreign Legion stories or what Utah was to Zane Grey. When a good man fell from grace, he fell in Quinn’s.
On the first night of my arrival in Papeete a few weeks ago, I made my way promptly to Quinn’s. It was easy to find, in the center of town and facing the long quay, and at first glance I felt a measure of disappointment. It was a flat, totally unpretentious building, open in front, with QUINN’S BAR spelled out in bamboo letters across the entrance. A mountain of beer crates stood on the sidewalk in front of the place, and across the street I could see the outlines of a cluster of rusty Korean fishing boats tied to the dock. I was standing beside the entrance, transfixed in the way a young priest might be when standing outside of Saint Peter’s on his first trip to Rome, when there was a momentary explosion of shouts and curses in front of me and a dark body sailed through the air and landed with a brutal crash in the pile of beer crates. The body pulled itself up and shuffled out of sight across the street. I entered.
There is nothing faint-hearted about Quinn’s rosy version of life. In the center, near the entrance, is a horseshoe-shaped bar, and behind the bartenders was as energetic and feverish a rock-‘n’-roll combo as it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. The noise was painful, the air was compounded of smoke and liquor fumes, and the lights were mercifully low. Around the wall was a row of booths, many with curtains drawn to conceal whatever adventures the occupants did not care to share with the general public. In the first booth, as I entered, a mountainous woman in a flowered sarong smiled at me. She must have weighed 350 pounds, and the smile revealed that, although she had only one upper and one lower tooth, she somehow achieved a malocclusion. “Wanna live a little?” she whispered huskily. I shuddered, and took a seat at the bar.
I don’t know how many fights occur during an average evening in Quinn’s, but I’ve heard that many Tahitians will fight nowhere else. At one point, shortly after my drink arrived, two fights broke out simultaneously on the dance floor. One fight was of such high quality that the combatants in the lesser engagement gave up quickly and joined the spectators watching the main event. Bouncers moved in quickly and carried the fighters off the floor, though they all reappeared a few minutes later at the bar, dusting themselves of and buying drinks for their supporters.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to say a few words about the toilet at Quinn’s Bar, since this seems to be the feature that is most earnestly discussed by American tourists. There is only one toilet, separated from the dance floor by a tattered cloth curtain, and this accommodates both men and women and, from what I could gather, accommodated them simultaneously. Whether the shrieks of outrage that I heard were good-natured or genuine, I have no way of knowing.
The bartender gave me a look of dark reproach when, after the fourth set of fighters had been carried out over the heads of the bouncers, I asked for my check. It was still early in the evening, but the noise and tension in the place created a prickly atmosphere. As I passed the fat lady in the front booth she suggested that I wouldn’t be leaving so early if I had possessed a little sporting blood. l saw that she also had a rather handsome mustache.
I walked for several blocks along the waterfront before the noise from Quinn’s receded behind me. It was warm and humid, as South Seas nights so often are, and the stars were brilliant. Somewhere out in the harbor I heard the rattling of a ship’s anchor chain. It was a pleasant sound, and I decided that it was electronic music more than anything else that had intoned for me the death of the literary Quinn’s and the birth of the modern one.
So there you have it. Quinn’s was even more ”colorful” than I said. Probably better that I didn’t venture inside. Someone would have undoubtedly kicked my ass while cussing me out because I didn’t parlez-vous Française.