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Header image courtesy of Marc L. Moskowitz
It’s a hot and noisy day, and the sun is glaring down on pockets of people gathered in the streets, packed like schoolchildren on their way to the mess hall. The crowds come to a halt to line the granite grey street as loud thumping electronic music begins to blare over everyone’s heads. A conga line of huā chē (花車, a decorated vehicle akin to a parade float) begins to crawl out from between the pinhole of neighbouring houses. These are no ordinary pimped-out vans, but expensive pick-up trucks decadently adorned with giant sound systems, bright sparklers, and lit-up rainbow signage. The crowd roars as the first car rears around the corner, their rowdy shouting getting louder once the frontline comes into view. Perched atop the first truck is what much of the crowd came to see—an exotic dancer. Right behind, the long body of a hearse trudges forward.
This has got to be the most jarring, or most entertaining, funeral for someone to ever attend.
It came to him in a dream. Right before Chiayi city (嘉義) politician Tung Hsiang passed away in late 2016, he revealed to his brother the funeral arrangements that had appeared to him on his deathbed via his subconscious. The depths of his mind seemed to be an uproarious place, as his posthumous procession brought the entire city to a standstill. Imported luxury jeeps clogged the streets, each with a steel pole protruding from its roof, attached to a gyrating lady. The entire formation totalled up to 50 dancers, making headlines all over the world and drawing manic clicks on social media.
For many gatherings in the Chinese tradition, there is a need for a rè nào (熱鬧) atmosphere. Literally translating to “hot and noisy”, the event is filled with an air of enthusiastic hustle and bustle, making for a celebration according to the collectivistic vein, bringing together family and community. In the context of grieving, the idea of forcing smiles and karaoke-ing the pain away may seem like an unlikely gesture to some cultures. Yet it has been assumed by the Taiwanese, being repurposed to culminate in the unique practice of hiring funeral strippers.
At these events, guests will find a moving huā chē equipped with a stage to feature performers who dance, sing, do stand-up, and more, with some processions coming to a final stop at a funeral home or temple. Dancers will display their routine wearing bikinis or skimpier pieces, some even baring all. The cars themselves look like a large tapestry of optical illusion posters all melting into each other, projecting thundering party music played from built-in speakers, overwhelming the senses of anyone and everyone they pass.
Though the modern phenomenon of risqué funeral entertainment was not very popular until the 1980s, professor of anthropology Marc L. Moskowitz states that there are records dating back to the late 19th century that contained descriptions of women stripping down at temples. It aligns with the intricate mourning practices of the Taiwanese, which draw from atavistic Chinese values and spiritual associations.
To reiterate the importance of rè nào at communal events, high attendance at a funeral is considered by some to be a sign that the person who passed was greatly revered and well respected by many. The raucous environment is in fact a key component of a successful crossing-over process into the afterlife, as traditional rituals rely upon friends and family to “send off” their beloved in as rè nào a manner as possible, letting them go smoothly into the underworld rather than block their path with unaccepting lament or anger. Processions that are loud and boisterous are meant to ensure a greater quality of afterlife as well, signifying a fulfilled and abundant time spent living.
Ergo, by providing some (cough) attention-grabbing entertainment, the chances of roping in a larger audience are much greater. Adding to the festivities, funerals that showcase bigger, better-decorated cars with more dancers are seen to symbolize a great level of wealth and power. The grander the huā chē, the hotter the girls, the flashier the lights—the more important the person. In the end, you’re only allocated one final farewell, why not end it all with a big bang?
In a similar plight, xǐ shuāi (喜衰, translating to happy mourning) style funerals, held for those who pass in their 70s or 80s, are another common Chinese custom that calls back to the concept of bereavement as a time to celebrate the beauty and joy in the life of the deceased. Like how Tung Hsiang of Chiayi was fondly remembered by his family on the day of his funeral parade as someone who loved to “have a fun lively time”.
Branching out to take a look from a spiritual standpoint, Fujian-based university professor Huang Jianxing theorized that erotic dancing could, in fact, have roots in religious notions that aspire to a “worship of reproduction”. Being blessed with many children translates to remembrance, which can ensure that your memory and legacy will be continued by many future generations.
Folk culture can also be identified as having a foothold in the practice, as it was believed that lower-level deities and gods were rather significant figures that hold some power in moving individuals into the afterlife. Since these figures were quite infamous for womanizing and indulging in humanly vices, it was only so fitting that they were appeased with sleazy dancing and an all-around good time.
Another theory from Moskowitz points to professional mourners as a strong influence. Having a long-standing history in Taiwanese culture, this role arose as a necessity during olden times when women would leave their paternal families to work or marry and were unable to return home for funerals as a result of transport limitations. Almost always female, these professional mourners would assume the role of a “filial daughter”, breaking into loud outbursts of grievous cries and throwing themselves dramatically at the foot of the coffin. Perhaps a warped recontextualization of sorts, the strippers are valued for providing female presence, albeit of a different kind.
The most recent spike in popularity of stripper-filled ceremonies can be traced back to the 1980s, a time of economic boom amongst a climate of growing permissiveness from the Taiwanese government. These elements were crucial in allowing for local triads to form a strong grip around the death industry.
A lucrative business, mobsters saw the willingness of most families to pay high charges for mortuary proceedings and took full advantage. Accident scenes would become hunting grounds for who the LA Times aptly named as “funeral rascals”, otherwise known as groups of low-ranking gangsters who would rush to snatch a body so that they could extort the victims’ families with obscene fees for post-mortem operations. Filial piety is so deeply intertwined with Chinese culture that it motivates people to spend around 40 percent of the average household income on funeral activities, also making it a choice soft spot for the vulture-like triads to tread on.
Trying hard to outshine their competition, several shady businessmen with ties to the sex industry decided to double-dip, and would offer funeral service packages that brought together their specialities. Eventually, business grew and excavated the practice of hiring funeral strippers from its low-key state of dormancy, making it a viable send-off option in demand amongst not just the powerful and wealthy, but the masses as well.
In part due to the legally mandated regulations on huā chē, as well as a governmental ban on full nude performances, the shows tend to be more common in rural or urban outskirt areas. In mainland China, where the custom has spread to, the state takes on a sterner approach of outright banning these “obscene performances”. The Chinese Ministry of Culture had even established a hotline to report “funeral misdeeds” for monetary reward as well as going on a full crackdown during the mid-2000s—with punished cases in Henan (河南), Hebei (河北), Gansu (甘肅), Anhui (安徽), Shandong (山東), and Shanxi (山西). The added practicality of huā chē as a mode of escape is a welcome perk in certain regions.
Whilst most Taiwanese people seem rather indifferent towards the practice, mostly reacting with morbid amusement or fairly reasonable requests that strippers put a limit on the level of nudity they strip down to, the press and middle-to-upper class city folk have responded with somewhat harsh condemnation. With most describing the shows as “backwards”, the backlash mostly cites the potential for negative influence on women and children as the reasoning behind such repulsion. Moskowitz rebuts, making a point out of the everyday objectification of women in Taiwanese media that is normalized and left unquestioned.
As Taiwan is becoming increasingly globalized, and as the economic situation worsens, more and more exotic dancers find themselves having to look much harder to find a gig. Increased pressure, as well as greater levels of intervention from the government, are perhaps indicative of the incompatibility between rural customs and a cosmopolitan outlook.
At the end of the day (and of a life), grief and remembrance take on different forms across cultures. The anthropological concept of a “social death” is much less rigid, making way for differing proceedings and rituals to form according to the values and life experiences that end up defining groups of people. Perhaps these dancers are indicators of our modern trappings, indexes of carnal human tendencies, and the shameless capitalizing on death. Or maybe, they are the ones to deliver an auspicious final goodbye that both honours and celebrates a life well-lived.