Have you ever been to a funeral where strippers dance on glowing flatbed trucks? Marc Moskowitz has. In fact, he has made a movie about it, called Dancing for the Dead.
Moskowitz, a University of South Carolina anthropologist, has spent the past two decades researching pop culture in China and Taiwan. Digital Dying spoke with him about just how raunchy Taiwan stripper funerals get, why city folk don’t like them and how the trend could come to America.
What does a Taiwan stripper funeral look like?
Women sing and dance as a truck with blinking neon lights follows a funeral procession through the streets. The trucks are called Electric Flower Cars, or EFCs. Vendors sell things alongside and there is some really fabulous singing and a whole range of performances, taking off clothes is just one part. Often there’s a host, a middle aged man or woman who tells jokes and interviews performers between events. Usually the strippers wear bikinis, or an outfit like you might see at a nightclub.
But isn’t it strange to have naked dancers at a funeral?
There’s a concept in Taiwanese culture called renao, which refers to the hustle and bustle of an exciting event, the hot and noisy. For it to be successful it has to be renao. Even if you go to the mountains or the beach, it is renao. Think of a quiet rock concert, that would be a failure. Or a quiet amusement park. The EFCs also perform at weddings and religious festivals. Nudity attracts more people and more people make it more hot and noisy. Making the funeral a noisy event means people will talk about it for years. To some extent the more extreme the better.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve seen at a stripper funeral?
I didn’t actually witness full nudity at funerals but on a couple occasions at temple events I did see women going into the audience and giving men lap dances. I saw one woman go into the audience and rub a man’s genitals, through the pants. I didn’t include these things in the film because I didn’t want to get people in trouble. I talked to an American professor who said he saw EFCs in the early 1980s in southern Taiwan and women were shooting water out of their private parts, like a sex act in Thailand.
Why would a family want a stripper funeral for their loved one?
They advertise an individual’s economic power, so the number of people you can get at a funeral attests to how important that person was in the community. Or, maybe the old guy liked this kind of thing while alive so it makes a good sendoff. Others told me it was done to impress new ghosts, those who have died recently and like real people enjoy gambling and womanizing. New ghosts are often beat up by old ghosts, who have been dead for centuries and are more likely to obey laws of righteousness and morality. Stripper funerals can be a way to distract older ghosts so new ghosts can get their bearings.
What are the logistics of arranging a stripper funeral?
They’re more commonly arranged by friends, not family. Say when a big figure in gangster society dies, some of his gangster brothers might hire several EFCs. Usually, people wait for auspicious days to bury someone. They’ll set up funeral tents in front of someone’s house and put the coffin in the tent. It will sit there for several days with people keeping vigil. On the day when it’s scheduled to travel to the crematorium the EFC comes. In the morning there’s a banquet, then the procession begins.
How did the practice come about?
EFCs came along in about 1980 though there probably was a non-motorized form that existed well before that. In the 1980s two important things were going on in Taiwan. The government was nearing the end of its martial law period and becoming more permissive, and it was a time of incredible economic flourishing. Suddenly, people had lots more money than they did before. Taiwan has an incredible religious life, so one of the first places people started demonstrating this wealth was with religious phenomenon like EFCs.
Is Taiwan’s government really okay with this?
EFCs are legal but since the mid-1980s full nudity has been restricted, though it still happens. On one hand there’s a belief in freedom of religion. On the other hand politicians are afraid of having naked people dancing in the street. There are also tensions in Taiwan about issues like freedom of speech and where that ends. You have something that began as a folk practice in rural areas and became more mainstream. Interestingly, the only people who critiqued it were educated male urbanites.
Why are the poor attracted to this but not the rich?
If you’re a multimillionaire and you own a company of course a funeral is going to be lavish and bring respect, but there are other ways that person gets respect. In poor areas weddings and funerals are the main events where people can flaunt their symbolic capitol. Urbanites are also more connected to global culture. They wear the same clothes and watch the same television shows as people in Paris or New York. Their knee jerk reaction to EFCs is one of amusement or horror. No one has said this but I think the underlying issue is urbanite Taiwanese think this is an embarrassment in the eyes of the global community. Poor people are more invested in local culture and don’t care what people in the US think. Globalization could potentially erase this phenomenon, that would be a pity.
Will stripper funerals ever come to the US?
Sign me up! I don’t know about full nudity but I’m a huge fan of the performances. My gut reaction is it’s not likely to take off in America but you have to remember there are huge Asian communities in the US. My first book was on abortion ghosts and you think, okay, that’s something that’s not going to happen in the US, but in fact in places like Washington and Hawaii there are now abortion ghosts. I went to a shopping mall in Charlotte, North Carolina and there was a little altar for a fetus ghost. So, I think anything can happen. But I don’t think you’ll see it happening in downtown Manhattan anytime soon.
Why not, are we just lame?
The US funeral tradition comes from our American Protestant heritage. The stiff upper lip, the idea that emotions are a bad thing, the puritanical disdain for celebration. America has inherited this idea that events are cold. We see this in everything from funerals to museums. If you go to a museum you have to be quiet and restrained. I suppose this is out of respect for the artists, but this is very much a social construction.