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Monday, July 18, 2011

Taiwan’s funeral strippers dance for a dead crowd


Should you meet your demise in Taiwan, a funerary option open to you is the Electric Flower Car (EFC), a wheeled, neon-lit platform upon which pulchritudinous women strip down to their skivvies for the benefit of audiences...both living and deceased.

We spoke with University of South Carolina anthropologist Marc L. Moskowitz about this practice, which is detailed in his recent documentary Dancing for the Dead: Funeral Strippers in Taiwan. Moskowitz told us about the societal role of EFC entertainers, who often perform their titillating trade in front of the bereaved family and neighborhood passers-by.

In your experience, how common would you say it is for strippers to entertain at funerals? As Dancing for the Dead pointed out, other entertainers — like singers and musicians — are also hired to perform.

It's not at all common for urbanites, but in rural settings, most people have seen these performances. Actual full stripping has gone underground because there were laws enacted against full nudity in the mid-Eighties, so that isn't as popular as it once was. I didn't see any full stripping — though it is likely that this was in part because they knew I was filming at that time — but almost everyone I spoke with had seen full stripping. Most people in Taiwan categorize both the strippers and the singers as one group — as Electric Flower Car performers — the only people I spoke with who made a clear delineation between strippers and singers were the performers and managers themselves.

On average, how raunchy do these funeral stripteases get? It seemed like some routines were more cabaret/burlesque style, whereas other dances were more salacious.

In general, what I witnessed was two stages of performance. One was in the equivalent of a miniskirt and a dress top that ranged from something you might see average people wearing on their way to a friend's house to a bit more revealing. The second stage was inevitably bikinis. It's absolutely true, though, some of the performers emphasized their singing ability whereas others gyrated in fairly risqué ways. The third stage, that of full nudity, is something that everyone I spoke with had seen, but since that is now against the law the performers were careful not to do that when I was filming.

What's the strangest funeral striptease you've ever witnessed?

The two most surprising events both happened at celebrations for temple birthdays, not at funerals. On one occasion a performer walked into the audience to rub men's crotches and on another occasion a performer went into the audience to give men a lap dance, sitting on their laps and pressing the men's heads into her shaking breasts. I didn't include either of these scenes in the film because there was no way of doing it without revealing the women's identities and I didn't want to get them in trouble with the law.

How did you come to study this particular cultural phenomenon?
  My first book was on religion and my second book was on pop music, so in some sense this project combined these two interests. When I decided to make a documentary this seemed like a wonderfully visual practice that would work well in a film. I also became interested because the Chinese press almost always attacked the practice, but no one I spoke with really seemed to care all that much so there was an immediate issue to deal with there.

In the documentary, you mention that EFCs are associated with lower gods. Are there any particular deities that associated with stripping EFCs?

I don't think there is a specific god that is associated with this practice, but you are absolutely right that it is in the domain of the lower gods. Lower gods are usually ghosts of real people who became gods because people worshipped them. Many of the higher gods were originally real people as well, but it happened centuries ago and these gods are more established. It's generally thought that higher gods, like Guanyin or Matzu, are more moral but that lower gods have all the vices that real people have, such as gambling and womanizing. If someone wants to pray for things that help others, such as protecting one's loved ones, one is more likely to ask a higher god for help. If one wants something that isn't quite so moral, such as help with gambling or prostitution, then one might go to lower gods for this.

There seems to be a tension in Taiwanese society — EFC entertainers are both celebrities and casually accepted, but they're also assailed as low culture and bad for public morality. Are there certain regions in Taiwan that are more accepting of EFC stripping?
  In the early 1980s, when the practice came to public attention, it was pretty popular everywhere but in Taipei, Taiwan's capital in the north. Since laws were passed against it, it's rarer to find it in larger urban centers throughout Taiwan, though one can find the practice in the outskirts of most urban centers and in smaller cities and towns. It definitely has the association of being a working class form of entertainment. And you are absolutely right that it often becomes part of a discourse of the north and south in which the north is associated with more affluence, education, and participation with global culture, and the south is more associated with the working class, lack of education, and more local traditions. In some sense this isn't so different from stereotypes about the north and the south in the United States, I think.

Do people appreciate the supernatural component of the striptease and the way it relates to funeral traditions, or has it become mostly a secularized practice?

One of the things that I found to be really interesting about this practice was that people's explanations for why people hired Electric Car Performers varied tremendously. One person I interviewed told me that it was because a new ghost would get picked on by older ghosts so the performance was to distract the older ghosts to give the newer ghost time to get used to his environment without being harassed. Other people told me that the lower gods liked this kind of entertainment so that it was for them. Yet others said that the deceased liked that kind of activity when living so they wanted to send him off in style. Most people agreed that an important component of this is the Chinese and Taiwanese emphasis on hot and noisy (renao) which is the excitement of public events. In the West, we have this in rock concerts or amusement parks, in that the noise and the hustle and bustle is part of the fun. In Taiwan, all public events need to be hot and noisy to be a success, ranging from going to the beach to funerals, so temple events that we filmed frequently had Chinese Opera performing on one stage, Electric Flower Cars singing on another, and people noisily selling stuff all around them. It's really a sight to see.

I've noticed that American's first reaction to this is either laughter or outrage but I have to say I've come to be a fan — overall the level of singing was much better than I thought it would be and although there is something quite pleasing about wanting to celebrate someone's life rather than mourn their passing at a funeral. It seems to me that part of what is going on here is that in urban centers most people can afford to pay for entertainment but in poorer areas a concert ticket or even a movie ticket is outside of most people's budgets. The Electric Flower Car performances, and temple events more generally, are the only chance many of these people get for live entertainment. It's really striking that the songs that Electric Flower Car performers sing are often pop songs — some in English, Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien Chinese (Taiwanese), and Japanese. So in many ways the practice speaks to a conception of the world in which the living and the dead are not really that far apart. But these events are providing live entertainment for a group of people who would normally be excluded from, say a live performance of Taiwan's latest pop songs, because they couldn't afford to buy a ticket.

When I was making the documentary part of what I was trying to do was to provide the other side of the story since almost all of the Chinese press coverage attacked the practice. On showing it to Western audiences there has been a small but vocal minority who are upset by the practice. The film is a good lesson in cultural relativism, then, in deciding what is acceptable cultural difference and what should be a global limit. I don't have the answer about where to draw the lines on these issues, but I'm glad I could help to ask some of the questions with this film.

You can read more about Dancing for the Dead at Moskowitz's website, and the film is currently for sale on Amazon. All photos in this article courtesy of Marc L. Moskowitz.