Hiring young women to strip at a funeral ceremony might strike some as scandalous, but for many in Taiwan it is an important part of the grieving process.
The practice sees scantily clad women on “electric flower cars” (電子花車, diesel trucks refashioned with a stage and special lighting), erotically gyrating to pop songs as a means of sending off the recently deceased — presumably with a smile.
Marc L. Moskowitz, an associate professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of South Carolina and an expert on Taiwan’s folk religion and popular culture, has just released Dancing for the Dead: Funeral Strippers in Taiwan, a 40-minute documentary about the practice based on hundreds of hours of fieldwork he conducted throughout Taiwan in 2008. (Trailers can be viewed at: people.cas.sc.edu/moskowitz/dancingforthedead.htm.)
The interview-driven film — interspersed with stripping performances, pilgrimages and other common religious practices — reveals many of the dichotomies in contemporary Taiwan: rural tradition versus urban modernity; mainstream pop culture versus marginal folk culture; global capitalism versus local identity; and the thin and shifting line between legal and illegal behavior.
Moskowitz says he made the documentary for two reasons. First, he wanted to show American audiences, who generally “have a very narrow idea of what culture is, what a proper funeral is and how to grieve,” the practice. He also wants to counter the negative perception, if not outright shame, exhibited by Taiwanese government officials, politicians and the media regarding the practice and folk traditions in general.
“As an outsider, I could lend a very different set of perspectives to a dialogue that was going on in Taiwan that was very critical of the practice,” Moskowitz said.
The academic has a penchant for the unusual, if not the macabre. His 2001 book The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality and the Spirit World in Taiwan explored the common but little understood phenomenon of young women praying to the ghosts of aborted fetuses. At the time of its publication, Taipei Times book reviewer Bradley Winterton hailed it as “[t]he most interesting book on Taiwan I have ever read.”
Moskowitz followed it up with Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and its Cultural Connotations (2010), a book that explores how Taiwan’s unique brand of Mando-pop offers a vocabulary to express individuality and demonstrates changing gender roles.
In an interview with the Taipei Times over coffee a few weeks back, Moskowitz expanded on his documentary, situating the practice of funeral stripping within the broader context of Taiwan’s popular religion and the controversy it often provokes.
Taipei Times: How long have people been staging stripper performances on the back of “electric flower cars”?
Marc L. Moskowitz: There are accounts of people stripping at temple events dating back to the 1800s. As you saw in the film, [Academia Sinica research fellow] Lin Mei-rong (林美容) said that strip shows in theaters were fairly common when she was a child. What is new is the portrayal of it in the press. During the 1950s or 1960s no one would have dared to report on this stuff. Now, the more titillating the better.
TT: When did the media start reporting on the performances and how has it been portrayed?