Looking down on a dirt street there is a procession of people dressed in black with white robes. People are carrying red banners and towards the back there is a casket.

Chinatown funeral procession in San Francisco, Circa 1910

A Chinese American funeral is concerned about ghosts. 

After the body is prepared – often covered in layers of cloth or blankets in the casket, and the face covered – and loved ones have had time to bring offerings and pay their respects, it’s time for the funeral procession. 

If you’ve ever witnessed a modern Chinese American funeral procession, you are probably struck by what appears to be pomp and pageantry; color and sound. Pink, white, and yellow flowers adorn the casket or the car that carries it. If the deceased was older the color red might decorate the casket as a more joyful gesture. A large photograph of the deceased, also surrounded by colorful flowers, is affixed to a car and takes a prominent position in the procession. 

There is the sound of crying, perhaps wailing. While the family may choose to ride or walk quietly with the casket, sometimes professional mourners are hired to cry out on their behalf.

The procession calls out to the living, “This is the last physical journey of our person!” It commands attention. But such attention is not only for the living, it also fills the street with layers of movement and energy to confuse and distract unseen assailants. 

Evil spirits. 

Think what you will of ghosts and gods. Many Chinese Americans aren’t “believers” themselves, but even if their belief in spirits has died, the ritual itself lives on. 

Paper money is on fire in a pile mixed with shiny gold paper.

A flurry of paper and sound fills the air around a procession, calling out to any evil spirits who have attached themselves to the deceased and their family. The goal is to discombobulate the unwanted ghosts, throw them off the trail of the newly dead. 

Paper money for the dead or “Hell Bank Notes” are scattered to bribe evil spirits away from the deceased. White paper with holes cut through them are thrown out like confetti during the procession, as a way to confuse the dishonorable spirits. It’s believed that evil spirits can only go in a straight line, thus the scattered paper with the holes will confuse them. 

But perhaps the most visceral element of the procession is the music. Musicians often march in the procession loudly playing traditional Chinese music, western hymns, or songs with personal meaning – often a mix of all three depending on what the family wants. When the novelist Amy Tan’s mother died, her funeral procession played “Daisy”, in remembrance of her mother’s English name.  

A person in uniform beats on a drum as they walk down a street filled with confetti flying.

Most notably the Green Street Mortuary Band, a western-style marching band in San Francisco, carries on this musical tradition. Serving San Francisco locals, especially those connected to Chinatown, the Green Street Mortuary Band plays over 350 funerals a year and is a fixture in the Chinatown landscape. The kick of the drum, the cry of the wind instruments, there is no mistaking an approaching funeral procession in San Francisco.

But aside from announcing “Here comes a funeral,” the music from bands such as Green Street is a tactic in chasing off evil spirits. Paired with firecrackers and wailers, the cacophony is a sound that is all at once dissonant, harmonious, and mournful. Evil spirits are driven away, while the spirit of the deceased, who is often thought of as confused and unsettled, has a place to focus, providing a way to keep track of their body. 

Helping the spirit of the dead keep track of its body is just another act of death care for the family. If the spirit of the deceased were to get separated from their body, they would become a lost, hungry ghost, who will then bring misfortune upon all those who cross its path. The music helps to guide the new ghost along. 

A Chinese American funeral’s music serves not only to venerate the dead and protect them from evil spirits, but to also give an impression of who they were, how important they were; and to show that people cared about them. In Hong Kong, where the practice of the funeral procession and funeral band evolved apart from mainland China’s traditions, some funeral processions would have several separate bands processing in a funeral. Each of these bands would have been hired by a friend or family member as a way to honor the dead. 

In the early 20th century, there was allegedly a Hong Kong funeral that had “16 separate bands” supplied by various mourners. The procession completed one turn around Happy Valley race track (1.37 km or a little less than a mile) then carried on to the nearby cemetery. 

A black and white photo of a traditional funeral march comprised of a group of people carrying musical instruments as well as the corpse.

Chinese funeral procession, June 1900

When Chinese people were coming to America in the mid-to-late 19th century, first for the Gold Rush and then to build the transcontinental railroad, they brought with them many of the “East meets West” funeral practices that were already taking root in Hong Kong, a British colony. Once in America those practices continued to evolve into new rituals and traditions that became distinctly Chinese American. 

The Green Street Mortuary Band is descended from that Chinese American lineage. But it is a complicated family tree, featuring unions and splits, intermarriage and new familial units. For better or for worse, it informs a distinctly Chinese American experience. 

By the late 1800s western-style marching band music was taking hold in San Francisco Chinatown funerals. From songs you might recognize in a main street parade to “Amazing Grace” or “Nearer My God To Thee,” Chinese people began to embrace elements of Americana available to them. As early as 1897, Chinatown crime boss Little Pete was honored with “the funeral march from the opera Saul” for a “fanciful funeral procession.” (Crowder; Chung; Wegars 226) But western-style bands in Chinatown didn’t really rise to prominence until 1911 when a meeting was organized “between Chinese and American youths.”

“On a Saturday afternoon the American boys arrived [in Chinatown] in a large bus…. When they got out of the bus, … [t]he Columbia Park boys lined up and started serenading their peers with “America” and other tunes. After a few numbers, Evans [the headmaster of the Columbia Park School] asked the Chinese boys to join them in a march, and so, with the band playing, [the Chinese boys] fell into line … to the applause of a large crowd that gathered to watch them marching to and fro along Stockton Street. … Never before had young Chinese and American groups even mingled to talk, let alone develop friendships and exchange ideas with each other….”

Soon after this encounter, 13 Chinese boys went to Chinese Six Companies Association, the organization that led and controlled Chinatown, and asked if they could form a band that played western-style marching band music. The Six Companies agreed that such a band would be good for the community and in a matter of days raised the sum of 2,000 dollars for a band teacher, instruments, and a practice room. 

The Chinese Boys Band was born. 

A black and white photo showing a group of Chinese boys performing as a marching band down the street.

1929 Marching band, Cathay Boys’ of San Francisco

Led at first by Thomas Kennedy and then shortly after by original band member Thomas Lym (until 1964 when they disbanded), the Chinese Boys Band rapidly grew in size and status. When they merged with other Chinese boys bands, they became the Cathay Boys Band. When they incorporated junior bands in 1916, they became the Cathay Musical Society. By 1930 they became the Cathay Club Band or Cathay Band and in addition to music their charter included “sports, community service, and social activities” (Crowder; Chung; Wegars 227). 

What started as a little Chinatown band formed by a handful of kids, became an award winning phenomenon, a point of pride for the Chinese American community. For a group of people that had once been called, and were still very often called, “unassimilable” in America (a word that is still loaded amongst Chinese Americans to this day), the Cathay Band folded Americana into its ways and practices, and through some alchemy, created an invaluable piece of Chinese Americana. 

While the band played parades, clubs, free concerts in the park, parties, the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, the Golden Gate Bridge opening, the World’s Fair, and many other high profile gigs, they continued to play for  funeral processions in Chinatown. From 1913 to the 1950s, the band played almost every funeral in Chinatown – always at the front of the procession. 

The procession would take about an hour and would snake through every single street in Chinatown. In the 1940s and ‘50s the band had 60 members. They could split into as many as three bands for a long procession, if requested – playing mainly Christian hymns. By the 1950s, the Cathay Band was the most popular mortuary band in the area. Other bands formed and tried to compete with them, but did not survive. While this appeared fortuitous for the Cathay Band, their success also heralded their downfall: the Musicians’ Union noticed them. 

A granite sign that reads

The Union stated that only union musicians could play funerals and unless the Cathay Band members joined the union, they could no longer be the lead mortuary band to Chinatown. They could play as “auxiliary” to a union band, but the Union insisted that funerals must be played by union musicians — the majority of which were white musicians, and most certainly not Chinese. If the Cathay Band ignored these stipulations, they would be picketed. 

The Cathay Band didn’t have much of a choice. They couldn’t afford the union fees – the money they earned from funerals came in the form of lai see or red envelope money. Such money was more of a gesture of gratitude, a way to ward off bad luck, not actual pay. So after over 50 years of serving their community, the Cathay Band was forced to stop playing Chinatown funerals. Finally, in 1964 they stopped playing altogether. 

William Chan, a saxophonist in the Cathay Band from 1931 until the end, said in a 2015 interview, “We just gave up, it’s about time to quit anyway…it’s no fun.”

Said Raymond O. Lym, whose father was Thomas Lym, “You can’t blame the Union, we just feel kinda odd to see them marching instead of us.”

It’s easy to think, “It’s just a band. Bands come and ago. Times change. They still have their funerals.” But what was taken away was more than music, more than a band – they took away care for our dead. 

The instruments are unchanged, the songs may be the same, the faces in the crowd might even be those of the children and children’s children of those that heard the Cathay Band in the 1940s and ‘50s; but it is not the same. It is America’s fatal flaw: believing you can remake a cultural tradition in your image and the spirit follows. 

There is a difference between “the dead” and “our dead.”

Now the only mortuary band in Chinatown is the Green Street Mortuary Band, a union band made up of (at the time of this writing) only white musicians. In the past there have been Black band members, but since 1992 when Green Street Mortuary manager Clifford Yee asked Lisa Pollard to start a new Chinatown mortuary band, it has been predominantly white—a gentrified version of a band created by Chinese American youth to serve their community. Not since the 1950s has Chinatown’s mortuary band been comprised of Chinese people. 

Has this stopped the Chinese American community from employing the Green Street Mortuary Band? No. To her credit, Pollard works closely with Green Street Mortuary to uphold the traditions set by the people of Chinatown. With the motto “Dignity, Honor and Respect” it is apparent that Pollard takes her responsibility to the Chinese community very seriously. 

A group of people walk down the street playing instruments. Behind them follows a casket.

Daryl Bush

“We take the deceased on their last journey where they’ve been born and raised – their last farewell to Chinatown,” says Pollard. 

In a video by the San Francisco Chronicle, Pollard says, “It starts way, way before us. It was the Chinese Boys Band at first that was playing funerals.” She says this with reverence; pride in the work she’s taken on. 

As a Chinese American individual, it’s hard to discern how to feel about the Green Street Mortuary Band. 

On one hand, they are keeping a tradition alive. They are providing ritual to a community where such rituals knit together generations, ancestors, and history. If it wasn’t for Green Street Mortuary Band’s popularity (from both the AAPI and white community) the aural history of a culture could have been muted. 

But – and this objection is not an objection targeted at Lisa Pollard, Green Street Mortuary Band, or Green Street Mortuary; it is objection to the centering of white individuals in a Chinese American history. 

But it should be the Cathay Band. 

It should be the Cathay Band – William Chan, Raymond Lym – preserving their own culture’s rituals, sending off their own dead in a way that only Chinese Americans can understand. From the sweetness of a candy pressed into our hands to chase away sorrow after a funeral to the three bows we count to honor our dead – it’s in our bones. These are our ways. 

So much of Chinese American death has been cannibalized by American culture – from choosing where our bodies are allowed to lie, to how (or if) our names will be recorded, to even when we die at the hands of someone who cannot fathom our humanity. 

Though the Green Street Mortuary Band upholds an important piece of Chinese American history, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that it was taken away from Chinese Americans. Because of money. 

The Cathay Band was forced to disband over the money that Union members could make at Chinese funerals. Let’s not forget that for the majority of years that the Cathay Band was playing, America still lived with Chinese Exclusion laws. Chinese Americans and Chinese Immigrants were seen as a threat to not only American morals but all Americans ability to earn money. 

While there certainly were middle class Chinese Americans in the early part of the 20th century, the majority, especially those in Chinatown, were poor and faced severe racism that impeded their ability to gain any sort of wealth. Thus, asking the Cathay Band – who mainly played free community events and did not get paid much or anything for bigger gigs – to pay Union dues was an impossibility. 

Now the Chinatown funeral band is back. And despite my frustrations, I am happy the tradition is alive. I’m sure many of my fellow Chinese Americans, the uncles, the aunties, the por pors, the gung gungs, are happy too. I’m happy that Chinese American funeral workers have a chance to conduct funerals in a manner that continues the rituals adapted by immigrants who paved the way for me. 

But. And again there is always a “but” when it comes to witnessing how much America asks other cultures to bend.

But have we saved the spirit? 

We alter our names, our words, our rituals. At what point are we told to bend so far that we not only break, we disintegrate? Don’t misunderstand me, the Green Street Mortuary Band is not singlehandedly taking down Chinese American culture – far from it. I’m simply disquieted by how easily white culture accommodates the loss and replacement of a Chinese American institution and accepts it as a one-for-one trade off. It is not. 

It should be the Cathay Band. 

Louise Hung is the producer & co-writer for “Ask a Mortician”. Along with writing and researching for the Order, you may remember her words from HuffPost, Time, xoJane, or your local NYC lit reading. Follow her on Twitter.

Resources: 

“Chinese Funerals in San Francisco Chinatown: American Chinese Expressions in Mortuary Ritual Performance” Crowder, Linda Sun. The Journal of American Folklore, Autumn, 2000, Vol. 113, No. 450, Holidays, Ritual, Festival, Celebration, and Public Display (Autumn, 2000), pp. 451-463

Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 1999
Ruthanne Lum McCunn, editor. Chinese Historical Society of America, 1999.

Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors
Sue Fawn Chung, editor & contributor; Priscilla Wegars, editor. AltaMira Press, 2005.

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