San Francisco's Chinatown Funeral Band

Lost & Found Sound: Processions Are a Tradition in the Community

The Green Street Mortuary Band leads a funeral up Chinatown's Grant Avenue.

The Green Street Mortuary Band leads a funeral up Chinatown's Grant Avenue. L. Folger hide caption

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The band warms up outside the mortuary.

The band warms up outside the mortuary. Laura Folger hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Folger
The band performs in a Chinatown New Year's parade, circa 1940.

The band performs in a Chinatown New Year's parade, circa 1940. W. Wong hide caption

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A Chinatown funeral procession, circa 1938.

A Chinatown funeral procession, circa 1938. San Francisco Public Library hide caption

itoggle caption San Francisco Public Library
Paper replica of a house that is displayed at the funeral and then burned to be used by the deceased

Purchased by mourners from 'paper shops,' paper replica constructions of 'necessary' goods and items are displayed at funeral gatherings as offerings to the dead for their use in the afterworld. L. Folger hide caption

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Chinatown in San Francisco is a cultural mélange where Eastern and Western traditions often overlap. Few places show the contrasts more than funerals. A typical funeral procession may look like a parade, starting with a full-size marching band playing Christian hymns and banging cymbals followed by participants tossing spirit money and paid mourners wailing.

Lost and Found Sound learned that the musicians hark back to a tradition of military marching bands started in British-controlled 19th century Hong Kong. The spirit money distracts malicious ghosts that might prevent the spirit of the deceased from staying close to the body.

For more than 50 years, the funeral musicians of choice have been the Green Street Mortuary Band. The group descended from a band started in 1911 called the Cathay Boys Band and has had several names. The group was originally composed of Chinatown residents who worked at other jobs during the week. Now many of the original members have moved to the suburbs and the band is a mix of ethnicities. They play hymns, dirges and traditional marches.

Aside from 350 funerals a year, the band has played at nearly every major cultural event in the neighborhood, from the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1935 to every Chinese New Year celebration. When the novelist Amy Tan’s mother died, there was no doubt the band would lead the funeral.

As the funeral procession marches through the neighborhood, it escorts the coffin as well as a large picture of the deceased. People come out to see if it is someone they knew. The parade often stops at places familiar to the dead so that their spirits can make one last visit. Drums and cymbals scare away ghosts. The families of the dead make paper versions of everything the dead might need in the next world — a house, a car, food and even a VCR. When they are burned, tradition says the items cross over into the next world where they can be used.

Clifford Yee, Formerly of the Mortuary

"We were restricted to a 23-square-block area. So what Chinatown did is they made all these different alleyways along the way to expand the area that we have ... There's an old Chinese superstition that if the spirit is chasing us, we run down, make a sharp right or a sharp left, the spirit can't follow us — only goes straight."

Linda Sun Crowder, Anthropologist

"Sometimes they will actually pack real food in the casket and people will put in a mirror to show the way or flashlight. For instance, a blanket ceremony — placing blankets over the corpse as if for a last sleep. Or just personal items, a golf club. I've often seen people place a pre-1964 dime in the mouth to symbolize wealth and to pay their way through the spirit world. The reason they use a 1964 dime or earlier is because it has a higher silver content."

Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson) with Laura Folger. Mixed by Jim McKee. Special Thanks to: Wilson Wong, Raymond O. Lym, William Chan, Weylin Eng, Dr. Helen Eng, Reverend Ben Chin, Johnny Coppola, Lisa Pollard, Willard Spencer and all the members past and present of the Cathay Band and the Green Street Mortuary Band, Bill Steiner, Clifford Yee, Camilia Lau, Pansy Moy, Jeannie Woo and the Chinese Historical Society, Felicia Lowe, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amy Tan, Ruxandra Guidi, and Lost & Found Sound intern Jonah Platt-Ross.

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