Death + Crime Death + Popular Culture

Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies Store Raided by New York Cops for Copyright Violations

Yes, He Sold Fakes. They Are Supposed to Be Fake.
Jeffrey E. Singer and Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times (August 24, 2011)
Paper imitations of luxury items are traditional at Chinese funerals as gifts for the dead, but a seller of cardboard handbags was arrested on copyright-infringement charges on Tuesday.

Ok ok. So the the Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies store on Mulberry Street wasn’t raided, per se, but one of its workers (Wing Su Mak) was arrested by the New York police for offering to sell cardboard reproductions of high-end consumer goods, including authentic cardboard Burberry and Louis Vuitton handbags.

Two things.

  1. The use of cardboard replicas in Chinese funerals, which go in the casket with the deceased and then are incinerated during cremation, is a long-standing funereal custom. And since this is a long-time tradition it means that the objects people want in the casket also change with the times. Ergo, the cardboard swag.
  2. I have been in the Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies store on Mulberry street and purchased cardboard replicas of items which I proudly display in my office. One of my favorite purchases was the cardboard laptop computer with the Apple computer apple on it.
Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies Laptop. photo by John Troyer in his office
Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies Laptop. photo by John Troyer in his office

Come and get me Coppers!!!

The people at Fook On Sing are also really nice and when I visited the store in April 2011, Wing Su Mak took time to explain why people wanted the newer kinds of objects.

So here is what will hopefully happen in the coming days: The NYPD will say sorry for making a mistake and all charges will be dropped. I can only hope that this entire situation becomes the proverbial ‘teachable moment.’

If not, then look out NYPD. You’re going to have the world of Death Studies Scholars leaping to Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies’ legal defense.

And that, my friends, will be no joke.

Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies Inc photo at top by Adam Elmquist

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Monuments + Memorials

No More Big Dead Tombs in China

As China’s Income Gap Grows, Tombs Are a Target
Sharon LaFraniere, The New York Times (April 22, 2011)

Since 1997, official policy limits the size of cemetery plots in China, promoting low cost funeral arrangements regardless of the wealth of the deceased. That doesn’t mean it happens. From the bottom end of this article:

Most Chengdu mourners interviewed expressed skepticism about the tomb limits. At Temple of the Lighted Lamp cemetery, Kuang Lan, 42, said: “My personal opinion is if you have the money to make a bigger tomb, make a bigger one. If not, make a smaller one.”


But Yang Bin, 48, who earns roughly $150 a month chiseling tombstones at Zhenwu Shan cemetery, quietly criticized the excesses of “capitalists” who “are everywhere now.”


“This is how the Chinese are,” he said, after trudging down the cemetery’s steep hill in his thin, black cloth shoes. “If they have money, they want to show off their face. If you don’t have money, you have to work.”

And for everything that I could say, I have only one comment. It comes from the 1980s band Men Without Hats:

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Body Fishing Up Ahead

Bodies floating in the Yellow River near Changpo Village in China’s Gansu Province. Photo credit: Tom Lasseter/MCT

This story has affected me in a way that many others about death have not. The complete and utter sense of tragedy permeating it is hard to shake and the mental imagery conjured up while reading it is the stuff of nightmares. In what has got to be one of the more grim and disturbing jobs in the world, CNN and other outlets reported this week on the “body fisherman”; mostly men who trawl for murder, suicide and the occasional drowning victim that floats down the Yellow River, about 20 kilometers to the west of Lanzhou, China. Those who perform this grim work advertise their services and cell phone numbers on hand painted signs that read “Body Fishing Up Ahead”.

The story, which has been picked up here and there since September, appeared in the Asia Times and various McClatchy news service outlets. Most recently, CNN reported on it just this week.

There seems to be two overarching threads in these stories. Some believe the people who would do such work are nothing more than ruthless mercenaries taking advantage of grief-stricken families. Charging what would be exorbitant fees—even by Western standards—the fisherman turn bodies over to families only as a fee is paid. Others say that the work they do is a necessary public service that local authorities cannot or will not provide. Who is right? It is clear that there are no easy answers and very little offered in the way of solutions to help stem the deathly tide.

In 2008, a documentary called The Other Shore, brought the practice to light for those outside of China. The film profiles Wei Zhiqian from Xiaoxia village in Gansu, a longtime body fisherman who recently ended his life’s work due to the building of a giant dam upriver. In his place, new families have taken over the trade despite increasing pressure from authorities to stop. There is still potentially much money to be made.

Lun Lun, 24, stated to CNN, “I have worked on this section of the river for several years. I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one. I’d like to say I’m a boat operator but really, I search for the dead.”

While China’s economy continues to grow, perhaps other unforeseen odd and gruesome jobs such as this one will present themselves. Scores of bodies will be needed to support and feed the industrial engine of the world’s second largest economy. It is sad to think that many of those bodies will be casualties in this accelerated march toward “progress” and empire building.

Death + Technology Suicide

Overtime and Under Stress

“Maybe this spate of suicides will also serve us as a wake-up call,” he said in an interview last week. “We realize we must do a better job.” —Louis Woo, a high-ranking Foxconn executive

The NY Times has written another article about the Foxconn suicides. This follows a second pay raise by the company this past Sunday and sheds more light on the incredible number of hours many factory workers are clocking. According to the article, the first suicide, Ma Xiangqian, racked up 286 hours of work time (including 112 hours of overtime) in the month before he died—that’s three times the legal limit. And the pay? The equivalent of $1 per hour.

Now, Foxconn has instituted a new policy: stay with the company for 3 months and your monthly salary will be bumped to $300—more than double what workers were getting paid 3 weeks ago. Foxconn’s management and the companies doing business with them (namely, Apple, Dell, etc.) realize they are under a lot of public scrutiny about their labor practices. There is talk of an ongoing investigation—and I hope it is true. But the cynic in me also wonders how much of it is really a CYA campaign. I hope the former, but I suspect the latter.

All this has gotten me thinking about the sociological and cultural implications and differences between East and West when it comes to this type of death. I did a little searching for books on the subject of suicide in China specifically and in Asian society more generally. If you’d like to explore things for yourself, here are some titles you might be interested in. As always, check your local library’s collection or take advantage of interlibrary loan.

Suicide and Justice: A Chinese Perspective (Routledge Contemporary China Series). Fei Wu. 2009

Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity. Christian Baudelot. 2008.

Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention. Paul S.F. Yip. 2009

Death + Technology Suicide

Foxconn Raises Salaries

Today’s NY Times reports that Foxconn will raise employee’s salaries by 33 percent. Assembly line workers will now go from the equivalent of approximately $132 per month to $176 per month. A week earlier, company chairman Terry Gou, had promised to improve conditions at the factory and to quell the rash of suicides plaguing the company, denying there is a correlation between worker’s salaries and the suicides. According to the Times:

The company, which is based in Taiwan and employs more than 800,000 workers in China, has denied that the suicides were work-related or above the national average, saying instead that they were the result of social ills and personal problems of young, migrant workers. Foxconn said Wednesday that the decision to raise salaries was not a direct response to the suicides.

For some insight and a bit of the backstory, check out this audio clip from the folks over at Future Tense from last week. It’s about 45 seconds in.


Rash of Suicides at China’s Foxconn

Taiwanese-owned computer and electronics manufacturing giant, Foxconn, is drawing criticism for its recent spate of suicides. At present, 10 people have committed suicide within the last year—with one of those deaths occurring just hours after company Chairman Terry Gou, bowed in apology over the deaths.

Previously, we have reported on spates of suicides in posts on France Telecom and suicide hotspots like Japan’s Cliffs of Tojimbo and China’s Yangtze River Bridge. Although it’s not totally clear whether the Foxconn suicides can be attributed to copycat behavior among employees, one thing that can be fact-checked is the average number of suicides per year in China’s population as a whole.

According to 2004 World Health Organization estimates, China’s annual suicide rate is 16.9 deaths per 100,000 people. Foxconn employs approximately 800,000 employees. So, one can argue that statistically speaking, the number of recent suicides is actually less than the national average. But due to the quick succession of deaths and the fact that they all share the same employer, one has to ask what role, if any, their workplace played in their deaths. This is what investigators both in China and the U.S. are now attempting to unravel.

Defying Death Suicide

TAL: Trouble Bridge Over Water

This American Life: The Bridge
originally aired May 7, 2010

Act One, Bridge Over Troubled Water

We posted last December about the Cliffs of Tojimbo in Japan, a popular tourist destination but also suicide hotspot, and the man who made it his mission to talk down and counsel would-be jumpers.

Act One of This American Life‘s episode The Bridge follows a similar situation in China, where Chen Sah patrols a four-mile long bridge thronged by thousands of pedestrians every day and averages one suicide per week. In standard This American Life fashion, the story is at once tragic, hopeful and bewildering, as reporter Mike Paterniti is embroiled in his own rescue of a jumper, a young man whom Chen then scolds and threatens to punch in the face for being a coward.