Asia puts new spins on a grave busi­ness

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kaiman re­port­ing from ma­cau

Noth­ing is a match for Lee Jonglan’s air­brush. Not the yel­low tint of jaun­dice, not the grue­some wounds of gun­shots, not the bones bro­ken in high-speed car crashes.

“You see how the right side of her face looks nor­mal,” Lee says as her pe­tite model strains to keep her eyes closed. “But the left side, it looks a lit­tle bit swollen be­cause we ap­plied so much foun­da­tion.”

It’s not per­fect, Lee notes. But then again, Lee isn’t hop­ing for per­fec­tion — she’s hop­ing to com­fort the bereaved.

“Look at how beau­ti­ful she looks,” Lee says. The model, back from the dead, smiles, and the au­di­ence crowds around, busi­ness cards in hand.

Lee, South Korea’s top fu­ner­ary beau­ti­cian, couldn’t look more at home — and not just be­cause of her TV star smile. She was in her el­e­ment as more than 100 mor­ti­cians, man­u­fac­tur­ers, bu­reau­crats and en­trepreneurs de­scended last month on the an­nual Asia Fu­neral and Ceme­tery Expo and Con­fer­ence, which was held in Ma­cau, a semi­au­tonomous spit of land jut­ting off China’s south­ern coast.

For three days, par­tic­i­pants from nearby Hong Kong to far-off Bo­livia shook hands and swapped con­tact in­for­ma­tion. They met Mon­go­lian mor­ti­cians, Malaysian ceme­tery de­vel­op­ers, Chi­nese cof­fin man­u­fac­tur­ers and sharply dressed Dutch en­trepreneurs who turn cre­mated

ashes into gleam­ing syn­thetic di­a­monds, so that wealthy mourn­ers can wear their loved ones’ re­mains. They sat be­neath a crys­tal chan­de­lier in a lush con­fer­ence room, lis­ten­ing to lec­tures such as “DNA is Alive in the Death In­dus­try’s DNA” and “Lessons from Ebola.”

“Asia’s fu­neral in­dus­try is quite dif­fer­ent from the fu­neral in­dus­try in the West,” says Kenny Lo, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the con­fer­ence’s Hong Kong-based or­ga­nizer, Ver­ti­cal Expo Ser­vices. “The in­dus­try here in Asia, es­pe­cially the Chi­nese one, is very con­ser­va­tive. It’s very tra­di­tional. And to a cer­tain ex­tent — how can I say this — it’s not very open. Not so trans­par­ent.”

Stan­dards are lax, he says. Govern­ment poli­cies are of­ten tor­tu­ous and in­flex­i­ble. A vast range of tra­di­tions “makes things very com­pli­cated, even within one coun­try.”

But for those in the know, Asian funer­als are big busi­ness. Pop­u­la­tions across the re­gion, from Ja­pan to Sin­ga­pore, are grow­ing older and more af­flu­ent. By 2050, 1 in 4 peo­ple in East Asia is ex­pected to be 65 and older. Mean­while, their chil­dren are be­com­ing more tech-savvy and glob­ally con­nected, and they’re seek­ing fu­ner­ary ser­vices to match, prompt­ing mor­ti­cians to ex­per­i­ment with new ways of at­tract­ing clien­tele.

Nowhere has the in­dus­try changed faster than in China, the re­gion’s largest econ­omy, where fam­i­lies tra­di­tion­ally sent the de­parted off with of­fer­ings such as er­satz money, cloth­ing and tools. For cen­turies, peo­ple saw ex­trav­a­gant funer­als as a nec­es­sary means of pleas­ing the dead.

“The no­tion that the dead per­sist in some way af­ter the phys­i­cal ex­tinc­tion of life is very, very an­cient in China,” says Michael Szonyi, a Chi­nese his­tory pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Univer­sity. “It goes back way be­fore Con­fu­cian­ism, way be­fore Dao­ism, way, way be­fore Bud­dhism.”

But Mao Tse-tung, who ruled the coun­try from 1949 to 1976, branded tra­di­tional fu­neral rites as “feu­dal su­per­sti­tion” and re­placed them with so­cial­ist-style funer­als, called “me­mo­rial meet­ings.”

So­cial­ist funer­als cul­mi­nated in a short speech by the head of the de­ceased’s work unit prais­ing the de­parted’s con­tri­bu­tions to so­cial­ism. Few lasted more than 15 min­utes.

Since then, how­ever, China has trans­formed from a global back­wa­ter into an eco­nomic su­per­power, with more mil­lion­aires than any coun­try but the United States — and os­ten­ta­tious funer­als have made a mas­sive come­back de­spite of­fi­cial ef­forts to stamp them out.

In re­cent years, wealthy bereaved have made head­lines with cer­e­monies be­fit­ting em­per­ors.

In 2011, an en­tre­pre­neur in the east­ern city of Wen­ling spent $770,000 to see off his mother with mas­sive LED screens, a 100-piece or­ches­tra, a line of gold­painted can­nons and a fleet of Lin­coln lim­ou­sines.

In April, govern­ment of­fi­cials cracked down on two large-scale funer­als in He­bei and Jiangsu prov­inces where vil­lagers em­ployed ex­otic dancers to at­tract large crowds.

It is per­haps no sur­prise that par­tic­i­pa­tion in the fu­neral expo has grown ev­ery year since Lo’s com­pany be­gan or­ga­niz­ing the event.

Tucked away in a back cor­ner of the ex­hi­bi­tion hall, a Chi­nese com­pany has set up a booth pre­sent­ing sam­ples of of­fer­ings for the dead — mostly large pa­pier­ma­che sculp­tures of man­sions and lux­ury cars, meant to be burned at ceme­tery fur­naces as gifts for the de­parted.

Across the aisle, Han Dingyu un­packs a com­pet­ing dis­play for the nearly decade-old Tai­wanese com­pany SKEA, short for Spec­tac­u­lar Kind of Ely­sium Ac­ces­sories. “The hand­i­work on these is top­notch,” Han says as he pro­duces a smor­gas­bord of hand­crafted pa­per minia­tures, in­clud­ing an im­mac­u­late cut of roast beef, a tray of cup­cakes and an as­sort­ment of col­or­ful, quar­ter-sized mac­a­roons.

The com­pany pro­duces pa­per mod­els of any­thing that a per­son might want in the af­ter­life, he says: en­ter­tain­ment, sus­te­nance, shel­ter.

“Young peo­ple of­ten of­fer each other [minia­ture] iPhones,” he adds. “When peo­ple give of­fers to girls, it’s of­ten makeup or clothes. An­ces­tors, old peo­ple, that’s who gets houses.”

He flips through the com­pany’s glossy cat­a­log, which ad­ver­tises minia­ture homes with a range of lux­u­ri­ous fea­tures — rooftop pa­tios, court­yard gar­dens, floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows. One post­mod­ern “Ibiza­style Dream Villa” has a yacht moored in the backyard pool.

The spirit of adap­ta­tion ex­tends well be­yond China.

About five years ago, one of Sin­ga­pore’s top fu­neral com­pa­nies, the 103-year-old Ang Chin Moh group, launched Fly­ing Home, a ser­vice that works with air­lines and em­bassies to repa­tri­ate the re­cently de­ceased.

Not far from Lee’s fu­ner­ary makeup booth, Fly­ing Home rep­re­sen­ta­tives hand out lug­gage tags bear­ing the com­pany’s in­signia and pam­phlets that re­sem­ble board­ing passes (air­line code “FH,” des­ti­na­tion “home”).

Sin­ga­pore is one of Asia’s top ex­pa­tri­ate des­ti­na­tions, and Grace Hung, the com­pany’s as­sis­tant mar­ket­ing man­ager, says the com­pany is do­ing brisk busi­ness.

“Sin­ga­pore is so ad­vanced when it comes to things like fi­nance, ac­count­ing and law,” she says. “But not death.”

Her com­pany is try­ing to change that. She says her co-work­ers speak a num­ber of lan­guages — In­done­sian, Malay, English, Span­ish, French — and have an av­er­age age of 40, about 10 years younger than the in­dus­try av­er­age.

“We do out­bound as well,” she says. “Sin­ga­pore is a med­i­cal hub — peo­ple come here seek­ing treat­ment, and some­times they pass away.”

In the con­fer­ence room down­stairs, Chi­nese en­tre­pre­neur Wang Dan, a 34year-old en­gi­neer who opened a Bei­jing fu­neral par­lor in 2012, ad­dresses an au­di­ence of a few dozen peo­ple, most of them well­dressed men.

“So­cial me­dia is very im­por­tant in our busi­ness,” he says. “When a per­son passes away, what can we do to ex­tend our mem­o­ries of the de­ceased for their fam­ily mem­bers or friends? We can make videos, take pic­tures, put them on the In­ter­net. I think this is a very good idea.”

His com­pany, the Other Shore, stan­dard­izes its prices and posts them on­line, he says, while most Chi­nese mor­ti­cians charge what­ever they be­lieve their cus­tomers can pay.

The com­pany of­fers low-cost con­sul­ta­tions, help­ing the bereaved con­nect with grief coun­sel­ing ser­vices and rep­utable ceme­ter­ies; it has teamed with an Amer­i­can firm that launches cre­mated re­mains into space.

“I think the so­cial struc­ture is un­der­go­ing tremen­dous change,” he says. “Young peo­ple see the world very dif­fer­ently from us. And if we, as prac­ti­tion­ers, don’t change too, we will get left be­hind.” jonathan.kaiman@la­times.com Twit­ter: @JRKaiman

Mike Clarke AFP/Getty Im­ages

GUESTS are in­vited to check out a cof­fin at a fu­neral expo in Hong Kong. Younger, more glob­ally con­nected Asians are seek­ing fu­ner­ary ser­vices to match.

An­thony Wallace AFP/Getty Im­ages

AT AN EXPO in Ma­cau, an em­balmer demon­strates re­con­struc­tive tech­niques for in­com­plete corpses.

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