Comparing Chinese Death Beliefs with Disney/Pixar’s ‘Coco’

During opening weekend, I took my daughter to see the new Disney/Pixar movie, Coco.  It’s a movie she’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a year, since the trailers for the new movie came out quite some time ago.  I didn’t have much expectations for the movie, as I figured it would be similar to a previous animated film, Book of Lifeanother film centered around Día de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead.  But the movie is completely different, and definitely worth a viewing.  As I watched the film Coco with my 12 year old, I began to realize that many of the practices and beliefs that were being practiced by the Mexican families were similar if not identical to many practices that we performed for my deceased ancestors as a Chinese/Taiwanese immigrant family in the United States.

Before I make the comparisons, I’ll remind readers that discussing the dead, or customs and practices around death is generally considered taboo in Chinese culture.  But I have previously broken this taboo by writing about Chinese funerary customs, so I’ll wander again into dangerous waters.  If you’re from a Chinese family, you might want to refrain from talking about this topic with the elders in your family.  In fact ghosts and the supernatural are generally still considered forbidden topics in mainland China, and it was a surprise that Coco made it past Chinese censors without any edits.

One of the major Chinese holidays is also known as 盂蘭節 or Ghost Festival.  The holiday is sometimes called Chinese Halloween, and is very similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.  I remember when I was growing up, that my mom would set up an altar on major Chinese holidays, like the Ghost Festival, and the center of the altar would have the photographs of the deceased ancestors.  We would burn incense, and joss paper and lay out food offerings, typically oranges and cooked rice with other dishes for the deceased, so they would have food and money in the afterlife.  We would eat the food it had been left out for a long time, long enough for the deceased to partake their portion of the food.  It’s common for Chinese to burn paper replicas of cars, boats, houses, etc. for the deceased to have these things in the afterlife.

Similarly on the Day of the Dead, in Coco, there’s a strong importance to having the photograph of the family ancestor placed in the family ofrenda.  The belief in Coco, is that if your photograph is not in the family ofrenda, you won’t be able to pass over on the Day of the Dead to visit your relatives.  You’re essentially forgotten.  In Coco, if you’re forgotten, your spirit will disappear from the afterlife and cease to exist when the last person who remembers you dies in the real world.

Similar to Chinese culture, the Mexicans lay out food for the deceased, so they’ll have food in the afterlife.  The amount of food the deceased have in the afterlife varies by how much they were remembered and offered food in the real world.  So a popular singer, like the character Ernesto de la Cruz in the movie Coco, had an abundance of food in the afterlife from all his devoted living fans, while Hector, who was forgotten had none.

By the end of the movie, these similarities between the two cultures got me wondering if they arose from the same source.  My guess is yes, since at the end of the movie Coco, there was a disclaimer saying the beliefs around the Day of the Dead, had roots in Mexican and indigenous peoples. And with the knowledge that indigenous peoples traveled from Asia to settle in the Americas, I think we’re fairly safe in assuming these beliefs have a common beginning.

In case you haven’t seen Coco yet, won’t spoil any more of the movie for you, but I will say it’s one of the best kids movies I’ve seen in a while, and well worth the price of admission.




Maui in Disney’s Moana: An obese and insulting stereotype?

maui1The image of Maui in Disney’s upcoming movie “Moanahas triggered some anger.  Some say the body of Maui, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is obese, an insulting stereotype of Polynesian men.  This picture, from Samoan Rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, is one expression of this anger.  Sapolu adds, in another picture, “Maui looking like after he fished up the Islands, he deep fried em and and ate em”.  Other people, such as New Zealander of Tonga descent Isoa Kavakimotu, disagree, saying “He doesn’t look fat to me, he looks a like a powerhouse who could do extraordinary labours.  Kavakimotu has made a video (shown below) about his viewpoint on this issue, pointing out that competitive strongmen are built more Maui than Johnson.

Continue reading “Maui in Disney’s Moana: An obese and insulting stereotype?”

I Hate Disney’s ‘Mulan’

While I was writing the post on Mortal Kombat Legacy’s possible bad Japanese, it reminded me of way back in my college years when Disney’s Mulan movie first came out. I was of course incredibly excited and thrilled by the prospect of Disney finally doing a Chinese legend based movie. Like many, I grew up on Disney films, so it was nice finally to be “represented”, so to speak, since out of all the Disney princesses, Mulan would be the one I could most easily identify with. She’s of Chinese descent and is a warrior princess. Definitely.

Sad to say, out of all the Disney movies, Mulan ranks pretty low in my book. I still remember clearly the moment I sat down in the movie theater at the age of 20 to watch it for the first time, filled from head to toe with dread about what I was going to see. I kept telling myself “It’s just a Disney movie. Just accept it as a Disney movie.” The problem was, it was a DISNEY MOVIE.

Continue reading “I Hate Disney’s ‘Mulan’”

“Cars 2″ Goes Drifting into Tokyo

It looks like our favorite Disney animated feature film about talking automobiles with hearts of gold, Cars is international for their sequel. Based on the new theatrical trailer, it looks like they are spending some time in Tokyo.

OK. I have to admit that the title of this post is totally misleading. I don’t think there is any “drifting” (a la Fast and the Furious) but there is a definite Asian presence. Even so, what do Asian animated cars look like? And are the cars in the original racially ambiguous? Well, if you really want to stereotype, we can say that the buck-toothed, Southern accented tow truck is representing the Caucasian set — I’m just saying.

Nonetheless, in the trailer above we see flashes of sumo wrestling cars and even geisha cars. I wonder if they considered having an Asian gang of cars with body kits, oversized spoilers, heavily tinted windows, and bad accents?

Disney Makes ‘High School Musical’ Their 3rd Chinese Production

Disney is remaking its hit film High School Musical as a Chinese movie. This film marks Disney’s third co-production in China after The Magic Gourd in 2007 and this year’s Trail of the Panda.

The film will feature six newcomers for the lead roles. Shooting will occur in Shanghai and the film is scheduled for a summer 2010 release. Chen Shizheng, considered an unusual choice because he is better known as a stage director, will direct the film. Disney’s annoucement of this new film production comes on the heels of the announcement of a new Disney theme park in Shanghai.

The original High School Musical film was released in 2006, airing in 30 languages and over 100 countries.

Disneyland: Next Stop Shanghai

Disneyland Hong KongAs someone who grew up in the U.S., I never really got the Disney bug as a child. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New York, far away from either Disneyland and Disneyworld. My first experience with Disneyland wasn’t until I was in college and visiting an aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. There also wasn’t much to pick from in animated Disney films as I was growing up. Fast forward, and today, thanks to having a 4 year old daughter, I’m in over my head in Disney paraphernalia. I can tell you the name of every Disney Princess, including the one who’s going to be introduced this December.

We’ve spoiled our daughter and taken her to Disneyland for her birthday each year, so we’ve gotten pretty familiar with the theme park. In addition my company has even held an event in EuroDisney, which I got to attend. What I didn’t realize until reading about the latest Disneyland planned for Shanghai, is that there’s already one in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

The park in Shanghai has been in planning for the last 20 years, and finally won approval this month. It’s estimated it will be completed in 5 to 6 years and be a little larger in size than the current Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. Disney hopes this theme park will create the kind of marketing engine that the other Disney parks have, encouraging families to buy into the paraphernalia the way my family has.

In part, the promotion of Disney within my own family has been largely my fault, as I was looking for role models for my daughter, and thought Mulan, with all its flawed images of Chinese culture, was at least a good independent Asian female role model, and not the helpless princesses of other Disney classics. Unfortunately, my daughter never took to Mulan and instead favors Snow White, who relies on others to save her. Disney to their credit did also produce an American Native Princess, Pocahontas, and East Indian Princess, Jasmine. And finally this Christmas season, the African American Princess, Tiana. My daughter can’t wait to go see this latest movie, so I think I’ll refrain from letting her know there’s another Disneyland she can visit until she’s a little older.