Kathy Chin Leong
Green Street Mortuary Band
*Included in the print edition
It is a familiar sight and sound for Chinatown residents. The uniformed marching band playing soulful hymns. The rolling rat-tat-tat of the snare drum. The photo of the deceased on the roof of a custom-built Cadillac. Sometimes family members head the somber line on foot, holding up the photo for all to see. For more than a century in this community, funeral bands have led processions for Chinese families honoring loved ones with this final farewell.
In 1911, Chinatown shop owner Wilson Wong formed the Cathay Boys Band made up of Chinese and Anglo-American boys who learned respected American songs. They performed before adoring crowds in theaters throughout San Francisco and at special events. Soon they were asked to march and play at Chinatown funerals on a regular basis. However, by the mid-1950s, members moved away and other responsibilities took priority; the group disbanded. Various band leaders would step in to cover these processionals, but there was no regularity.
In 1992, manager Clifford Yee from the Green Street Mortuary in North Beach approached jazz musician Lisa Pollard with the opportunity to start a dedicated funeral band. She convinced revered trumpeter and musical arranger John Coppola to be its first musical director who took the job seriously and brought musicianship up to a whole new level. The professional partnership happily turned into marital partnership. Years later, Lisa took the reins after her husband passed away. While many would look down on playing in a funeral band, she considers it an honor to respect the community and its traditions. The band members are all professional union musicians who also perform for the symphony, opera, and musical theater groups. Working in conjunction with the Green Street Mortuary, the Green Street Mortuary Band has faithfully kept to its mission of offering comfort and closure to family and friends with public ceremonies of grandeur. At one time, the 10-member ensemble played more than 350 times a year, but now the requests for formal processions are less as fewer Chinese Americans have the money or desire to keep the tradition. In 2018, the band played in 70 funeral processions.
Clad in a uniform of white military caps with gold trim, crisp white shirts, and black suits with black ties, the band plays a variety of music. Hymns such as Amazing Grace and Nearer My God to Thee, classics from Haydn and Bach, and the occasional Chinese folk song permeate Chinatown’s streets and alleyways. Tourists and locals stop in reverence as the hearse and cars of mourners pass by. During this last journey for the deceased, the motorcade comes to a respectful halt in front of the place where the person lived or worked.
“There is a lot of love in what we do,” says Lisa, the band leader for over 25 years. “Our musicianship elevates the service into something singularly special for the family.” The band is sometimes asked to play specific songs that had significance to the deceased. It played Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for someone who was a smoker and died of lung cancer. When author Amy Tan‘s mother Daisy Tan passed away, Amy requested the band to play Daisy Bell on every corner in Chinatown. “It was marvelous,” recalls Lisa. “We are lucky and feel honored to be a part of this beautiful, honorable tradition.”