Sunday, May 15, 2016

Cockfighting (Sabong) in the Philippines

In 2013 Jared visited Myanmar with a Burmese ex-colleague from the sub-sea industry. With typical Burmese hospitality, the ex-colleague brought Jared to his village and showed him around, describing with deep-rooted pride his culture and daily life.

On one of the days, Jared said, they sat at a hut built for the purpose of communal interactions, where they drank fermented palm juice and snacked on a fried tidbit that someone passed around. Later on, more people began streaming in, some carrying home-bred roosters that they would pit in methodised fights against each other.

The roosters were carried in pairs into a roughly drawn circle in the middle of the group. There was a cryptic way of keeping score, and after a certain amount of time, the fight would be broken apart and the roosters brought to opposing sides of the ring. 

You know those boxing matches on television? Jared laughed, mimicking the actions. It was exactly like that! Someone would give the rooster a little massage, feed it some water, and wet its head with a tiny towel. They let it take a break before starting the next round. It was a really interesting way of passing time in the village.

This was the context that formed my expectation as I stepped into a cockfighting pit in Banaue, Philippines.


The cockfighting pit was on a little rise behind a car mechanic workship. A nondescript trail led up to it, opening into a four-sided arena fenced with wooden bars and Plexiglass. Wooden stands with seats three tiers high flanked two adjacent sides; at one of the remaining sides, a long bench ran the length of the arena, where six men sat cradling their roosters, chatting in Tagalog. A laminated license with a photo ID was threaded on a string that bisected the arena, and as it swung back and forth in the wind, I noticed its owner striding around and barking out instructions authoritatively. He spotted me too - the only female and non-local there - and made his way over. 


Where are you from? he asked, glancing at my camera. There was no hint of suspicion or distaste in his voice - this was a licensed sport, after all.

Singapore, I said, and he echoed, Singapore! Come!

Within seconds, he had ordered a few unlucky spectators away from the wooden barricade, clearing a comfortable space for me to watch the fight. Enjoy, he said, smiling.


A serious discussion was taking place on my right. The man next to me explained that the roosters were being matched up according to size and strength. Soon, the group fell silent and two men stepped forward into the ring. The excitement in the spectator stand was palpable, but the two men were calm and business-like as they went through their well-rehearsed actions.

First, they approached each other, gripping the roosters tightly. Then they pushed the roosters forward, forcing one to attack as the other was restrained - or, if it didn't attack, physically striking one rooster with the other. The men even plucked out feathers from the roosters' backs to further provoke them. Finally, they stepped back and carefully unsheathed the long, curved blade that was tied firmly to the roosters' spurs.


Then, it was time to fight.

The roosters were released as the owner of the arena yelled for bets. People around me raised their arms and shouted out numbers as he jotted down notes on a yellow lined writing pad. In the ring, the roosters were now approaching each other, hackles puffed, clearly aggravated and raring to strike.


What happened next took on an almost dream-like quality, feeling all at once immeasurably long in my alarm, and infinitesimally short in the flagrancy of a life snuffed out for sport. In a mere ten seconds, a victor was crowned; its defeated opponent limp and bloodied on the ground. A deafening cheer went up in the crowd.

Later on, I saw the dead rooster lying atop a row of cages where other live roosters were kept, awaiting their turn in the arena. I stepped closer for a look - some of the gashes were laid open to the bone. At its side sat a toolbox that looked almost surgical in its range of razor blades.

A man nearby saw me inspecting the dead rooster. He shrugged and smiled. We eat it later, he said. Nothing wasted. Just like buying a chicken in the market, isn't it?


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