Manila, No Place for Chickens

Prime time on the cockfight channel.

By Steve Burgess 17 Jan 2008 |

Steve Burgess files travel dispatches when he's not home reviewing films for The Tyee.

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Cockfight arena: Paging Michael Vick

Welcome to Manila. Check in, drop your bag, unwrap something sickly sweet, and settle in to watch some TV. And by that I mean televised cockfighting. You're in the Philippines now, cowboy.

Every country has its national sport and as Don Cherry points out, someone's always griping about the violence. Let the rest of the world ban cockfighting -- Filipinos put it on television every night. And since I politely declined the alternative entertainment offered by the bellman here in my sex-tourist hotel, I might as well do like the Romans do. Bring on the battling birds.

The fights are not taking place in any grungy back-alley shacks either. It's a pretty fancy-looking venue with plenty of seating and a cockpit surrounded by Plexiglas. This is really Michael Vick's kind of place. Naturally the program has sponsors. Tonight's show is being presented by Speed Super Premium Conditioner Concentrate. That's for birds. Also Honeymoon Love Potion -- that's for bird fanciers. Viewers are also urged to try Mite-Free Extra Strong Gamefowl Shampoo and Feather Conditioner, so your bird will look its shiny best while being clawed and pecked to death on national TV.

Minute of mayhem

Handlers hold the contending birds together to establish some initial animosity -- and suffice to say no two cocks have ever decided to let bygones be bygones and go get a beer -- then place the antagonists down. The cocks strut around a bit in seeming indifference. Then they fly at each other. Beautiful creatures when simply taking the air, on the attack they become truly impressive, with flaring collars of bright orange or yellow feathers and wings spread to assist quick aerial attacks. They look like small dragons. "Look at those feathers fly," drones the announcer, shifting from English to Tagalog mid-sentence as locals typically do, even when writing in Manila's major newspapers. "One has to go," he mutters. "One has to go . . ."

And quickly one bird does indeed go limp. The handlers move in, pick up both birds and push them together. One pecks, the other doesn't. The defeated bird is dropped once, twice, three times to confirm the obvious. The fight, and the losing bird, are finished.

Suddenly a message blinks onscreen: "Replace Battery Pack." So maybe these are not quite NFL-caliber broadcasts. But they do feature slow motion replays. Fights generally last no more than a minute, then on to the next pair of gladiatorial fowl. It's tough to work up a fan club in a game where you're either undefeated or stew.

Soft targets

Manila can be tough all over. Not only are local banks here attended by machine-gun toting guards, so are local Starbucks. Any soft target has to be protected from potential bandits. The potential for economic desperation is easy enough to see. Walking along an elevated skyway linking two of Manila's LRT lines you can look sideways into tin-roof slums. One night during my stay a fire swept through a shantytown not too far from my fancy hotel. One person died, many were injured. Local traffic was blocked as the once-barely-housed-now-turned-completely-homeless flooded onto the nearby roads with their salvaged belongings. They might as well have set up camp there, since Manila traffic never moves much anyway.

More birds are fighting and dying as the show goes on. "Hey, look at you," the announcer coos to a mortally wounded bantam. "You are still trying to get up and win the fight."

He doesn't, though. Moments later his lifeless, lolling head is taking a few final pecks by the victorious opponent. Time left only for the announcer's parting piece of wisdom, presumably aimed at man and bird alike: "Remember, do everything to win. Except cheat."

See you next time in Manila, sports fans.

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