Gallos de Pelea, AKA, Cockfighting

Fantasma

Fantasma (Ghost), gallo de pelea

There’ve been times when I feel like I’m witnessing something straight out of my cultural anthropology classes. I’ll never forget an ethnography we read about cockfights in Indonesia; particularly the spurs they place on the feet of the roosters that are so dangerous they have been known to disembowel their keepers if the roosters kick out. Failing in the “don’t judge, just observe” maxim of anthropology, the practice didn’t sit right with me at all.

Awhile back I was surprised to learn that cockfighting is somewhat popular here and I became ambivalent about my earlier views. Having the opportunity to visit the fights today, I tried to go with an open mind. I was warned there would be blood and death and blahblahblah, but I was interested in the experience more than anything else; to see yet another thing I had read about, albeit in a much different setting.

Baiting to Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Above all, I’m glad I went and if I have the opportunity I’ll go again. They dropped the roosters to the ground for the first fight I witnessed, and we all sat watching them for almost five minutes as they scratched at the ground, crowed, flapped their feathers and wandered around the ring. I watched the crowd, trying to get a sense of whether this was normal or not and couldn’t gauge either way at all. Finally, one noticed the other and the fight was on. It turns out that this is generally the way fights go and that the roosters usually take time to engage. But at first it was quite comical to think that these two roosters who had been set up to fight one another were just moseying about doing the exact opposite.

Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Despite all of that, it only cemented and strengthened my earlier views – I just don’t think it’s right, and it seems downright cruel. Of course my understanding of cockfighting is limited given my command of Spanish isn’t 100%. I asked a lot of questions during the fights, and what I learned just frustrated me about the whole process given how senseless it all seems. They use spurs here as well which is what causes all the blood and death. A lot of whether a rooster is good or not also seems to be based on bloodlines and breeding, and I haven’t gotten a handle on what any of that means. One rooster looks like any other to me. You can ‘train’ your rooster, but I wonder how much that really helps. This concentrates on their physical prowess, which still seems more about chance to me. I mean, what if your rooster is having an OFF day?! In addition, they seem like very dim animals in general.

Another pair

Yet another pair duke it out.

In every fight, at least one rooster must die for the other to win, and the winning rooster may have injuries grave enough that it also dies. That means the next match will be fought with another rooster of the owner’s. I had wrongly assumed that one rooster would fight its way through to the end of the tournament, therefore demonstrating it’s ‘the best’, but witnessing the injuries of some of the winners made me realize just how silly that is.

Cages

Cages and cages and cages…. tiny… dark… dirty.

It can be gruesome to see the roosters vomiting blood in their death throes. Luckily, they get a quick death after they’re carried from the ring. The winners aren’t so lucky. They don’t get medical attention, whatever their injuries, which again is senseless and cruel to me. It seems to me that this is really just a revolving door of slaughter, and I wonder how much the odds favor someone who has a huge amount of roosters given quality seems to count for so little (even though the countless conversations I’ve heard about rooster and hen bloodlines should tell me otherwise). Why would one allow the injuries of the winner to go untreated if not?!

Caption contest

This picture needs a caption contest. Pssst…. Fernando, when do we go for the killing blow?

I also wonder about the dynamics of ownership when you’re grooming an animal for something that could result in its death within minutes. The many fighting roosters I’ve seen are kept in small, dark cages. I’ve heard the argument that it’s “natural”, and sure, if two roosters come across each other in a field they will fight. On the other hand, it’s not natural to tie spurs to their feet so that when they kick out at each other they inflict grave injuries. It’s not natural to set this scenario up and ensure that they continue to fight to the death when they seem to lose interest or have had enough (in a few of the fights the roosters were repositioned when they stopped fighting).

Snack Time

It’s “give the roosters a special drink and talk about their condition” time.

I wish I could say I’ve gotten a handle on the cultural dynamics of such a thing in all the conversations I’ve witnessed concerning rooster fighting. Obviously there’s something beyond the brutality of the practice. It’s important to note that the region I am living in is agrarian and animals are often used for utilitarian purposes. They provide food (While this might seem obvious, I think this connection is lost to most of us in the shrink-wrapped, sterilized world of the supermarket.) in the form of meat, plowing the fields, and fertilizer. Not even pets are treated in the often doting manner of pet owners in the states. While I think there’s a limit to animal rights (I always think people should go first.) I wonder at what seems like obvious cruelty to me – is it the difference in viewpoints between those from agrarian and industrial societies? (Factory farming muddies the argument though I think few people would deny that it is cruel and there’s definitely an element of out of sight, out of mind.)

In the meantime, I’ve been marveling at all the anthropologists who have gone to live in cultures different from their own where they cannot speak the language, only to be able to piece together how they work and analyze what is going on around them. Either that, or there are a lot of tomes of bullshit on the shelves. I often feel utterly lost given the language barrier, and when making an effort to draw conclusions tend to second guess everything I think (count the use of the word ‘seems’ in this post). I suppose I can console myself with the idea that if I had the time to note everything I saw and heard given it was my intent, maybe I could synthesize it into something coherent. In addition, I can feel proud of myself that I’ve achieved something I used to daydream about in those anthro classes – going off to a foreign place to live in and learn about it.

Mummy

A mummy with future breeding hens/fighting roosters.

Universal Human Rights: Child Marriage

"Citizen of the World" - 9/11 Memorial Wall

Criticism means accountability, it means that you take the other person seriously… For me, marriage at the age of 9 for women is not my culture… I feel if that is my culture, then segregation is the culture of this country [US]. – Azar Nafisi on Aloud, at the Los Angeles Library

Working my way through a stack of law journal articles on child marriage, I put them down in disgust, feeling somewhat disillusioned as it became obvious that the sole “best practice” seems to be tax incentives. Now, don’t get me wrong – one of my primary interests is the impact of economics on human rights and poverty and this certainly falls under that category. In addition, child marriage has as much to do with poverty as gender inequality and it is important to address that factor to insure long term change. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that this is a dismal, unsustainable solution that fails to offer a holistic approach to the problem. Of course, to look at the issue in depth reveals a many headed hydra as one’s head spins at being utterly overwhelmed.

While getting my cultural anthropology degree in undergrad I flirted with the idea of cultural relativity. During my time in the discipline, I definitely “tried it on” and did my best to think from this perspective. In retrospect this is something I could never truly subscribe to. Cultural relativity is important to a point. This is a debate that is often hashed and rehashed in graduate classes – and one that I love to tackle regardless of how many times it has come up. Where is the line between imposing one’s values and that of a universal set of rights? Where is the line in which one steps back for the sake of “culture” or where one says “No, this is wrong.”? A long held frustration for me is that the cultural relativity argument is often used to shrug one’s shoulders at issues that impact women. Rather than calling out and denouncing abusive practices, they are written off as “culture.” This is certainly one of the places where I draw the line on cultural relativity.

I was dismayed by a heated debate in which people were criticizing the project to decrease the practice of child marriage as an imposition of culture. It’s extremely important to continuously question one’s practice, and the project merits criticism given it is designed in a top down fashion. At the same time, this is a practice that more often than not has horrific consequences for the girls that are married. While I can see the need to significantly retool the approach, I can’t simply step back on the grounds of cultural imposition. Human rights are universal. Women’s rights are universal.

Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m┬áCaucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

Mong Kok Night Market: Photo Essay

Nike Night Market Stall

A Nike ad peaking out behind a night market stall - liked the concept, not sure about my execution.

This is going to be more photo than essay, but after nearly nine solid days of being stuck in the dorm room I couldn’t take it anymore. Needed to get back out there with my camera, was missing Hong Kong and the ability to explore its streets. It was a scary couple of days there where they wanted to put me in the hospital due to crazy painful tonsillitis that just wasn’t getting better… I’m sure I’ll be writing more in depth about the experience and it will be filed under the “Lost in Translation” category…. Given my condition has improved greatly and I’m going back to work tomorrow (yay!!!), I decided to take a short trip to explore the Mong Kok night markets again. It was so wonderful to be back out.

Some of the highlights of the night -

Share Tea! - Iced Vanilla Milk Tea, Lemon Black Tea and Mango Cream

  • FINALLY finding the Share Tea stand in Mong Kok!! My haul comprised of a beautiful, freshly made 24(?) ounces each of lemon flavored black tea, vanilla milk tea and mango with cream for a hefty total of about $5 USD. (Starbucks…. what’s Starbucks?!?)
  • Watching an old couple while waiting for my tea – the old man shuffling down the street, the woman yelling after him in Cantonese amidst the Mong Kok craziness of tons of people and neon lights. He turns back and looks at her, says something, and continues on as he smokes his cigarette. Despite the difference in language, you could just imagine by the set of his shoulders and the way he looked back that his words were “yeeeeah, whaaatever”. He continued on as she shook her fist and followed…. It was an amusing scene to say the least, and one I wouldn’t have witnessed if they hadn’t bumped into me in the process…..

Pictures aren’t the GREATEST, but hope it gives you an idea of what the night markets are like….