© Dan White. No repro without permission.
The wall is encrusted with dried blood. Mould grows across the window frames and the dank smell of decaying flesh hangs heavy in the humidity. Piled in the middle of the floor are corpses. Some are still twitching with the legacy of nervous energy. The dead ones are all missing one leg while the live ones await treatment from a casually mustachioed man in a rubber apron, a soggy cigarette hanging lazily from the corner of his mouth. This is both a hospital and a morgue and the patients are gladiators. They are also chickens.
Throughout South East Asia cockfighting is one of the major gambling sports of the working man. From Papua New Guinea to Burma thousands of dollars can be lost in a frantic flurry of feathers. For the winner to die is considered mortally unlucky, so here in the chicken hospital in a cockpit in the slums of downtown Manila it is the task of this unwashed medic to do everything he can to keep the winner alive. His only tools are a a needle, some nylon thread and a bottle of iodine. When working on the the dead he uses one tool only. A pair of gardening secaturs to clip the right leg from the body and retrieve the razor sharp blade that is the universal instrument of birdy execution.
Having come in the back way with a dodgy taxi driver this charnel house is the first grisly spectacle that greets my eyes. Not wishing to linger we move through the surgery, the floor sticky with blood and emerge into a crowd. Here contestants preen their birds, talk shop and make side bets. There are some heated arguments in progress and some of those shouting appear to resemble their charges. The one major difference being that they probably don’t keep their blades in the same place. The situation is calmed by an older, fatter man who obviously carries some authority. It is he who checks the condition of the birds before the fight and ties the weapons to their ankles. Seeing a foreigner here he launches into an impassioned but friendly diatribe against human rights activists who have, apparently, been foolhardy enough to pay him a visit. “These people love the chickens like they love their children.” He laughs and strokes the feathers of a a pop eyed gladiator. “I love them more……… Grilled!”
Leaving him chortling at his cheesy punch line I make my way into the arena. The centre is a raised square surrounded by perspex. In the ring two roosters are being held only a foot apart by their trainers. This ritual of tantalising aggression puts the birds into a frenzy of murderous anger. They peck pointlessly at air and eye each other with purposeful aggression.
Whilst the fighting cocks are goading each other the punters are echoing their adrenaline. Lined up on steep banks of seats surrounding the stage, as if in a Senatorial debate, they are closely watching the form of the birds in the ring and frantically signaling bets across the amphitheatre. Everyone is pointing in different directions and yelling. Somehow out of this minute of chaos the bets are laid, the deals are done and they settle down in excited anticipation to watch a fight to the death.
The fight itself is both murderous and absurd. Upon being released the chickens fly at each and transform into one tumbling ball of feathers. As far as I can tell the bird that can jump the highest wins. That is as long as he remembers to bring his blade down on his opponent from above and stab him in the right place. This being achieved the ref rushes in to separate the antagonists and check up on the damage. To do this he picks up both birds, gazes into their pop eyes and grunts. Ascertaining that the slower one has suffered only a scratch he holds them a foot apart at waist height so that they can eyeball each other again before he drops them into onto the sand of the arena.
The next bout sees the tables turned. In a flurry of ornithological angst the wounded party makes a flying leap and, like a cross between Claude Van Damme and a packet of paxo sage and onion stuffing, lethally redresses the balance. This time the bout is utterly decisive in that when the ref picks up the birds it is apparent that one of them is decisively floppy. End of fight. Next please.
Some of the audience shout in jubilation. Others throw away betting slips in disgust and at least a couple look like they are about to follow the chickens example and start playing with blades. In a city notorious for street violence and the prevalence of fire arms the heated atmosphere makes me nervous. Trying to make my way quietly through the throng my nerves are not soothed by the site of a child holding a pistol to his head and grinning. I am reassured by the site of the fat controller holding up the loser of the bout. He is pretending to cry and yells at me, “tell the chicken lovers it’s a massacre!”
His joviality is contagious. The audience at a cockfight are not the cream of Manila society. They are the slum dwellers, the migrants from the countryside and the gamblers and the gangsters. It is slightly disconcerting to see this intimidating crew join in with the joke. They all start piping their eyes and bawling, pointing to the dead chicken and shouting.
A warm beer is pressed into my hand as the mock tears transform into drunken, Sunday afternoon laughter. In the ring the contests go on and the corpses pile up.
When it comes to the pecking order of life the chicken rates as the world’s great under achiever. The bottom of the heap. A bird that can’t fly. In Asia they are hung from the back of motorbikes, crammed into baskets, tied up in musty sacks and flung from the top of buses. In the West they live and die in vast concentration camps where they are treated worse than plants. Somehow, in the scheme of things, being pampered and preened before taking your chance on getting lethally stabbed by a fellow chicken seems positively benign. One thing is for sure. The chicken has reason to be angry.