While it should be noted that a good many Cebuanos have no interest in cockfights, especially the better educated ones, cockfighting is a nonetheless a national obsession and huge industry. I went to a cockfight to investigate what makes cockfighting so compelling for the great majority of Cebuanos.
Cockpits are strictly regulated. There are two types, legal and illegal. There are all sorts of restrictions for legal cockpits, such as, they are not allowed to be near a school, or only one is allowed per 100,000 citizens; these regulations are determined by the Cockfighting Law of 1974, and Presidential Decree No. 449. Legal cockpits, called sabongan, are taxed by municipal governments.
Because of the restrictions, illegal cockpits are common, especially during fiestas. Unlike the permanent, legal cockpits, they tend to be in the open air. These are called tigbakay. Cebu City's current mayor, Tommy Osmea, seems to tolerate them, although he has cracked down hard on video gambling machines. "It's a way of life," he says. I've been told that the mayor has unsuccessfully tried to legalize the tigbakay, in order to raise revenues for the city, and to cut out another source of bribes for policemen.
Before I ever visited a cockfighting arena, it quickly became clear to me that cockfighting plays a prominent role in life in the Philippines. Gamecocks are everywhere; you can scarcely walk five yards without coming across a gamecock
tied to a string. The lucky ones have their own little huts, essentially two boards of wood leaning against each other, forming a triangular entrance on both sides. Television constantly bombards the national audience with ads for supplements for fighting cocks. These drugs, with names like Thunderbird and Vermex, are even sold at pharmacies. For some reason cock owners are always carrying their birds around, under the arm or in a cardboard box with air holes.
I'm not sure if this is true, but I've been told that the reason Cebuano chickens crow wildly in the middle of the night is that they've been pumped full of steroids to the extent that they've lost their minds.
Apparently there is a lot of money involved in the cockfighting industry. In a derby - I have to admit that I have no idea how a derby differs from a usual day of cockfighting - bets will run into the hundreds of thousands of pesos (thousands of dollars). These are enormous sums in the Philippines. The cocks, if hailed as champions, can trade hands for equally large amounts. However, normal bets at normal cockfights are usually no more than 500 pesos, and often considerably less.
Cockfights are held according to a regular schedule, such as Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. These schedules are not advertised; the locals just know them. You can recognize a cockfighting arena by the architecture: a fairly tall, roughly circular structure has a large main roof and a smaller roof on top of the larger roof, with a band of space between the small roofs, for ventilation.
I went to cockfight on the outskirts of Toledo City on a Sunday afternoon. When I exited my vehicle in the parking lot I was greeted by a deafening roar of human voices. You would surmise that, as at a boxing fight, this roar is attributable to the audience cheering on their bets.
You would be wrong.
The noise is deafening between fights because bookies - who are peppered throughout the audience - solicit bets by gesturing wildly and yelling at the top of their voices. Once the fight starts, you could hear a pin drop, as the audience pays intense attention to the happenings in the ring. This makes sense, I suppose, since chickens wouldn't understand the cheering anyway.
The chickens are brought out by the handlers - I think these must be houseboys or others employed by the owners - and the blades attached to their legs are wiped with a rag. This is, I assume, to ensure that the blades are free of poison. Then the chickens are forcibly worked into a rage. There is a system for this. First, one chicken will be allowed to peck the other, which is being held down by its owner. Then it's the other chicken's turn. Lastly, the chickens are allowed to peck each other simultaneously. By this time the birds are usually mad enough to go at each other.
A fight can be over quickly or it can drag on to the extent that the birds lose interest. When that happens, the referee will then pick up the two birds, one in each hand, and hold them towards each other until they start fighting again. When the fight is over the blades are removed, the floor is swept clean, and the whole thing starts all over again.
Often, the birds are similar in appearance. I have absolutely no idea how the birds are differentiated. In fact, despite my best attempts to find out more - I was asking far too many questions for comfort - I still don't quite understand exactly how the betting system works. Neither do most Cebuanos who are not regular visitors to cockfights.
What I did manage to determine is that the gamecock owners sit in an airconditioned room while the ordinary punters sweat it out in the stands, that the losing chicken is given to the owner of the winner, and that cockfighting is - no matter how much you will insist that it is a way of life - a cruel and ugly pastime.
But perhaps therein lies its appeal. Impoverished Filipinos have to take so much crap in their everyday existence that I have often wondered why a huge uprising of the poor masses, with ordinary folk grabbing their machetes and taking the lives and property of the mestizo and Chinese elite, has not occurred - as has often happened in neighboring Indonesia. It could be that the ubiquitous cockfights are a way for people to quench their bloodlust.