Author and S&C co-founder Tom Sykes‘ new ‘political travelogue’, The Realm of the Punisher, is published today by Signal Books. It records the last nine years’ of Tom’s visits to the Philippines, a country now in the grip of a deadly anti-drugs war led by the authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte. This excerpt, which Tom will be performing alongside a visual presentation by reportage illustrator Louis Netter at the official book launch on Tuesday 27th November, concerns one of the Philippines’ oldest blood sports.
When I sat down to watch a cockfight (local term: sabong) at Roligon Mega stadium in Parañaque City, I realized that the Duterte sensation wasn’t new, or not as new as some pundits held it to be. In the taxi there I’d been reading about caciques. This was what the first Spanish adventurers called the headmen of indigenous societies they encountered in Asia and the Americas. Incidentally, cockfighting had been a popular pursuit in these societies since perhaps 3000 BC. The Italian intellectual and explorer Antonio Pigafetta, who accompanied Ferdinand Magellan on his voyage around the Philippines in 1521, wrote of the Luzon natives he met, ‘They have some rather large domestic cocks, which, from some superstition, they do not eat, but they keep them for fighting; on such occasions they make bets and offer prizes, which are acquired by the owner of the conquering cock.’
In the Philippines, the term caciquismo came to mean government by strongmen or warlords. Throughout the twentieth century, foreign commentators viewed the cacique as a cross between Don Corleone and Saddam Hussein. Feared and respected, he had unquestioned dominance over a village or province. Macho and charismatic, he’d steer the public consciousness by whipping up envy, resentment and vengefulness, as well as pride, compassion and community spirit. Caciquismo was no meritocracy. If you sought political influence, talent or qualifications were less important than having blood ties with the cacique or belonging to his faction. The cacique kept his constituents happy through bribery and patronage, and controlled them with threats both covert and overt. His first loyalties were to these parochial supporters, which was why he thought in local rather than national or global terms. Selfish and survival-oriented, the cacique could be callous and vindictive, and would indulge in the ‘routine use of violence’, as the Philippine historian Reynaldo Ileto puts it. Ileto also argues that these Western idées fixes about the cacique are condescendingly simplistic and have been used to excuse years of foreign meddling in the ‘pre-political’ Philippines.
That said, it was difficult not to think of some of these characteristics when the cockfight commenced. Two beefy men in their twenties strutted into the ring and placed their respective cockerels – one white, one red – on two painted circles about ten feet apart. Looking confused, the birds flapped their wings and skittered in a clockwise direction for a good thirty seconds. Then they appeared to notice each other’s presence. Red took tentative, jerky steps towards White and the game was on. With poor coordination, the cocks jumped up and kicked each other with their spurs, which resemble scaled-down elephant trunks. Red kept overjudging his leaps, flying straight over White and landing behind him. The pair would often collide breast-to-breast like frat boys doing chest-bumps.
As the scrap wore on, after these collisions the cocks would, like boxers clinching, take a break, nestling in each others’ hackles. And, not unlike a boxing match, the shaven-headed koyme (referee) would separate them by picking them up by their backs, bumping their beaks together several times in quick succession and then setting them back down to get on with it.
A minute later, White looked diminished. He couldn’t be bothered to jump. He couldn’t flap with the same gusto. He was keen to rest in the bosom of his opponent whenever the option arose. When White lost the use of his little legs, Red – rather unsportingly, I thought – trampled all over him and then, for good measure, turned round to savage him with a few pecks. The koyme seized the birds and banged their heads together. When he put them down, White didn’t move. He stayed face-down, his handsome tail feathers aloft and shaking faintly. That was a kill, or near enough.
Red’s owner ferried him over to the koyme who lifted Red’s right leg and attached to it a plastic victor’s tag. There was something pathetic about the whole affair. The fluster, ungainliness, bad sportsmanship, miskicks and mis-pecks felt like a parody of a drunken brawl between two human males who, despite their bungling, believe they are heavyweight champions or kung-fu black belts. I returned mentally to Duterte, whose spiritual fragility and moral weakness grew more evident with each brag, taunt and snarl.
After the bout was over, the crowd constructed a seething wall of sound around the glass fencing of the ring while men with shoulder bags in white polo shirts, ‘bet taker’ written on the backs, offered a medley of gestures to the patrons, also all men, as far as I could see. The bet takers pitched ‘OK’ signs, waggled their forefingers, held up multiples of digits, made Hitleresque salutes and waved downwards as if drying nail varnish (this vaguely messianic move has earned these men the nickname kristo). The frantic transactions happened in every part of the stadium: along the fawn stucco balconies at the top, amid the red and blue plastic seats ranging below them and at ringside, where the frenzy of windmilling arms, rotating waists and tiptoe reaches took on the impression of an elaborate dance.
These hand-and-arm permutations made me think once more of Duterte. Seldom is he pictured without pointing accusatorily, giving the middle finger or waving cockily to his fans. The cock wave, you might call it.
Buy the book here.
Book launch is free, at the Eldon Building on Tuesday and open to the public.
Image by Louis Netter.