Monday, October 25, 2010

Cockfighting in Xishuanbanna

Cockfighting might as well be synonymous with animal abuse in the western world. But what I didn't know was that it is also exciting, fun and much less cruel than I had expected. What started as an off-the-beaten track travel curiosity turned into a full on culture experience.

Xishuanbanna is a prefecture in Yunnan province in southern China, a stone's throw away from Myanmar. Primarily populated with the Dai people, a close ethnic relative of Thais, in fact Xishanbanna can be considered China's little Thailand. Cockfighting seems to be an integral part of life. Farmers in the villages raises skinny fighting roosters and sells them for lots of cash. In the biggest city, JingHong, there is a cockfighting association where matches occurs daily until late in the evening.

Our travels took us in to the heart of the Xishuanbanna Cockfighting Association.

The association is located in a two story building with a courtyard. The lower level is open on three sides, and in the center of the floor, on a slightly raised platform, is a miniature boxing ring. Surrounded on three sides by plastic chairs, the remaining side of the ring is occupied by the referee and members of the house.  On the far side, opposite the referee and behind all the chairs, are series of long tables. That is the betting desk.

Cockfighting Ring

It took us a few minutes to understand how the system works. From a small room tucked away in a corner of the building we exchanged cash into plastic cards, akin to casino chips. It is interesting to note that gambling is illegal in China and a sign in the courtyard states that the maximum entertainment amount that can be played for is ¥10. Of course everyone ignores that advice. This is China after all.

There are two corners in the miniature boxing ring. The yellow (gold) corner, has a cage with one rooster and in the opposite white (silver) corner, there is a white box with the challenger rooster. It is designed so that we can see which rooster is in the yellow corner, but the identity of the rooster in the white corner is kept hidden until all bets are placed. After every match, the white box is taken to a hole in the back wall, and some unknown entity behind it switches the challenge rooster and pushes the box back out of the hole. Every now and then the yellow rooster is also swapped out. And as far as we can tell, the switching algorithm is completely random.

Bets are placed at the betting desk, staffed entirely by women. The bettors are, without exception, all men. Bets are accepted only in ¥10 increments. You can bet either on yellow or white. Upon winning, we get a payout of 190%. So for a ¥10 bet, we can win ¥19. The staff at the betting desk hands out either a yellow slip of paper or a white slip of paper, with the amount written on the slip. As we will see later, this is a major loophole that I exploited much to my amusement.

Once the head honcho at the betting desk signals bets are finished, the referee blows the whistle and the match begins. Two handlers go and fetch the two roosters out of their respective corners. That is when we get to see the white rooster for the first time. These roosters are made to face each other across a line painted in the ring. Once both of them have both of their feet firmly planted on the mat, the referee blows the whistle again and the handlers release the roosters. And the fight is on.

The fight is won by the rooster that knocks the other out of the ring. Sometimes this happens really fast. A rooster will fly over the head of the other one in an attack and in the process flings himself out of the ring and loses the fight. Other times this is a long and tedious process, with each rooster pecking and scratching the hell out of the other until one is thrown out of the ring. And then there are times that it doesn't happen at all. We've seen roosters engaging in staring contests and not making a single move until the referee blows the whistle marking a draw. In the case of a draw, another round is initiated between the same two roosters until one rises in triumph. Draws can also happen when both roosters fall out of the ring at nearly the same time. Of course the more rounds the fight goes, the more more exiting the match becomes. Although in 90% of the case, the fight is done in one round.

I had expected the fight to be bloody and ruthless. But it is neither of those things. Of course the rooster does not get a say whether it wants to fight or not. There is no choice. Some of the roosters seem to have been through quite a few fights and feathers on their necks have been long plucked out by rivals. But all the roosters gets to live and fight another day.

Now about the loophole. Since everyone is given either a yellow or white slip based on which rooster they bet on, it is immediately obvious who bet on what. We noticed that one guy seems to be betting for the house and putting down quite high amounts for each bet. So we just followed his bets. He didn't win every time, because that would be a blatant indication of cheating by the house, but he won more than he lost. And so I was able to turn a ¥10 investment into ¥76 at one point just by exploiting this information leak.

I know it's probably wrong to admit this, but cockfighting is a lot of fun. I was entertained for more than 2 hours with only ¥10, which is about $1.50 converted to US dollars. Given how there are not many places in the modern world left where this can be enjoyed, I certainly relish this unique travel experience.