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The art of betting on a Chinese cockfight

Poetic Justice

It was in all the news earlier this year when a California man, José Luis Ochoa, died after the blade tied to a fighting cock’s spur sliced an artery in his leg causing him to bleed to death. For some animal rights activists this was poetic justice in an instance of animal cruelty. This man participated in a game where two roosters, armed with sharp blades, were forced to fight to the death for the amusement and profit of men.


When we had first crossed the New Bridge into Xishuangbanna’s main city of Jinghong, I had been intrigued to see all of the Thai-style temple roofs. My excitement turned to surprise and then a cocktail of confusion and disappointment when I got closer to the buildings and realized that none of them were Buddhist temples but instead bars, restaurants and hotels. This wasn’t the first time I saw this sort of cultural capitalism in Yunnan, China. A couple of days before we had been in Zhongdian, now renamed Shangri-la, where the Tibetan culture was being represented in the form of Tibetan-themed hotels and a movie theatre that looked like the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Here in Jinghong, Thai roofs were on everything from new high-rise apartments to small soymilk stands.


Nearly a month after Ochoa’s death, about 1,000 roosters in Ventura County, California were confiscated after a cockfight bust and 16 men were arrested. Because of the roosters’ “aggressive nature” they were all euthanized.

Whitest Guy In The Room

We knew exactly what it was when we saw it, two rooster profiles carved from wood on the front of the building showed that there was nothing to hide. I asked my girlfriend, Daphne, if we could go have a look. She was tired enough from the heat to agree to anything that involved shade. As we stepped inside it took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the South China sun to the large room’s darkness. When they did, I saw over a hundred pairs of eyes staring right at us. We had everyone’s attention.

Health Considerations

In 2004 Thailand temporarily banned cockfighting when it was found that gamecocks were transmitting Avian Flu to people in parts of the country. The ban was eventually lifted the following year.

No Photo

One by one, the spectators at the cockfighting arena looked away from us and back to the center of the room where the real action was. One man tapped my shoulder, letting me know that I was welcome to watch but not to photograph. I gave an exaggerated smile and nod and turned my attention to the center of the room. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it wasn’t what I had expected.

Betting on Nature

The male chicken is a territorial animal and a polygamous one. Looking over a roost of hens, it is naturally inclined to fight other males to defend his harem. The cockfight was harnessed into a sport as much as 2,000 years ago with its roots in Asia and later spread into B.C.E. Greece. Today, legal and illegal cockfights take place on every continent, except perhaps Antarctica. What most animal rights activists will fail to mention is that not every fight is a fight to the death with knives.

The Rules of Engagement

In the center of the room, instead of a pit there was an elevated platform that looked like a miniature boxing ring. There was no blood on the floor, there were hardly even feathers, and nobody was yelling, the spectators mostly just busied their mouths with cigarettes and beer. Daphne and I watched several matches as we went back and forth with each other on what we thought was going on. By the time someone decided to be friendly towards us and explain the rules, we had already pretty much figured it out.

First, two cocks are placed on either side of the ‘boxing’ ring by two handlers. These handlers work for the house, they are not the owners of the cocks. The cocks then try to push each other out of the ring and onto the floor. The whole thing lasts seconds, sometimes just half of one. The winner is placed on a pedestal in a yellow wicker cage and the loser is taken away. A white Styrofoam cooler is then brought out with a new mystery cock inside. Participants bet on whether the winning cock will win again or whether he will lose to his mysterious rival. A whistle is blown and the betting stops. Only then is the challenger removed from his white box. If the cocks do not fight or they both fall off the platform at nearly the same time then the whistle is blown and they are lifted up by the handlers and put back in the ring to try again.

Gambling and China

Gambling has been a major part of Chinese life for millennia but it is officially illegal to gamble in present day China. However, gambling laws are largely ignored and the clattering of mahjong tiles is heard before they are even seen. Outside of Jinghong’s cockfighting arena, a sign reads that the maximum entertainment fee is 10 RMB. This is, however, the minimum bet.

The Game

The two cocks stared at each other, twitching their head from side to side. Neither one moved. The judge blew his whistle, the handlers picked up the cocks and put them right back down, grounding them onto the platform with a couple of pushes. As they stepped away the cocks went back to their staring contest, neither moved again. The judge blew his whistle but before the handlers could grab either fowl, one of them made a jump towards the other. The action was too swift for his rival to react but it proved to be unnecessary for him to do so. The cock had jumped too far, missing his opponent and going straight out of the ring and onto the floor. The whistle blows and a seemingly confused rooster is lifted from the ring and placed onto a pedestal.

The Wager

Half of the spectators left their plastic seats as soon as the round was done and crowded the bar to place their next bet. An old hunchbacked man who was anywhere from 80 to 120-years-old got up slowly and made his way to the bar. In his mouth a cigarette was glued to his lip by dried saliva. One hand held a Red Bull and the other squeezed a lump of winning tickets. He moved so slowly that every time he got up to place a bet I worried that he wouldn’t make it before the whistle blew.

Now it was my turn to play. I promised Daphne that I would only place one bet and headed over to the cashier. I bought a 10RMB chip, the ‘legal’ maximum and went to place my bet. At the bar I had a choice between a yellow ticket for the champ or a white ticket for the challenger. The last winner had won four in a row and was looking out of breath so I decided to take my chances on the mystery cock in the white Styrofoam cooler.

The Next Game

Out from the Styrofoam cooler comes an old rooster with molting white and black speckled feathers and a dubbed comb and wattles. The crowd buzzes and I am not impressed by the appearance of my chosen bird. The match began, the veteran champ flew at his opponent instantly and the challenger seemed confused, just barely dodging his attack. The champ makes another leap with wings spread and head rolled back knocking the challenger out with a double kick.

So much for my gambling career.

In Defense of the Sport

The fate and propagation of the chicken has been tied to humanity since their domestication a few thousand years ago. One argument made by cockfighting supporters is that while some chickens are slaughtered for food from only 8 to 10 weeks of age, a fighting cock doesn’t fight until it is one or two years old. Champion cocks are even allowed to retire after enough battles. Cockfighting is outlawed in all 50 States and most of Europe but KFC isn’t. Some even argue that it is less violent than hunting. A cockfight is a fair battle between two equals who fight each other by choice, whereas hunting is a man with a gun versus a lesser species that wants no part of it.

One Last Match

“There are you happy now? Can we go?” Daphne pleaded, clearly bored now after nearly an hour. I got her to agree to one more fight. The fight began and the champ made the first strike. The challenger dodged skillfully and jumped into a counter attack. Wings flailed and both birds were in the air, kicking and pecking. Suddenly, they separated and commenced a staring competition that lasted long enough to get a whistle. Next round, the champ made the first strike again but its opponent evaded, causing the champ to fly off. But before victory could be declared, the challenger jumped right off after it to continue the fight on the floor. The whistle was blown and the fighters separated. They entered the next round just as fiercely, the challenger managed to push the champ off but landing on the edge of the platform, followed down after. Placed back in the ring, exhausted, the birds breathed heavily and stared at each other again, but before the whistle could blow another draw, the birds whipped into action. After a couple of near falls, the former champ knocked his opponent out, finally managing to stay in the ring long enough to assert his victory.

The crowd was making a heap of commotion at the conclusion of this bout. This was the best fight of the day. “Wow, that was pretty cool,” Daphne admitted. I could only agree. “Shall we watch one more?”

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