Cockfighting is said to date back to the days of the ancient Greeks in western culture, and back generations in the cultures of the Philippines and other Asian nations. Fighting two sturdy roosters armed with sharp blades attached to their
Cockfighting is said to date back to the days of the ancient Greeks in western culture, and back generations in the cultures of the Philippines and other Asian nations. Fighting two sturdy roosters armed with sharp blades attached to their feet was common in nineteenth century Hawaii, and may have been brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants.
Today, cockfighting and cockfighters are in the news as new federal and state laws are being enacted to control the movement of fighting cocks across state lines, and to end legalized cockfighting.
In Hawaii, where cockfighting is a crime, bills have been proposed to make it a spectator sport with legalized arena, like those found in Louisiana and other Mainland states. Some estimate that over 250,000 people actively participate in cockfighting across the United States. In the Philippines it is a national sport with leading politicians participating.
On Kauai and other Hawaiian Islands, cockfighting carries a mystique to some, and is a dreaded practice to others. Those favoring the practice say its part of Hawaii’s cultural heritage and a popular sport; those opposing it say it is a vicious way to treat animals.
Kauai-raised documentary filmmaker Stephanie Castillo, who now resides in Honolulu, is the maker of a new eight-hour-long videotape/DVD production she calls “Cockfighters: The Interviews.”
“What I wanted to do in this film is show (cockfighting) to people and let them make their own minds up,” Castillo said, “to make a more informed decision. I’m not giving it to (the cockfighters) and saying take it to their Legislature. Animal rights people could take it themselves.”
“What it did for me was to give me an understanding of my own cultural heritage, and my grandfather, who did it day in and day out for 50 years,” she said.
A brief look at the massive amount of material she has on tape is available in a 12-minute short culled from the hours of interviews that appear in the full version.
The short, as do the interviews, feature mostly legal Mainland cockfighters and “combat fowl” raisers in Utah, Louisiana, Mississippi and other states, along with a look at cockfighting in Hawaii, and in the Philippines.
“The inspiration was my grandfather” Juan Castillo, the documentary maker said in a phone interview from Honolulu. “I always wondered what cockfighting was about because my grandfather did it for 50 years.”
She said she attended cockfights when she was an elementary school student at St. Catherine’s in Kapaa in the 1950s.
“My dad was in the Army, and my grandfather lived in Kapaa Heights, up Kawaihau Road,” she said.
In those days, she recalled, the cockfights were held at Kealia in the plantation camps. “I heard there were some in Kapaa town,” she added. “I remember driving down a dirt road, sugar cane growing along the road and lots of cars parked.”
Castillo said the cockfighting arena was a wooden and tin structure, with a big open area inside. The arena has booths with walls, card games were going on, and a kitchen was open with woman selling Filipino food. The roof space above the fighting pit was left open.
“I remember being amazed at the sight,” she said. “I didn’t feel anything in particular about the birds fighting, (I do remember) people being very excited. Part of my unawareness was because my grandmother used to pull off a chicken from the yard for dinner, she would wack its head off and serve it for dinner. Death and birds were not that unusual at that time.
She said the cockfights were a family event, with lots of kids running around, lots of grandparents. “Like a get together, a pretty happy environment.”
Castillo said her grandfather came to Hawaii to work in a pineapple field, but ended up never having to pick a pineapple. “He first ran a pool hall first thing in Honolulu, at Queen and Ward Streetsin the pink building that’s still there. Then he moved to Kauai when some of his hui came over from the Philippines. It was cards and birds. He might have been a gambler, but I came to understand doing this documentary that he was a game fowl enthusiast. He loved this red rooster he got from a Chinese guy in Hanalei, who got them from the Mainland. He groomed and conditioned them.”
She made the film after being offered funding to make a documentary of her choice. Most recently, Castillo produced a documentary about Filipinos from Hawaii and California who fought in the Philippines during World War II.
“I said how do I find cockfighters in Hawaii?,” she said. “I started on the Internet and found some guys that basically never answered me. Then I thought, I’ll start looking on the Mainland. I Called Paul Romias in Waianae. From Paul I found other people willing to talk.”
Some of those on film are backers of a legislative bill that would legalize cockfighting in Hawaii.
Some were “older guys, who remembered the old days,” she said.
“The plantation wanted it there, so it would hold the Filipinos to the plantation,” Castillo said. “Then other ethic groups got interested.”
Police would raid the cockfights if they were held outside the plantation, and the raid gained a reputation for being very violent, she said.
“The fact is now we have laws that you can only arrest the pitter (the people fighting the birds) and guys holding the fights, who are called a promoter; they’re basically fined,” she said. “I’ve heard there is cockfighting on Kauai, and that the police take notice when off-island guys come over. They see birds coming into the airport. That’s when they crack down. When its between island folk, (the police) are more harassing then anything else.”
She said because of the legal crackdown on cockfighting and on raising fighting chickens those involved have become “basically demonized they don’t want to admit doing it except to family and each other n it’s stigmatized.”
Castillo said she went to a cockfight on Oahu before she started filming on the Mainland.
“It was my first time going to a cockfight since I was a little girl, I felt like that in modern-day Hawaii this is like a third world activity that would surprise a lot of people what it is like, it’s like being in another world. It a sight that just amazes you because you don’t see it anywhere else.”
She said nothing much happens until about an hour before the cockfight starts.
“First they match up birds; the owners and the birds eye each other, giving some signals,” she said. “They weigh the birds, and (the cockfighters) are given a playing card that represents the fighting order. It’s an amazing process to see guys stand across from each other to find a match, with few words said, no shouting or talking just looking. This goes on for about 40 minutes, almost an hour. Then they go back to the pens, out in parking lot and wait for fights to began. There’s a four-minute limit for fights to move the fights along, consequently, there’s a lot of draws because the other bird has to die to win.”
Castillo said cockfighting is a male sport, though there are some woman involved.
“It’s predominately men fighting the birds n male energy,” she said. “As I did this film, I was trying to understand the male psyche, what makes men put knifes on birds. That’s a very cultural question. Filipinos use a long knife to get the fight over fast, and also as a way of creating an aspect of luck or fate. The Mainland guys use a gaff fight, like a prolonged fight, they like to see characteristics of the fight so they can check the bloodline of the chicken, what they value is the precision and skill.”
The extended interviews show the complex system of training that begins when a rooster is about two years old.
“It’s as complicated as horseraising,” Castillo said.
As for the future of cockfighting, Castillo said she came away with a mixed opinion.
She said: “Oklahoma has made it illegala misdemanor(there’s an effort to) totally kill it in New Mexico, efforts of humane societies, that’s no secret. The last stronghold will be Southern California, where its considered a cultural sport.”
She also sees Louisiana as a stronghold, with cockfighting part of the Cajun tradition brought from Canada almost 200 years ago.
In Hawaii she sees cockfighting as thriving.
“From what young people tell me, Yeah I go to cockfights all the time, (I hear it) on all the islands,” she said.
She sees gambling at the root of cockfighting’s popularity in Hawaii, as well as because it is a tradition that has flourished in the islands for generations.
Cockfighting is seen as a sport by its participants, she added. “It’s very exciting and dramatic for some people; men who are not cockfighters who are most interested.”