Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mike-diary: Cockfight at Yen Son

I must say that I do not perceive my husband as he was portrayed in the "plump and red" story earlier, nor as he paints himself here. His long blond hair may be gone, and he may be a little cuddly around the middle, but I say that he's cute. While he is off in Vietnam as a volunteer academic neurologist, he is, however, a wild man who has, indeed, hunted in the Yukon and the Crazy Mountains. He also has had a plethora of other hobbies--hand quilting and repairing key-wound antique toys and endlessly on.

Dispatches from IndoChine

The Viet Namese have a mythic past. A romantic liason between a goddess and a dragon produced these people of the eastern coastal plains. The goddess' legacy is seen in the fair face and form of the Vietnamese ladies. And the dragon's blood courses through the veins of the indominable men, each a warrior-king, who protect the motherland from the rapacious world.

With a degree of complexity that only an Asian would choose to place upon an idea, the element of the noi, the dragon is everywhere. The word means river, and this has some resonance, in that rivers, like dragons, are sinuous and powerful and give life to the people. The noi in Ha Noi refers to this. The name of the capital means "Land Between the Rivers." But the dragon sons of Vietnam were not satisfied with such a largely peaceful emblem of their dragon-ness, so they sought a more hot-blooded symbol of the dragon. And what better place to turn when one was looking for a surrogate dragon than to chickens. Well, roosters specifically, the ga noi. This proto-chicken is of ancient lineage and his bearing attests to his barnyard noblity. His fierce mien, his red, naked head, chest and legs and his proclivity to kill any rival caught glancing at his womenfolk all mark him as, if not sired by dragons, at least touched by the dragon spirit.

The ga noi was first mentioned 700 years ago. It seems that, once again, the Chinese were threatening the northern border of the Viet people. Through numbers and persistence, it appeared the Han might this time succeed in suppressing the Free and Patriotic People of the Dragon. And what of the Viet army; why were they faltering in their duty? Because of chicken fights. It seems that the Viet army, rather than engage the enemy with the ferocity demanded by the occasion, spent their days in camp drinking rice wine and watching chicken fights. Well, really, if you were given the choice between a head-throbbing drunk and some blood sport on one hand, and the risk of being impaled on a spear, which would you select? But the Viet general would not listen to such unpatriotic reasonableness and penned a strong letter to his men. He wisely exhorted them to adopt the philosophy of the ga noi, and encouraged his men to put on their fighting spurs and tread upon the hated Han. And history shows this call to emulate the mighty bantam had its good effect, much to the pain and embarrassment of the Chinese.

The ga noi is the product of a fierce hen; then the poults pass through a series of selection stages based on features such as the thigh-shank ratio, the pattern of scales, the diameter of the neck, etc. But perhaps the most discussed attribute of the ga noi is "the stare." If you do a Boolean search on the internet linking "ga noi" and "stare" you will find a lot of interesting pictures of chickens staring at cameras. For a moment, consider the long history of the depictive arts, from the Caves of Lascaux to my Kodak Easyshare. Then consider the span of communication technology, from the smoke signal to the advent of satellites and transoceanic cables. That this millennial progression of two great human endeavors might culminate in teenage boys taking pictures of yard fowl staring at a camera is the best evidence that I have ever encounter proving that God exists, and is at heart a very whimsical fellow. The stare is supposed to reflect the unrelenting desire of the bantam to spur his opponent to death. It is akin to the stare down at the beginning of a boxing match. But boxers can tell you why they stare--with chickens one is left with an uncomfortable degree of speculation. Perhaps they are just wondering if something might be edible.

Despite the much debated value of the stare, there are several champion chickens who have lost one or both eyes in the ring and continue to go on to trample opponents. So the value of the stare is perhaps exaggerated.

I very much wanted to watch the chicken fights while in Hanoi. At this point let me confess that I am an unrepentant celebrant of the bloody past times. Hunting, coursing, cockfights, horse racing, bullfights: I find the pageantry, history, and plain thrills so great as to supersede any moral borborigmy that might arise from the more humane among us. I do draw the line at dog fighting, which is rather like wrapping pate in bacon, simply too rich an exercise not to expect to later regret.

I put out a call to practically every Vietnamese waitstaff, bellhop, cabbies (who in general are very poor in their English skills and not the least repentant), and desk staff. I even asked one of the physicians at the Tropical Diseases Hospital, who responded with a look that suggested I might as well have asked if his sister might be free for an hour or two later that evening. The responses were typical in their Vietnameseishness. An elide to other topics, or just misunderstanding. If I pressed the point, perhaps the more ill bred among them might admit that cockfighting did exist, but only among young men, or only during Tet, or only, if I would pardon the term, in the country.

So it was with some gladness that I meet Phoung, the 20ish year old girl who cleared dishes in the hotel breakfast room. She was fresh enough from the village not to know what should have been embarrassing, and she was so thrilled to misuse the English language with me. Yes, her brother was quite hot for the fighting chickens and yes, there were some fights in Hanoi, both professionals in arenas and talented amateurs at impromptu match-ups in the park. We quickly made a deal. I would take her out to eat if she would take me to the cockfights. The next night was chosen, I would meet her in the restaurant of the hotel at 7 p.m.

The next day I had a day trip to Ha Long bay and, suffice it to say that the Vietnamese buses do not have an orderly timetable. I arrive to meet Phoung at 9 p.m., red with rushing, embarrassment, and natural ruddy complexion. But Phoung was unperturbed. Her boss chided me for making her late, but young Phoung just seemed eager to express herself for the next few hours in almost magically unintelligible English.

We headed out. She led the way down alleys that seemed progressively darker and more dangerous. I was so elated! Image being a staid, fat, middle-aged American Sunday School teacher walking close at hand with a very pretty 20 year-old woman down madly twisting side streets in an exotic land on the way to a chicken fight. If a wizard promised to turn me into James Bond, I could not have been more thrilled.

We exited a foot path between two tenements and came upon an open square with what looked like a French colonial bus garage in the middle. Crowds of people milled around and I thought, "This must be the chicken fighting arena!" We elbowed our way through the crowds. I was clearly the only Caucasian for a pleasingly great distance. We came to the entrance. I looked inside but there were only stalls of day old fish and used trousers. We walked past the building and behind it there were a series of dining arrangements one might describe as one bump up from an hibachi on the sidewalk.

"I am now hungry" Phoung said, in her first interpretable phrase since we left the hotel. Through signs, charades, and attempts at human language she made it known that the dinner part of the deal came first.

"What should we have?" I asked.

She looked at me as if she suddenly doubted my intentions, then plucked and flapped her arms.

Good enough.

Cam Ga means chicken with rice and Cam Ga was soon on the plastic stool which served as our table. I thought I was quite facile with the old chopsticks, but Phoung offered a few master class pointers.

Then we started on the chicken. By "chicken," I mean the few titanium shreds that decorated the plate of chopped bones offered with a confidence I would have not exhibited if I put the plate in front of a raccoon. The phrase "ga choi" popped from Phoung's mouth between sucking marrow from the long bones. I gnawed on what would be considered breast meat and tried to understand her point. It wasn't until I followed the direction of her chop stick and looked at the painted bed sheet that formed the back wall of our restaurant that a whisper of understanding arose. There was depicted, with some degree of love and honest passion, an illustration of two game cocks, one cock-a-doodling in victory and the other x-eyed in defeat beneath the winner.

"I don't understand, are the fights behind that sheet?" I asked.

But while Phoung did not understand what I said, as happens often in Viet Nam, a voice with an Australian accent piped up behind me.

"The fights are in Yen Son, which is about 30 km from here".

I turned around to find a table of Vietnamese looking at me. Without a face to attach to the voice I turned back to Phoung, who was eating the shredded green onions that accompanied the chicken.

"They send the losers here to be cooked up."

I turned around quickly and realized one of the Vietnamese I had dismissed as an unlikely Australian was wearing a baseball cap that said "Melbourne".

"They cook the losers here?"

The Melbourne guy answered "Yes, that is why they are so stringy and tough. They are tough birds. And why waste a good chicken?"

I thought the "good" part was open to debate, but acknowledged in my heart that poor people are usually efficient.

The Melbourne guy--let's just call him Melbourne--went on to explain that the ga choi, dead fighting chickens, were especially sought after and were thought to pass their attributes of ferocity to the diner. Having chewed on one I can attest this contained some element of truth. But there was no chicken fighting here. Miss Phoung had somehow amalgamated the idea of dinner in exchange for the cockfights to dining on a participant from the pit.

Phoung was finished and "tin tin," the check was called for. I was surprised to find this was an ungodly expensive meal by Vietnamese standards: about $20. Melbourne explained that one paid a premium for ingesting the essence of the fighting chicken. Phoung, in her most lucid language yet, remarked that we should get back; her boyfriend was coming by on his moto to pick her up at the hotel at 11. There was a little chicken left, and she asked if she could have it for him.

The brisk walk back went, well, briskly. And pretty silent. I dropped her off with her boyfriend in front of the hotel. He looked mighty unpleased to see me, and I thought I saw a little of the chicken staring at a camera in the youth. But he seemed fully placated by the remains of the ga choi, and even patted me on the shoulder and offered an "American good" before putting away, Phoung sitting sidesaddle on the back, texting. She looked up and waved and smiled just as the moto rounded the corner.

There is a place called The Kangaroo right next door to my hotel. The smell of a grilling hamburger wafted out the kitchen vents. I could not say I was filled with the essence of the ga choi. And I dearly hungered for a hamburger.

* * *

Photograph (picked because it is a dragon and yet a bit cockish) courtesy of sxc.hu and Nelson Syozi of São Paulo, Brazil.

5 comments:

  1. Yes. Another adventure involving a woman!! And chickens. I will not be able to get the picture of a staring chicken out of my head now.

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  2. Dave,

    Yes, it's right up there with the unexpected bride!

    Robbi,

    All stories are better with chickens!

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  3. Oh, dear. Well, I can't imagine an interest more opposite to my own, but it made a good, but quease-making story!

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  4. Me too. Luckily I did not marry him to make him like me!

    Of course, when he was head resident at UNC-CH, he was introduced as the most literate resident in twenty years... He's well versed in many things, and probably has the best memory I have ever encountered--so is well able to talk about many fields.

    ReplyDelete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.