As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
Ubud, Bali. The towering shops and bar crawls of Australia-dominated Kuta is replaced by yoga workshops, upmarket clothes shops, reiki chakra massages and vegan cafes in of the Eat, Pray, Love crowd. The town serves as a hub for western health and ethical lifestyles and a living museum to primitive culture, or at least what tourists believe to be indigenous.
The Kecak, or monkey dance, as it’s sometimes called, is performed in Hindu temples to a regular audience of camera-wiedling holiday-makers. As you may have seen in Ron Fricke’s film Baraka, the Kecak features a large group of topless Balinese males, sat layered in a semi circle, chant to a polyrythmic chrous of “cak cak cak” in hypnotic fashion. This wall of sound forms the ambiance to which the Hindu play, based on India’s Ramayana, is performed. As the play progresses, the chanting men gradually transform into monkeys.
It’s easy for us to believe we’re experiencing a portal to a deep-rooted culture from a forgotten time – it was actually invented by a foreign resident, named Walter Spies, a German artist in the 1930s who blended the pre-existing exorcist chants of the sacred Sangyang dance with imagery from Indian poem.
He then sold and packaged the show to Western tourists to be displayed in Bali’s temples and beaches, as we witness an impressively staged representation of seemingly authentic Balinese culture. Heritage tourism has become big business for brand Bali, and a massive draw for seekers of the exotic.
By combining the two separate sources, Spie’s hybrid creation was a cultural exaggeration of the primitive to generate touristic voyeurism and excitement. It’s the perfect spectacle – a visually dazzling, aurally captivating adrenaline rush with a feeling of being whisked into the past for a short time.
This isn’t the locals’ choice for a hit of spiritual engagement.
Cockfighting. These colonially-constructed cultural showcases stand in place of what used to be a less ornate, but more localized form of entertainment. Prior to the Dutch invasion in 1908, cockfighting rings used to be at the heart of every Balinese village. In fact, taxation of this bloodsport was a primary source of public revenue. They were, and still are, held on temple grounds, sometimes using the events as a blood offering to appease their gods and warn off illness, crop failure and volcanic eruptions. For this reason, on the day before Bali’s harvest season commences there simultaneous cockfights in every village on the island.
It’s technically illegal, therefore it’s an act of underground rebellion. You do not talk about Ubud Fight Club.
These men’s gatherings in semi secrecy represent an escape from Bali’s consumer culture, where mens’ warrior identities have become packaged and commodified. Here a more primal ancestral relationship to masculinity is carried out. These are arenas where Balinese men can reclaim their sense of identity, removing the colonially-constructed ideals invented for them by outsiders.
They establish this with their cocks. It’s true that a thousand puns can be made with this phallic term, but it’s also a similar sounding word in Balinese, so the joke is not lost in translation. The owners spend much time grooming their cocks, taking good care of them and show them off to a baying audience. The metaphor impossible to ignore.
Animals have low status in Bali, but in Bali’s fight clubs, men are forced to identify with their animal alter egos, as a chorus of chanting by the betting masses, circled around the main area of play bares more than a passing resemblance to the more commercialised routine of the Kecak. It’s not hard to imagine that Spies took inspiration from the energy and raw experience in these events and repackaged them for the more art-minded consumer.
Like the Kecak, It’s a focused gathering, a set of energetic local tribes engaged in continuous flow. It’s traditional. It’s very ‘cultural’. Yet if many of the health and well-being crowd from Ubud’s spa-sect stumbled upon this truly authentic experience they may be put off a return visit to the island. Maybe they’d find it tasteless, unacceptable to their Western modern standards. It would get the animal cruelty stamp. It certainly wouldn’t garner a sponsorship from one of the numerous nearby vegan restaurants.
Comparisons can be made to Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, secret societies where geographically-diffused men flock wishing to revive a part of themselves. Fight Club saw a feminised generation of men raised by women seeking a more primal outlet to their packaged consumer lifestyle. A rejection of consumerism ,or in Bali, commercialized representations of their ancestral lifestyles, is enacted by fighting, cutting through the post-colonial counterfeits to the immediacy of living.
How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?
Since cockfighting has been around before the Dutch invasion, post-colonial comparisons and reasoning can appear somewhat academic. Yet it’s precisely because neocolonial Bali is firmly in place that the threads of true tradition have been led underground.
Another film that can encompasses these ideas would be 1994’s Once Were Warriors, which centres around sections of New Zealand’s Maori population that gather in pubs attempting to reclaim a displaced sense of masculinity by fighting in their ‘tribes’. This is carried out in the underbelly of a country that’s been gradually commercializing elements of indigenous culture for tourism and international representation at sports events and dance tours.
The tribal element is present at the rings here. Friends back other friends’ cocks, villagers bet on their own against outsiders and excitement is raised, along with the amount of bets, when men of high status enter the ring. This is more than quick Sunday escape – it’s a national sport, a way of life.
Some folk literally ‘bet the farm’ on the outcome of a single fight, which usually only last for a minute. It’s a far cry from Ubud’s Colonic Hydrotherapy Centre, but as Tyler Durden says in Fight Club: “Self-improvement is masturbation, maybe self-destruction is the answer”. Marla Singer, the book’s femme fetale says of her own voyeuristic cancer group visits: “Funerals are nothing compared to this. Funerals are all abstract ceremony. Here, you have the real experience of death.” There’s no abstraction at Bali’s fight clubs. No leaflet handed out at the door. What you encounter is visceral, violent and unsympathetic to any Western standards of political correctness.
The day I took these photographs, I had a vegan burger in Ubud for breakfast, went for a bike ride along the rice paddies and stumbled across the cockfighting by chance ten minutes out of town. I headed back for a massage and finished the evening with a viewing of the Kecak, which I’d been excited to see since my first viewing of Baraka.
Both the Kecak and the cockfighting events are a stimulating cultural experience. Even if the the Bali that most visitors see itself isn’t wholly authentic, does it really matter? After all, ignorance, especially for the ethical tourist coming to eat, pray and love themselves for a week, is bliss.
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