by Morton Holbrook III
As Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines in 2000-2004, I worked closely with the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila. Amcham also had a branch office in Davao, the largest city in the southern island of Mindanao, staffed by Filipino nationals. In early 2001, I made my first visit to Davao to check out economic conditions there and help promote U.S. business interests. Though generally peaceful, Mindanao has a troubled history of rebellion and terrorist attacks. As a result, the Embassy’s Regional Security Office gave me a special briefing on what to expect, concluding by telling me to “keep a low profile.“
I flew from Manila to Davao airport, keeping this advice in mind. There was no jetway; our plane stopped about 100 feet from the terminal. As I walked down the steps from the plane, I saw a large banner running about half the length of the terminal building that said “American Chamber of Commerce in Davao Welcomes Morton Holbrook, Economic Counselor, American Embassy Manila.” So much for the security officer’s low profile advice, I thought!
Inside the terminal, my friendly Filipino hosts from the local Amcham branch greeted me warmly, and asked me if I had ever seen a cockfight. I said no. Would you like to see one, they said? I was less than enthusiastic, but diplomatically asked if there was time to do so, given business events scheduled for later in the day. No problem, I was told, it’s on the way.
We went to a circular arena, similar to a bullfight arena but on a smaller scale; instead of rows of seats for thousands of spectators, there was room for perhaps several hundred. Everyone was seated on the rows outside the ring itself, of course – except for one special chair inside the ring: that, it turned out, was reserved for me. Far from being low profile, I was the center of everyone’s attention – at least until the combatants were brought out!
The fights then commenced. Handlers would bring out two roosters to within ten feet of my chair, set them loose on signal, and there would be a brief but violent clash, following which one of them would fall dead and be carted off. The bouts took place so close to me that feathers would occasionally waft over to me. Each fight would be preceded by enthusiastic betting shouted by spectators, using hand signals, to arena employees; no paper changed hands. I was told that no paper receipts were necessary and that betting was on the honor system – and also that no one would dare cheat.
Later, after the 20 or so matches had concluded, I asked my hosts what would have happened if one – or both – of the chickens had attacked me by mistake. No problem, they said – there were two large guards standing not far behind my chair (I had not noticed) just in case. At least the embassy security office didn’t have to add cockfight attacks to their briefing on the dangers of travel to Mindanao.
My business trip then proceeded without problems, and I was able to report to the embassy that, with reasonable precautions, Davao was a favorable place for Americans to do business. In the end, the visit, especially including the cockfight, was actually a memorable experience – but definitely not a low profile one!
Morton Holbrook III is a retired diplomat now teaching part-time at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Brescia University in his hometown, Owensboro, Kentucky. During his foreign service career, he served overseas in Taipei, Beijing, Shenyang, Tokyo, Manila, and Paris. In Washington, he worked on the China desk (EAP/CM) and, as an attorney, did a stint in the Legal Advisor’s Office, where he lectured incoming FSOs on diplomatic immunity. After retirement he was a professor for five years in Zhuhai, China, and was Director of the Hong Kong America Center 2013-2016.