Thursday, April 19, 2007

Breaking Up Brawling Sailors

The other night at one of the dockside clubs in Cape Town, a dozen Chinese seamen stood poised to brawl with 8 Filipino sailors.

The trouble started by the pay phones. A Filipino guy bumped into a Chinese who was busy talking to his family on the phone. The Filipino failed to apologize and the Chinese shoved him in return. They got in each other's faces, growling in their respective tongues. Then the Chinese went back to the phone while the Filipino stomped off.

Soon after, the Chinese guy complained to his shipmates who immediately demanded redress from the Filipinos. The atmosphere at the club changed. No more good times, no more touchy-feely with the ladies, no more happy-go-lucky jacks. The crews flexed their sinewy muscles, ready for fisticuffs. The women stood helpless as their johns abandoned them to stand by their mates. Their honor was on the line.

Such displays of testosterone and rigor are regular features of dockside interaction. Insobriety, jingoism, and competition over females put the sailors on edge with each other. Usually nothing happens, but if the macho tension becomes too great, bedlam can ensue.

A few months ago, a group of Vietnamese sailors stabbed a Chinese seamen to death in one of the clubs. A Vietnamese guy had a drunken dispute with the Chinese over a prostitute. When the Chinese left and stumbled over to another club, the Vietnamese sailor rounded up his mates and followed him. There they surround him while one of the gang finished him off with a single stab.

When I was in Durban last year, Korean and Indonesian sailors cracked each other's skulls with pool cues. Two women—unhappy with the fees they had negotiated with the Koreans—tried to see if they do better with the Indonesians. A big NO-NO. When the Koreans saw the women with the other guys, they waylaid them. Two had to go to the hospital. And the women left empty-handed.

So what is the club owner to do? Bouncers typically get between the opponents, establish their dominance, and send one of the parties outside. In this situation by the phone, the Chinese were escorted outside.

But the owner called the Chinese guy back inside and insisted the Filipino sailor apologize to him. The Chinese accepted with a handshake and joined his mates outside. But they refused to accept it. So the owner sent out two 6-packs of beer that mollified them. Cops and security guards kept an eye on their public drinking—shrugging off the illegality—but the problem was defused.

The next night, the same group of Chinese and Filipinos were at the clubs again, sitting right across from each other. But they carried on as if nothing had happened. Such is the power of alcohol-based conflict-resolution strategies by savvy club owners.

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