Sneak Peek

Excerpt: from the chapter titled "Brawlers"

Invariably, the most common form of violence at the nightclubs involves sailors fighting sailors. Different nationalities regularly square off in massive free-for-alls: Chinese versus Vietnamese, Koreans versus Indonesians, Filipinos versus Taiwanese, or any such combination. Their motivation to brawl is often skewed by alcohol, but the reasons are predictable enough.

Often, seamen will scrap because one guy believes another guy slighted him in some way. A bump, a look, a word - that's all it takes. If the two hail from different countries, their latent nationalistic hostility can encourage them to sort out their issues physically. For instance, one night a drunken Filipino sailor knocked into a Chinese chap who was talking to his family on the payphone. The Filipino failed to apologise, so the Chinese shoved him in return. They got in each other's faces, snarling in their respective tongues. Eventually the Chinese went back to the phone while the Filipino stomped off.

Soon after, the Chinese guy complained to his dozen shipmates, who immediately demanded redress from the eight-strong Filipino crew. The atmosphere at the club changed immediately: 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 watched helpless as their guys abandoned them to stand by their mates, for their honour was on the line.

But before anyone could throw a punch, the bouncers intervened and established their dominance. They sent the Chinese outside and locked the outnumbered Filipinos inside. But the Chinese were content to wait for them. So the owner called the Chinese fellow inside and told the offending Filipino to apologise to him, which he did. The Chinese accepted the gesture with a handshake and rejoined his mates outside. When they refused to accept such a feeble reconciliation, the owner sent out two six-packs of beer to mollify them. The cops who pulled up alongside to keep the peace disregarded the fact that the seamen were drinking in public illegally, as long as they didn't brawl.

Even petty personal slights like this can spiral out of control because the sailors' mates take offences corporately: an affront to one is an affront to all. Emboldened by their numbers and their reduced personal responsibility (the anonymity of the herd), they often seek violent means to resolve their grievances. And with alcohol in their brains, they don't have the patience for exploring other options. One-on-one fights are rare; other sailors always jump in. This may seem senseless, except that sailors who fight as a unit achieve crucial male-bonding imperatives that translate into stronger shipboard relations. Brawling unifies seafaring strangers, heightening their sense of camaraderie before they head back to sea. Such reckless deeds ashore form an important mythology for the crew to draw from when they feel lonely, afraid or bored. Their actions in defence of each other bring them closer at a time when they are most disconnected from everything else.

If seamen have a dispute over a woman, violence is guaranteed. Instead of engaging in a bidding war for the girl (her dream), the men prefer to expel their rivals with a show of force. The sailors revert to following their caveman instincts, thrashing each other to gain a superior claim over the woman. Ironically, the ladies themselves are often responsible for igniting the vicious conflagrations. For instance, some years back at Naughtica, a cute coloured girl begged a Taiwanese guy to dance with her. He wasn't interested, but she kept pleading, making a big scene about it. Annoyed by her insistence, he relented and danced with her half-heartedly. Little did he know that she was only using him to make her real lover, a Korean captain stewing in the corner, jealous. She and the Korean had had a spat earlier, so she wanted to pique his feelings a bit. The Taiwanese sailor wasn't enjoying her conspicuous demands, though, so he departed to check out the vibe elsewhere. When he got outside, the captain's crew ambushed him. With rapid-fire blows, they stabbed him fifteen times, killing him on the spot.

Presumably, the girl didn't know her actions would lead to such a dramatic conclusion; she'd only meant to make her captain crave her with greater intensity. But she had also made him look like a fool in front of his crew. So why didn't the Korean captain confront her instead of the hapless Taiwanese fellow? That would seem to be the reasonable response, but not in this context. Even though the woman may be the guilty two-timer, a sailor feels no honour in attacking her. It would be pathetic and unmanly to become violent towards a woman or to beg her to come back. That would only play into her hands, and it would reconfirm his own humiliation. The sailors feel it is better to claim another woman or make an example of the rival seaman. By confronting other males, seamen assert their manhood and try to dislodge a rival's claim. In the process, they release their frustration and gain the esteem of their mates.

Over the years, scores of seamen have died at these dockside nightclubs in Cape Town and Durban, mostly at the hands of other foreign sailors.


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