A growing number of local pets are competing in chicken beauty contests to earn the title of top bird. Photos and words by Dana Filek-Gibson.
His elbows pressed against the table, long-time chicken enthusiast Chau Dinh Phuong removes the cigarette from his mouth.
“In the afternoon, say we go drinking and Khiem here can drink 10 beers,” Phuong tells me in Vietnamese, as he gestures across the table to a younger man with a crew cut. “But he only drinks eight. And you think, ‘Why don’t you drink the other two?’”
The answer, Phuong says: “It’s because he has to take care of his chickens.”
Here, Phuong pauses for effect, stirring his drink with a dented spoon. Around him, members of the Gia Dinh Ornamental Chicken and Bird Club are greeting one another, pulling up wicker chairs and ordering coffee. Every two weeks the group gathers at Hoa Vien Truc Lam, a park in rural Hoc Mon District in northern Ho Chi Minh City, to plan monthly beauty contests for their pets.
After a beat, Phuong finds the point he’s trying to make. “Caring for chickens helps us get rid of the negative things in our lives,” he says.
This is as close as we get to a mutual understanding of his passion for ornamental birds.
Like many people in Vietnam, Phuong has raised fowl since he was a boy, but in recent years, as organisations devoted to this hobby have hatched across the country, he and his fellow club members have begun competing in beauty contests.
“When the club first started, there were many people who came to the grounds to see what the group was all about,” says Nguyen Thanh Liem, current leader of the Gia Dinh club. “The entire yard would be filled with chickens and their owners.”
That was back in 2009, when organised beauty contests were first catching on. Though chickens have long been a popular pet in Vietnam, the Gia Dinh club was one of the few organisations at the time that enabled owners to meet and share their experiences. Nowadays, ornamental chicken clubs are everywhere and with them a multitude of local competitions in which to enter one’s pet.
“To raise chickens so that they survive is very easy,” Phuong says. “But to raise them so that they’re beautiful is very difficult. Chickens must be raised to adulthood, just like a lady must come of age before she is beautiful.”
To maintain the colour and health of their feathers, these animals require space, proper nutrition, and hygiene. The birds, a specific breed known as the Vietnamese bantam chicken, do not become competition-ready until they are a year old and, much like human beings, there is no guarantee that an animal will grow up to be attractive. Even the most dedicated of owners still runs the risk of raising an ugly bird. In the interest of certainty, beautiful chickens can be purchased, but the more attractive the chicken, the higher the price. Liem says the going rate for top-notch ornamental fowl can climb as high as $5,000.
Before the start of each contest, chickens are concealed in cardboard boxes. Each animal receives a number to mask the identity of its owner and is then placed beneath a dome-shaped wire cage.
Phuong says, “If you have an exceptionally beautiful chicken and you open your box before it’s time to judge the animals, perhaps I have a chicken less beautiful than yours. I’ll be scared to lose, and so I’ll withdraw from the competition.”
A panel of three to four judges who’ve been OK’d by the club proceeds to assess the entries. Each adjudicator must have a discerning eye, an honest temperament, and years of experience raising fowl. On some occasions, clubs will hire assessors from other localities to ensure they aren’t biased toward any particular contestant.
Chickens are judged in seven categories — the head and face, neck feathers, wings, legs, saddle feathers, tail, and overall appearance — for a maximum score of 100 points. According to Tran Ba Khiem, a fellow club member and judge, a beautiful chicken must have small facial features, particularly its earlobes and its comb, the red appendage atop its head. Neck and saddle feathers must be long, healthy, and full, and wings should be such that the animal’s legs are barely visible beneath the feathers. The most important features on the score sheet are the saddle feathers and tail, which require a plump, healthy plume in order to receive top marks. Once each of these areas has been scrutinised, judges stand back and take in the entire chicken, providing a final score in the category of overall beauty.
Though it is frowned upon, some owners perform procedures on their pets to reduce the size of certain features, namely the earlobes and the comb. Owners also have been known to dye their pets or glue broken feathers back onto the chicken.
“If an owner interferes with the natural beauty of the chicken, that animal will lose points or be disqualified from the contest,” Khiem says.
Following the calculation of scores, winners are announced. Certificates go to the top three contestants, while the champion receives a small sum of money, which is meant to go to the chicken’s care. There is also a 15-minute period following the ceremony in which owners are allowed to approach the judging table and contest any scores with which they disagree.
“Many people complain,” Phuong says. “But people don’t often disagree with the judges’ explanations. If someone feels the judge is wrong, however, spectators will gather and listen to the complaint and the judges’ response. If the crowd sides with the judge, then that owner must let the argument go.”
Neither Khiem nor Phuong have won the top prize in a competition, but, like their fellow club members, the company of these feathered friends on a sunny weekend afternoon is enough to keep their reverence for ornamental birds alive.
“I don’t know how,” Phuong says, “but if tomorrow everyone stopped raising chickens, I would keep doing so because I enjoy it.”