How Caning Leaves Its Sting

Posted: May 07, 1994

Now that Michael Fay has been punished, Americans supporting Singapore's practice of caning prisoners should know more than ever just how intense a physical toll it takes.

Listen to martial arts master Dennis Tosten, and his student, Dr. Scott Fried.

"This isn't a spanking," said Fried, an orthopedic surgeon who maintains a practice in Norristown. "Caning, which causes excruciating pain, can produce blisters similar to those suffered by burn victims."

A martial arts practitioner for 30 years, Tosten added, "The stroke from a rattan cane can produce an exploding of exposed skin, resulting in a suction effect as the cane strips skin from the damaged flesh."

Students at Tosten's American Karate Studios use rattan sticks in tournaments, so both he and Fried are familiar with the power of rattan.

Drawing a parallel between caning and burn injuries, Fried said: "Caning injuries are similar to second- and third-degree burns - the energy implanted into the tissue by the rattan cane (triggers) a thermal effect, and this causes burning and blistering of the skin."

And, in Singapore, the canes are soaked in brine to make them more flexible, Tosten said. "The salt in the brine increases inflammation of the injuries, and makes for a more permanent scar," he said.

Wetting a cane gives it more snap, too.

"Same as the old swimming-pool prank of wetting a cloth towel, then snapping it like a whip," he said.

The rattan cane produces severe soft-tissue swelling, and presents a potential for more serious, long-term suffering.

"A misdirected buttocks stroke can damage the sacrum - the bottom part, or bone portion, of the spine," Fried said. There's always a risk, too, of damage to the sciatic nerve, which controls muscle sensation in the legs.

In extreme cases, a caning can cause permanent nerve damage to the lower body and result in bladder control problems, Fried said.

To illustrate the power of the cane in the hands of a martial arts practitioner, Tosten recently demonstrated his prowess with this palm-family plant.

The Daily News obtained a 4-foot rattan cane from H.H. Perkins, a rattan products distributor in Woodbridge, Conn. This rattan had not been soaked in brine.

In some press reports, the rattan rod has been erroneously referred to as a split bamboo cane.

"Bamboo is a cousin of the rattan palm. Bamboo is a hollow growth, and rigid. Rattan has an inner core. It's flexible and whiplike in character," said Raymond DeFrancesco, a spokesman for H.H. Perkins.

The demonstration - though highly unscientific - was staged to get some understanding of the power the cane represents. In the demonstration, the martial arts dummy was caned in a standing position to illustrate the amount of force expended.

In Singapore, the victims are forced to bend over a trestle during his beating.

Tosten applied the rod to the practice dummy with so much vigor that eventually the rattan cane snapped.

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