China school sees monkey business in New Year

DONGYING, China - Macaques in frilly dresses turn backflips and answer maths questions for crowds of screaming children at a Chinese monkey school, where trainers teach them to waltz and play rock drums.

Shows featuring performing simians, popular in China and throughout Asia, are expecting a boost in the Lunar New Year of the monkey, which begins on Monday.

But they are facing a growing backlash from Chinese people concerned about animal welfare.

"It's like a human school, but using monkeys," said Takeshi Soma, the Japanese "headmaster" of the facility, at a zoo in Dongying in the eastern province of Shandong.

His charges are about a dozen macaques from snow-capped mountains near Tokyo, who receive one-on-one tuition from a team of live-in instructors.

"This kind of training is the first in China," tracksuited Soma said.

He watched as staff in sequined waistcoats clothed the monkeys in multicoloured gowns, leading them on stage in a mock Viennese ball.

"I think this is the only place that does that," he said.

Four of the animals are training as a mock rock band, led by a monkey with a red bow tie and pink toy microphone.

But a recent rehearsal ended with one macaque walking on his hands away from a miniature drum kit after a few tender taps, and another slamming down her plastic guitar before running to stage left.

"Our monkeys don't listen to us very well. But that's what is funny about it all. Monkeys being natural and being themselves," added Soma.

Such performances have a centuries-old history in China, and today monkeys are often seen at country fairs catching knives and riding bicycles.

As China's economy has boomed, the scale of the shows has increased. More than a dozen zoos in the country now offer monkey performances.

China has no laws protecting non-endangered species, but a growing animal protection movement has condemned the displays as cruel.

Their cause was aided when video of a bear biting and clawing a monkey after the two fell off their bicycles in an "Animal Olympics" in the eastern city of Shanghai, went viral in 2013.

One staff member at the Yangjiaping zoo in Chongqing told AFP that monkey shows had been cancelled this year "because of a complaint about animal cruelty".

Monkeys at the Dongying school sleep in bare concrete-walled enclosures, and sometimes receive light slaps from their trainers.

Headmaster Soma admitted: "How should I put this? They are tough things. I don't think monkeys like the school."

But the backlash has not deterred investors, with nearly 19 million yuan (S$4 million) spent on the school, said Xiao Jingxia, president of the local government backed China-Japan Friendship Association.

It is a partnership with Japanese monkey troupe Nikko Saru Gundan, whose animals regularly star on TV shows in their native country.

"We hope to attract audiences from all over China," Xiao told AFP, as monkeys were led around in front of her on leashes.

"We would like to take advantage of the monkey year for publicity... this will be a year of promotion." A crowd of several dozen children and parents gathered outside the theatre building over an hour before the show started, mixing with the animals who wore nappies with holes cut for their tails.

"Mum, I've seen monkeys! I've seen Sun Wukong," said three-year-old Zhao Yizi, referring to a hero of the classic Chinese novel Journey To The West, and cajoling his mother into buying a 30 yuan ticket.

Sun has cemented the image of monkeys in China as mischievous but essentially loveable.

The centrepiece of the school's afternoon show was a mock mathematics class, with animals in tunics and denim shorts sitting behind miniature desks.

They raised their hands and showed their fingers to apparently answer basic arithmetic questions, as the young audience giggled and clapped.

Later the monkeys rode atop large plastic balls and jumped over obstacles. And, of course, waltzed.

"I like the dancing best. They are like people," said four-year-old Ai Jiuqiu.

"Happy monkey year!" an announcer boomed, before the animals were undressed and led back to their cages.